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Another Brick in the Bridge

PowerUP aims to close the digital divide one classroom at a time.

“Just turning on a computer for a child is like dropping him at the library and saying, ‘OK, go to it.’ He may wander into the gardening section or retreat to the comic books without ever realizing that there is wonderful children’s literature written just for him. Children need a caring adult to take time out for exploring the possibilities of technology and the Internet. That is our only hope for creating a future generation of strong and successful individuals.”

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PowerUP has launched a national campaign against digital disparity that demands more than a hard drive, a modem, and a clean, well-lighted place. A die-hard crusade that expects more than paltry statistical progress. And a movement, according to Casey Coonerty — one of ten super-charged PowerUP employees — that empowers every American company and businessperson to make a social investment in equality for children through education and technology.

Based in Scotts Valley, California, PowerUP is building a franchise of social justice — a network of classrooms and computer labs that is thriving and growing under the guidance of its national umbrella organization, local corporate sponsors, and AmeriCorps VISTA workers from across the U.S. So far, the PowerUP franchise includes an elementary school in San Jose, California; a housing project in Washington, D.C.; a middle school in Seattle; a community center in Alexandria, Virginia; and three programs in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each site aims to help underserved young people acquire the skills, experience, and resources needed to succeed in the 21st Century, and each site is working to bridge the digital divide in its own unique way.

“Every location is different because the needs of every community are different, but the curriculum and mission of every site are based around positive youth development,” says Coonerty, who joined PowerUP in September and now works as western regional program manager. “One group may want to focus on developing marketable skills, and may therefore host a class on video production or rebuilding computers. Another may want to concentrate on community service or artistic creativity. The options are endless.”

Standing behind the individual efforts of every site is PowerUP — a multimillion dollar initiative that boasts national benefactors like the Case Foundation, AOL Inc., and the YMCA of the USA. In addition, its board of directors includes visionaries like Carly Fiorina, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard; former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta; and Ted Waitt, chairman and CEO of Gateway. The brain child of General Colin Powell, and Jean and Steve Case, PowerUP forged early partnerships with companies and organizations like Sun Microsystems and the National Urban League in order to provide some over-arching stability, support, and vision. It also adopted the five “promises” of America’s Promise — a national alliance for youth led by Powell. Those founding pledges say that PowerUP must provide to every child an ongoing relationship with a caring adult, access to safe places and structured activities, a healthy start, a marketable skill, and an opportunity to give back through community service.

“America’s Promise is a facilitator. Like PowerUP, it brings together people from the corporate world and from the non-profit or community sector, and provides this framework of the five promises,” says Alicia Keck, the eastern regional program director for PowerUP. “The five promises have provided a platform for the various sites and guided the programming, but it’s up to local leaders to make this work.”

Before its launch on Nov. 8, 1999, PowerUP received a $10 million grant from the Case Foundation, 50,000 Gateway computers from the Waitt Family Foundation, 100,000 Internet accounts from the AOL Foundation, and more than 400 trained AmeriCorps VISTA members. A mighty infrastructure was in place, but the greatest challenge lay ahead.

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The success of PowerUP hinges on its ability to recruit local sponsors and help them customize the program’s resources to meet their community needs. Last fall, Sun Microsystems became a flagship sponsor when it committed a $90,000 cash grant and a $90,000 product grant to San Jose’s Holly Oak Elementary School — a distinguished California school with a predominantly Hispanic and Asian student population. In addition to contributing financial support, Sun has met several times with Holly Oak teachers and staff, community members, and AmeriCorps worker Ameya Bijoor in order to determine how the company could best serve its PowerUP site. Later this year, Sun employees will begin training Holly Oak teachers in Internet technology, teaching them ways to integrate the Web into their curriculum and classroom instruction.

“Technology is fundamentally restructuring our economy, our school systems, and our society to create a more networked world. This is our opportunity to make sure lower-income, underrepresented communities can participate in this new paradigm,” says Gary Serda, manager of worldwide corporate affairs for Sun. “This is also a way to make sure students from our community are empowered with new skills. It’s a way to make sure that Sun has access to a highly trained workforce.”

Other Holly Oak initiatives are being spearheaded by Bijoor, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in accounting last May and began his work as an Americops VISTA worker in September. Before his volunteer term ends this summer, Bijoor will have organized a local committee that will continue his efforts in raising funds, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers, exposing parents to the Internet, and steering the computer lab curriculum. So far, that curriculum has taken important steps forward in the effort to unite Holly Oak teachings with the power of the Internet. This fall, for example, Bijoor helped 4th, 5th, and 6th graders research hurricanes on the Web — downloading live video and sound, viewing photos, and reading scientific explanations. He then directed the students toward online newspapers and periodicals where they could read about the tragedy and intensity of hurricanes in the United States. Finally, Bijoor prompted the children to make contact with an elementary school in North Carolina affected by the 1999 hurricanes. Earlier this winter, Holly Oak Elementary School sent a shipment of books to its friends on the other end of America.

“We need exciting, enriching programs that kids are going to get something out of — and computers alone won’t give them that,” Bijoor says. “Local PowerUP affiliates will be instrumental in providing our site and others with toys like digital cameras and scanners that will engage the students and make coming to the computer lab more fun.”

Elsewhere across the country, PowerUP sites and their local sponsors — Microsoft, the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and the Case Foundation — are launching similar efforts and anticipating similar returns. But that is not enough. Upon its foundation, PowerUP pledged to open 250 computer centers by the end of this year. It can only meet that goal with the help of companies who care deeply about their communities and who want to make a dent in the digital divide. PowerUP can only make a difference if devoted, hopeful business leaders step forward and resolve to improve the lives of their children … today.

“The national infrastructure of PowerUP partners presents a unique opportunity to put in place a solution that scales,” says Serda, who has helped merge the PowerUP goals with Sun’s own Open Gateways program. “And it’s being done in a way that does not, in any way, diminish the opportunity for people to volunteer at the grassroots local level. I see that as the genius of this program design.”

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For more information about becoming a local PowerUP sponsor, visit PowerUP online, email ContactPowerUP@AOL.com, or call 831.431.1390.

For more information about PowerUP, visit http://www.powerup.org

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