"A lot of people are saying that technology can level the playing field, that it can create opportunity. That doesn't just happen by itself. It takes a lot of hard work. Our job is to realize that change for our community."
In a small, windowless room, in a gritty old armory building on the North Side of Chicago, a half-dozen high-school-aged students are arguing: One girl has stolen another's boyfriend. The two of them — one white, one Latina — look as if they're about to come to blows. "Okay," an African-American girl calls out. "One, two, three, action!" And a boy with a video camera begins taping. These teenagers are creating their own video about conflict resolution. With a little help from Shalona Byrd, 24, who coordinates the center, these teens will use computers to edit and to produce the video, which they will then distribute at their high schools. "We let them know that what they say and what they do are important," says Byrd. "It's crucial to have your own voice."
Every Wednesday night, in an old warehouse on Jefferson Boulevard in Central Los Angeles, a group of local teenagers sits in a classroom. These teens are learning about what they'll need to get ahead in life. Teachers show them how to use the computers that are before them. But techno-skills are just part of the curriculum. Senior-citizen volunteers also teach these kids the social skills needed to land a job — such basic lessons as punctuality. "We tell them that if they're not on time for class, they may as well turn around and go home," says Luke House Jr., 74. "We try to teach them professionalism, the kind of thing that they're going to need in the real world. Without that, their chances of succeeding are slim."
In East Palo Alto, a 43-year-old former drug addict is staking his future on an Information Age tool — not a PC, but a computerized saw. He wields that saw every day on the job, cutting wooden parts for a closet manufacturer. It's his ticket to a better life — one that he discovered the day he took his 3-year-old granddaughter to a drop-in center that had computers. He was just out of drug rehab, and all he knew about computers was that they scared him. But he needed a job, and the center had everything he needed: computer classes, a fax machine, and an approachable staff. "They were always there to do whatever they could to help," he says. Thanks to the staff, he was able to find his job, which was posted on the Internet. "They took me through the steps and were right there with me."
Much is made these days of the "digital divide" — that growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the new economy that's being driven at warp speed by computers and computing. The concern is a familiar one and an honest one: Technology creates change — economic change, certainly. But, even more than economic change, technology drives social change, and it does that less visibly. And, just as the Industrial Revolution threatened to unravel the social compact of the United States at the beginning of this century, so the Information Revolution is threatening to undo society in the century's waning years. Those with access to computers and with skills at computing — and their children, and, perhaps, their children's children — stand a chance of cashing in on an economy that amply rewards the techno-educated, and relentlessly punishes the techno-illiterate.
And, the thinking goes, the nature of this new technology and its "winner-take-all economy" will create positions of advantage and disadvantage that, once established, may be irrevocable. That kind of social shift could dramatically alter the structure of society in the United States, with repercussions for generations to come.
No wonder, then, that this digital divide has a lot of people worried. National policy makers, leaders of think tanks, and concerned citizens across the country are mobilizing forces to build the best "bridges" they can come up with. They're focusing their efforts on three areas: basic computer literacy and access to computers for the disadvantaged; access to the Net and the benefits of global connectedness conferred by the Web; and individual opportunity and the computer skills needed for disadvantaged individuals to be employable in the new economy.
But there is another world of possibilities for change. The scenes described earlier are snapshots from a different side of the digital divide — a look at the new frontier, where a new breed of pioneers is busily, courageously, and innovatively closing the gap in communities across the country. And these pioneers are doing it in ways that reflect the spirit of the digital revolution itself: They're offering new business models to reframe the situation and to provide new solutions to the problem.
Conventional thinking calls for communities nationwide to have access to computers. But for these activists, computer access is the least of their worries. They want to harness digital technology to create social change. Sure, they say, putting computers in schools, in libraries, and in community centers — where low-income people can get their hands on them — is important. But a plugged-in computer is only useful when it becomes a tool for disadvantaged people to change their own lives — and, in the process, to use that power to make change in their communities.
