Conscious Youth Promoting Health and Environmental Readiness (CYPHER International), founded by R. Bong Vergara, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is on a mission to develop socially-responsible technology entrepreneurs through tech-enabled innovation at the nexus of food, energy and water systems. CYPHER’S vision is to build a technology marketplace for sustainable development inspired by local and indigenous knowledge, STEAM, and youth culture. Though founded by Professor Vergara, CYPHER, comes to fruition by professionals from a myriad of backgrounds who aim to fight the vulnerabilities many low-income communities of color face when it comes to sustainability across food, energy and water.
CYPHER speaks to the social and environmental determinants impacting a person’s trajectory in life, such as geographical location; climate resilience of one’s community; socioeconomic status; education; access to food, energy, and water; access to health care, and social capital. CYPHER’s work is premised on the idea that grass-root communities with direct experience with extreme weather and environmental degradation have insight that could be harnessed for technology for the social good.
CYPHER promotes the development of community-defined, tech-enabled climate change adaptation tools to make sure local communities are equipped with tools of their own making to promote human and planetary health. CYPHER works to shift the identity of the youth from a consumer of technology to a producer of it. By conditioning this shift in identity so that the youth can reliably create the technology the world needs, CYPHER (a) addresses the talent pipeline needs of private and public sector firms, (b) adds value to the work of educators and students in achieving career readiness, and (c) fuels youth engagement in health equity and sustainable development.
A major component of CYPHER is to inspire youth to be the change their community needs by providing them the mentorship and guidance along the way. CYPHER’s programs revolve around these mentorships and opportunities for youth to shift their identities from those as consumers of technology to those of producers. CYPHER believes that such a shift in identity is not only vital to addressing the needs of private and public sector firms, but also adds significant value to the work of students and educators in reaching career readiness and encouraging youth to engage in environmental justice.
One of CYPHER’s annual programs is the Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED), which provides youth with an exciting opportunity to showcase their innovative ideas in a public forum targeted to technologists, social entrepreneurs and policy makers. Those who provide the best technological advances to impact climate change are awarded a grand cash prize.