When most people hear about efforts to "bridge the digital divide," they immediately think of programs that are designed to deliver computers to the homes of the poor. For Rey Ramsey, CEO of One Economy Corp., a two-year-old organization based in Washington, DC, bridging the digital divide starts not with the computer but with the home.
Yes, Ramsey says, the organization does what it can to help people acquire PCs. But the larger goal is to fight poverty — to use technology to help get those who are cut off from the economic mainstream get connected and start creating assets. For Ramsey, the way to pursue that goal is to confront another issue: housing.
The connection might not be obvious, acknowledges Ramsey, but the link between technology and housing is significant. "People with low incomes have less time in many ways, and yet they are precisely the ones who have to run all over the city to get things done," he says. "They might have to go to three different places to get what they need and then end up waiting in the wrong line." With the rise of the Internet, One Economy aims to bring essential services into the home.
The organization's emphasis on the home means that Ramsey and Ben Hecht — cofounder, president, and COO of One Economy and coauthor of ManagingNonprofits.org: Dynamic Management for the Digital Age (John Wiley, 2001) — tackle a range of issues that must be solved before a PC can have any useful effect on the lives of poor Americans. For instance, One Economy is lobbying in the public-policy arena for newly built affordable housing to include Internet access. One Economy joins forces with affordable-housing owners to figure out nitty-gritty technical solutions: Should they go wireless? What kind of cabling do they need? One Economy helps individuals acquire computers as well, a project that requires doing everything from organizing "computer fairs" in low-income neighborhoods to helping pay for the machines to serving as a liaison between individuals and banks that can provide loans. One Economy also works with local partners who train new computer owners in how to use their purchases. And a national One Economy program picks — and pays — tech-savvy neighborhood kids to teach their elders how to operate PCs, starting with (among other things) the mysteries of the mouse.
Then there's the heart and soul of One Economy: a Web site known as "the Beehive" (www.thebeehive.org). In many ways, everything else is just a warm-up for the connections and services that are offered through the Internet at the Beehive. Organized around six different categories — money, health, school, jobs, family, and lifestyle — the Beehive provides basic but important information. According to Ramsey, the thinking behind the site is as straightforward as the site itself. "People with low incomes are often socially and economically isolated," he says. "They don't have access to the same tools, information, and networks that a lot of us take for granted. Answers to questions such as 'How do I write a check?' and 'Why do I need health insurance?' aren't obvious. If you're not around people who have insurance, how do you know?"
As the name implies, the Beehive is all about connecting. That's why One Economy, which has only 18 full-time employees and an additional 10 "Cisco Fellows" (full-time consultants who are borrowed from Cisco), is partnering with government agencies, corporations, and other nonprofits to make the information and opportunities on the Beehive as comprehensive and far-reaching as possible. "In order for this country to deal with poverty, we have to recognize that no one sector will get us out of it," Ramsey says. "If, for example, Fannie Mae has a product that could be helpful to a family, I want that family to get the product. I don't care that it's not part of a government program. We're trying to make matches, because there are existing resources out there that are underutilized, and there are underserved markets."
For Ramsey, bringing the PC revolution to the poor will always start at home. "Once you put something in the home," he says, "it has a better chance of becoming part of the culture. And if it's part of the culture, it can lead to real change."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.