Just before the holidays, a columnist (Gene Marks) for Forbes Magazine wrote a piece “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” It presents how he would handle life and deal with technology if, instead of being a middle class, middle aged white guy from the suburbs, he were walking in a poor kid’s shoes. The resulting firestorm was swift, intense and largely negative, not as much for the ideas as for Marks’ tone and erroneous assumptions behind those ideas.
Unfortunately, one of the underlying causes for these off-the-mark assumptions is the stereotype that urban poor kids don’t do anything worthwhile on the Internet. So many articles about digital inclusion efforts or broadband adoption among inner city poor folks are followed by incendiary commentary from those who believe poor kids are lazy, only surf porn, aren’t capable of learning and a host of other fallacies.
There’s quite a different reality when you do a little research. There are projects going on that are lifting kids out of poverty and setting them on various tech-related career paths. Here are a couple that should be promoted and replicated in some way by those individuals, government agencies and organizations wanting to close the digital divide.
The Youth Institute
Each year the Long Beach YMCA Youth Institute trains 2000 elementary school students, 300 middle school students and 200 high school students in digital media skills. Students also receive training on how to improve their academic performance and training their develops skills necessary to be effective and productive workers.
The Youth Institute created Change Agent Productions as a social enterprise comprised of professional digital media artists who work alongside urban youth to execute professional video productions, graphic design projects and digital media trainings. This business generates $400,000 a year and employs 125 people, 45 of which are former participants in the Institute.
The journey toward this goal within the poorest part of Long Beach, CA started when Robert Cabeza had a vision to use creative technology to develop marketable job skills among urban high school youth at risk of failing school and life. The path he chose was to develop a mastery of digital media skills, and combine these with skills needed to excel at academics and be successful in the workforce.
The California Emerging Technology Fund awarded the Youth Institute a $1 million grant to have Change Agent Productions create 10 Institutes around the state. A group from the Institute went to Eastern Europe to teach youth there how to use technology for social change. Cabeza recently returned from Cambodia on a beginning effort to create a similar Institute there.
Riverside, CA’s IT department initiated and formed a nonprofit company, Smart Riverside, to manage the city’s digital inclusion program. Their citywide wireless network is integrated into the City’s gigabit network and is a cornerstone in a broadband effort that has brought over 5000 low-income families onto the Internet since its start.
60% – 70% of the $500,000 is costs to run the wireless network and digital inclusion program is covered by a recycling business that Smart Riverside also operates with its adult and youth staff. An annual fundraiser the City runs covers the remaining costs.
The organization hires youth from Project BRIDGE (Building Resources for the Intervention and Deterrence of Gang Engagement), a gang intervention program. The Smart Riverside staff mentors these kids and trains them how to act, talk and work within business settings as well as helps them get A+ Certification, a general computer certification for entry-level service technicians.
This organization refurbishes 200 computers per month. They have set up training labs at every school where teachers were willing to teach an 8-hour class for students, parents and other adults. At end of a training class, each family receives a free working PC with Microsoft Office and a WiFi router and free wireless access. Smart Riverside’s staff provides lifetime customer service and technical support.
Among the 27 students coming through the program so far, two currently staff and manage the recycling program, three are working at Best Buy and two were hired by at Xerox ACS (Xerox’ outsourcing arm).
These are just a couple of stories that melt away the stereotype that all poor kids are lazy, have no work ethic and all the other garbage that clutters rather than advances efforts to close the digital divide. Maybe one day soon Forbes will write an article, “If I Were a Smart Adult Helping Poor Kids Master Technology.”
Here’s an interesting column in The Huffington Post with some additional lessons we can learn from the debate the Forbes column generated.