Conventional thinking calls for Internet access to connect disadvantaged people to the Web — to give them a ticket to the whole world. But these activists see technology as a tool for local expression, local learning, and local empowerment. Sure, they say, being able to search the world for information is fascinating. But what can really make a difference is taking useful information about the world their people live in and using it to change that world for the better.
And, conventional wisdom says, closing the digital divide is the way to give each American a chance to sit at the table of opportunity created by the Information Revolution. There's nothing wrong with that, say these activists. But, they insist, let's look beyond the individual — let's use the power of this technology to build our own communities, and then to build networks of communities; let's link inner-city kids with senior citizens and urban artists with urban activists. Let's close the digital divide in a way that not only boosts the prospects of the individual, but that also brings us all closer together, community by community.
"Technology is not inherently good or bad. It's just a thing — a tool," says Bart Decrem, founder of Plugged In, a community technology center in East Palo Alto, California, and one of the first activists in this grassroots movement. "It's up to us to put technology to good use. If left alone, technology will reinforce the existing disparities of opportunity in this country. A lot of people are saying that technology can level the playing field, that it can create opportunity. That doesn't just happen by itself. It takes a lot of hard work. Our job is to realize that change for our community."
Plugged In, East Palo Alto, California
"We need to demonstrate that technology can be a leveler. If we do the job right, we'll prove that technology can be a positive force in society.
If the digital divide has a ground zero, Greater Palo Alto is it — just off the exit for University Avenue on US 101, 35 miles south of San Francisco.
Take University Avenue west, and you're in Palo Alto proper, surrounded by the lush bounty of Silicon Valley. Multimillion-dollar Tudor- and plantation-style homes, adorned with manicured lawns, lead the way down sunlit suburban streets to the doors of Stanford University.
But take University Avenue east, and you're in another world: East Palo Alto is a community of 27,000 residents, the majority of whom are black or Hispanic. And, as recently as 1992, it was the per-capita murder capital of the United States.
That's a shocking image: two communities next-door to each other and yet worlds apart. But look more closely at East Palo Alto, and you'll see something else — the digital divide's new frontier. On this two-block stretch of University Avenue — an old-fashioned street where cars still park head in — is a liquor store, a car wash, a wig shop, several nail salons, a drug-rehab center, and a video store. There's also a busy little storefront operation that has a sandwich board out in front on the sidewalk that lists the store's services.
Bus passes — $18 to $38 a month
Phone cards — $10
Faxes — 50 cents a page
Photocopies — 7 cents a page
Computers and Internet — $1 a day
The street sign is an old-fashioned calling card for a very contemporary storefront business: Plugged In, a community technology-access center that is closing the gap between technological haves and have-nots — one bus pass at a time. "All these services provide an entry point for our community," says Bart Decrem, 31, a graduate of Stanford University's law school who, in 1992, started Plugged In. "The copier, the fax, and the phone are the most immediate interactions most people in this community have with technology. Computers are often disconnected from their lives. We try to expose them to other technologies in a nonthreatening way. So, if somebody comes in to send a fax, we can say, 'Hey, do you need to write a résumé?' And we can show them how to use a computer. Then we can say, 'Have you thought about using the Internet to look for a job?' And we can show them how to do that. The point is to make this technology available in our community so that people can do what they want with it."
Plugged In's community focus has attracted the support of some of Silicon Valley's leading companies: More than three-fourths of its approximately $500,000 annual budget comes from such companies as Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle. Avram Miller, former vice president of business development at Intel, chairs Plugged In's board.
Plugged In operates on the premise that, to be an effective tool for change, information technology has to be woven into the fabric of a community — so much so that it becomes just another part of daily life. Having your nails done? Drop in to check your email when you're finished. Completed the drug-rehab program and looking for a job? Come by, and surf the Net for opportunities. Plugged In makes technology accessible — but even more important, it makes technology relevant to the lives of people who may never have seen a computer keyboard.
East Palo Alto is a perfect place to put those principles to the test. By Plugged In's reckoning, fewer than 20% of East Palo Alto families own computers. More than 17% of the population live in poverty, and only 14% have four-year-college degrees.
"The value proposition of information technology has not been made for low-income people," says Decrem, who recently stepped down as Plugged In's coexecutive director and now serves on the board of directors. "They understand why it's important to have a car. Because if they don't have a car, they have to take a bus, and if they miss the bus, then they have to wait a long time. People get that. But it's much harder for them to see the tangible benefits of computer technology in their lives. Our challenge is to build a market here for these technologies."
That challenge dictates Plugged In's low-key approach to high-tech exposure. Walk in the front door and there's a photocopy machine, a wire stand holding copies of a free local newspaper, and a part-time bilingual staff person who's ready to sell a bus pass — or to help customers use the computers that fill the back of the room.
Open 12 hours a day during the week and 3 hours a day on weekends, the center draws about 300 clients a week. Part cyber-cafe, part job-resource center (one nook of the room is devoted to books and software on job hunting), part computer classroom, and part neighborhood hangout, Plugged In projects an intentionally laid-back atmosphere. After all, how the place feels is critical to how the place works. And the place works exactly the way Decrem hoped it would: People from the community have gradually made it their own. On a typical day and evening, the center is used constantly: Its steady flow of walk-in customers from the community may include a high-school girl using a computer to type an essay for English class; an alternative candidate for mayor copying flyers for his campaign; teenage boys dropping in for a game of chess; two girls using computers to make party invitations; and a man searching for job information on the Net.
Elsa Aguilera, 19, is a typical Plugged In user. Like many customers, she accidentally discovered the center. Although she'd learned to use computers in high school, she didn't have one at home. Now she's a Plugged In regular, surfing the Web for information on subjects that interest her, such as art galleries, and using email to stay in touch with friends and relatives in Mexico. "You can stay online as long as you want," she says, sitting in front of a computer with her three-year-old niece on her lap. "This center is important, because people need information and they don't know how to get it. With access to computers, it's easier."
But Plugged In doesn't just weave technology into the lives of local residents — it also forges partnerships with other community groups. Under a project funded by the California Wellness Foundation, for example, Plugged In has worked with Free At Last, the drug-rehab program across the street, to increase awareness about HIV and hepatitis C — diseases that affect a large percentage of East Palo Alto's residents.
That project has produced a special Web site that features stories of residents battling these diseases and a Web yellow pages of other related sites, researched and compiled by Plugged In staff and tailored to the community's needs. What's more, all of Plugged In's computers have screen savers that advertise the new Web site.
One of Plugged In's proudest boasts: The center's staff got the program up and running in only a few months. "Because we're community based, we can respond very quickly," says Magda Adriana Escobar, 29, Plugged In's executive director. "That's the benefit of working with an organization like ours, instead of distributing technology through public schools and libraries, where decisions have to go through a bureaucratic structure. Here, we can focus on people and their needs. We are the social-change equivalent of the garage at Hewlett-Packard."
Plugged In's community focus is rooted in Decrem's own vision for change. While at Stanford in 1990, the bespectacled Belgian-born law student became bored with his studies and began doing volunteer work with kids and computers at a local boys' and girls' club. From the start, he understood that the real power of the Information Revolution wasn't in the technology itself — but in teaching people to grab hold of that technology as a tool to help them build better lives. Although Decrem started out working with children, he soon realized that the next logical step was to extend his work to teenagers and adults, to engage the whole community in the process of change.
"The point is to make this technology available in our community so that people can do with it what they want," he says. "In the process of doing that, we're demonstrating that technology can help community members create positive opportunities."
Plugged In's programs all have a defining focus: the intertwining of technology and community, closing the digital divide by seamlessly and casually linking all of these new tools with the lives of East Palo Alto residents. For example, Plugged In's programs are designed to include everyone in the community. Besides the drop-in center, which caters mainly to adults, Plugged In runs two additional programs, one for teens and the other for young children. An after-school program targets teens, providing them with intensive training and education in state-of-the-art Web design. Then it offers them paying jobs so they can put their newly acquired skills to work. Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems are among the companies that have hired Plugged In-trained teens at an hourly wage; projects have ranged from a $300 Web page for a world-beat music distributor to a $31,000 site for Pacific Bell.
Even East Palo Alto's youngest residents have a home at Plugged In: Community Kids, Plugged In's after-school drop-in program, is housed next to the computer center. Geared toward children who are between the ages of 5 and 13, the program approaches computer technology as a means to an end — a tool to help develop art and literacy skills and to open new avenues of communication.
For some children, that means discovering the wonder of email, a world of surprise that the paid staff and local volunteers do their best to encourage. When Roy Souffront, a 12-year-old boy who signed up for an email account, wondered who on Earth would send him email, Këri Bolding, 24, the program's director, made a point of bringing up the boy's name at a staff meeting — encouraging staff members to write the boy at RoyJr1@yahoo.com as a way of keeping him enthusiastic about email.
Other children tackle more demanding projects, such as learning to scan art into a computer and then to manipulate the scanned image to create their own digital art. Staff members are also there to help children use computers to do their homework, through poetry-writing projects or using the Internet as a research tool.
"A lot of kids who've never seen or used a computer come here," says Bolding, who discovered Plugged In while still a student at Stanford. "But, compared with adults, kids find it easier to transcend their fear of computer technology. These kids find computers fascinating. And we're taking that fascination and turning it into skills that are going to be marketable in the future and that can help them get ahead. These kids are going places in life where they otherwise couldn't have gone."
The program also sparks a lot of social interaction: The junior-high-school kids who come to Plugged In three nights a week to work on their own magazine have tackled sensitive issues like race — by learning what it means to work with someone who comes from a different background.
"They've had to negotiate a lot of issues," says Bolding. "Working through those issues builds confidence in themselves."
"We need to demonstrate that technology can be a leveler," says Decrem. "Plugged In is trying to make sure that good things come out of this. If we do the job right, we'll prove that technology can be a positive force in society."
Break Away Technologies, Los Angeles, California
"This is a way to provide people with real opportunities. Here is a chance to give people a way to feed themselves."
Joseph Loeb has a dream — a vision of justice for America's underprivileged communities, a quest rooted in the civil-rights activism of the 1960s. But Loeb, 46, has a contemporary take on community organizing. The tools of the Information Revolution power his ambitious agenda for social change.
Armed with as many donated computers as he's been able to find — nearly 2,000 to date — Loeb has spent the last seven years using his nonprofit organization, Break Away Technologies, to wage war on urban isolation. But Loeb's interest — his mission — goes beyond simply getting people connected. His passion is to create whole networks, entire communities of people who can hook up to each other as well as to the Web. Loeb's goal is to go beyond the individual opportunity. In his view, technology is not just about "me" or "you"; it's about "us." It is, in other words, all about social change.
"Our mission is to develop the next generation of indigenous leaders in our community," says Loeb, who grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. "Our community is hurting. And if it's to be helped, that help won't come just from people outside of the community; it has to come from people within it. I firmly believe that the greatest source of raw, untapped talent in America comes from the inner cities."
Loeb practices what he preaches out of his headquarters, a white two-story building in the heart of Central Los Angeles, not far from the scene of some of the worst ravages of the 1992 Rodney King riots. The modest façade of Loeb's building belies the social revolution that's taking place inside. But open the glass front door, step inside, and you begin to get the picture.
At the heart of the building is Loeb's computer lab: a cavernous, 7,000-square-foot warehouse space. Inside are rows of computers set up on tables and stacks of monitors in boxes. Loeb uses this laboratory to build computer networks for all kinds of communities, ranging from churches, social-service organizations, and schools to a summer camp for high-risk students. "There's a real need for schools and other organizations to have their own computer labs," says Loeb. "But they don't have the money or the expertise to set them up. We're sort of a conduit for technology, connecting other nonprofits and community-based groups."
Loeb has been obsessed with providing opportunities for people ever since the riots rocked the low-income neighborhoods of Central and South Central Los Angeles. He grew up there and is proud to call himself a product of those neighborhoods. Born in Louisiana, Loeb moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was only five years old. One of six children, he was raised by his mother, a domestic worker, and his aunt. Loeb worked hard in school and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1979 with a degree in business. He settled into his old community, established a successful trucking business, and began volunteering at his local church, where he served as associate minister and taught the Bible at a mission on Skid Row. All in all, Loeb had no complaints. Life was good.
And then the riots and violence and explosive rage tore the community apart. Loeb became deeply depressed. "I was anguished by what was going on," he recalls. "I could understand the frustration of the community; people felt that they had nothing to lose."
Loeb wanted to help, but didn't know how — until he happened to see a rerun of the old "Mission: Impossible" television series. In the episode he saw, actor Greg Morris had to find a way to sneak into a small eastern European country — a problem compounded by the fact that Morris was black and would stand out in an all-white population. In the episode, the problem was solved when Morris's partner deliberately damaged the country's state-of-the-art computer system — and Morris, as the world's foremost expert 0n computer technology, had to be flown in to remedy the situation.
"That said to me that technology represents one of the few level playing fields in our society," says Loeb, a self-taught computer user. "When a company's computer system goes down, and it's losing $10,000 an hour, the last thing that company cares about is the color of the person who fixes the problem. Technical expertise is something you cannot argue with."
So, in 1992, Loeb took what was for him the next logical step. He sold his Porsche 928 — a present he had given himself when he turned 35 — and used the proceeds to buy 10 PCs. He turned his garage into a computer lab, teaching anyone who wanted to learn about computers and recruiting anyone who wanted to help. "Everything changed after the riots," recalls Fred Berry, 39, one of the first people to help out at Loeb's garage and now a Break Away staff member. "We all gave up our own little immediate dreams and started focusing on dreams that were about the future of the community. What Joseph was doing seemed small, but t I thoughit was something that could change the world."
Within a year and a half, Loeb's garage lab had maxed out at 50 computers. So he expanded his operations into a bookstore of a local church. Then, in 1996, when he outgrew that space, Break Away moved into its current home — which, at the time, was just an empty shell. Loeb was undaunted by all the raw space. He simply recruited a network of friends and volunteers to help clean up, build walls, install wiring, and finish the building. "It was very exciting," says Berry. "We saw a vision materialize."
Since the move, the organization has developed a powerful, far-reaching mission, and a clear philosophy of community-building blended with self-reliance. For example, Break Away provides its networking service cost free, but insists on certain quid pro quos from those it helps. Each organization that accepts computers from Break Away must commit one staff person to maintain and operate the network once it is in place. In turn, Loeb offers each recipient group-discounted Internet access through Break Away's own ISP facilities. The fee for that service, around $100 a month, goes toward paying Break Away's bills.
Some of the city's biggest players also come to Break Away when they want help setting up grassroots networks. When, for instance, the influential J. Paul Getty Trust wanted to get local artists and arts organizations online, it contracted with Loeb to hold "Web raisings" for those arts groups. So far, Break Away has hosted four such events, helping some 60 arts organizations get on the Net — and then helping them to network with one another.
And when the city of Los Angeles decided to set up a series of "Electronic Arts Academies" — a program instituted by city-run community centers to train teens in graphic design and computer animation for work in the film industry — Loeb won the contract to design and to install the multimedia learning labs. "We're working like crazy, trying to make a difference," says William Wilson, Break Away's director of telecommunications. "We don't want to build a mega-empire at Break Away. We just want to have an impact on the community. So we're setting up sites all over the city in low-income areas. We're connecting technology with people who've been disaffected or underserved, and we're showing them that they can do more with computers than just play games."
Loeb's current pet project is called "200 by 2000" — a plan to install computer labs in 200 community organizations by the year 2000. This ambitious project resulted from an offer from Sony Pictures Entertainment of 1,500 PCs that Sony was getting rid of as part of a companywide upgrade. Break Away didn't need the computers, but Loeb knew that he couldn't refuse the offer: He realized that those computers could do an enormous amount of community building. So Loeb took the computers, got Microsoft to donate Windows 98 software for each computer, and came up with the idea of 200 by 2000. The project has made him a virtual apostle of technology, spreading the word to community organizations, signing up those who want to become true believers, and partnering with organizations, such as AT&T, that are looking for ways to help fund some of the projects. By the end of the summer, Loeb expects to have 120 groups networked into the resources of the Information Age. "This is a way to provide people with real opportunities," says Loeb. "Here is a chance to give people a way to feed themselves."
Although today Loeb focuses much of his energy on organizing computer communities across Los Angeles, he has not lost sight of his immediate surroundings. Loeb has made sure that, within the walls of Break Away's headquarters, communities also are being built.
There is, for example, a technology-access center — where, for nominal fees, local residents can use computers and access the Internet. And Loeb's vision extends to the widest possible definition of the community: To make sure that the center cuts across all boundaries, he plans to set up a computer workstation for local police officers, so they can file reports and do paperwork without having to go back to the police station. The center also houses a Web-design business for teens and an Internet radio station. And the center offers a host of classes — everything from learning how to build your own computer to learning the basics of word processing. Although each of those services is about individual growth, those services are also about building a sense of community.
Senior citizens, for example, have flocked to the"Cyber Senior Program" that Break Away hosts. During the program's first year, more than 100 seniors took the nine weeks of computer training. The goal is not just to promote computer literacy; it's to encourage community involvement. In fact, many of the Cyber Seniors have become volunteers, teaching their peers or young people what they've learned. "These seniors need to be able to give back to the community," says Fred Berry, who directs the Cyber Senior Program. "They're watching the community deteriorate, and they don't have a way of relating to young people. The bridge to understanding is technology; it's common ground for them all."
In Loeb's mind, all of Break Away's activities create a blueprint for community change, one that connects people to technology — and to one another. The way Loeb sees it, technology's larger mission is to connect all kinds of communities, regardless of where they are physically located. He figures that this concept can be easily duplicated in other parts of the country. All it takes, Loeb believes, is a little bit of caring and a big commitment to change.
"I just kind of started where I was and did what I could where I was," says Loeb. "I didn't want to wake up in five or six years and say, 'Things look really bad in the community. I wish I'd done something to make it a better place.' "
Street-Level Youth Media, Chicago, Illinois
"We believe in activism through technology. Our purpose is to produce change through technology"
Picture this: the date — autumn 1993; the place — West Town, a low-income Latino neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. The community is having a block party. Hundreds of people are on the streets, and 1,000 people in all will join in over the course of the day.
The main attraction? Television monitors. Dozens of them, everywhere, each screen filled with video images of life on the street — as seen from a kid's point of view. An empty lot is set up like a graveyard, but instead of gravestones there are monitors showing videos of local teens who are talking about the friends whom they've lost to street violence. Down the block, in front of a huge construction site, another batch of monitors is broadcasting films about the impact of gentrification on this close-knit community. And, in an abandoned car, a single monitor features a video on a more lighthearted subject — cruising.
The block party, a one-day massive video event, is the brainchild of a group of local video artists and a high-school teacher who see the tools of this medium as tools for change — a way to help at-risk young people turn their time on the streets into something more productive than just hanging with a gang. The organizers recruited 15 students who have made nearly four dozen videos to show continuously throughout the day.
"We used video because it's a powerful way to portray real stories," says Tony Streit, 34, one of the video artists who worked with the teens.
A version of this article appeared in the JulyAugust 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.