September 23, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Amid the constant rhetoric about bringing the “information economy” to the “have-nots,” it behooves us to honor those who really embrace the ideal and devote their careers to its fulfillment. In major cities as well as fields and valleys around the United States, activists are setting up community centers for the teaching of computer and Internet skills.

While often promoting the centers as ways to improve job prospects for the poor, directors and the (frequently volunteer) trainers have a bigger goal. They want to build community, help the undereducated get an education, and break the isolation that many residents of low-income neighborhoods experience. In fact, according to Linda Broadus of the Edgenet Computer Center in Dayton, Ohio, fun activities like surfing the Web for information may help newbies overcome fear of technology and achieve the important step of making them receptive to more disciplined job-training activities.

One can legitimately ask whether Internet skills are what poor people need. What about putting the resources toward food, home heating, crime prevention, and other life-and-death concerns? Certainly, there are poor folks who need help with basic sustenance. But a large number (particularly in North America) have the leisure to look toward the future and try to improve their education and the quality of their lives. They perceive computer skills as essential tools for work, education, recreation, and community life.

Low-income people want the same things that the affluent do, often enough. Everybody benefits from finding out about important services, staying in contact with friends and relatives, and doing other things that fall under the control of “communication” or “information” technologies. Low-income people can particularly benefit from such programs as online jobs, information about health services, and free electronic mail to find out how parents or children far away are doing.

Community centers are usually attractive but simple rooms sporting cabled-up computers and informal volunteer staff. They vary widely in size and scope, in the kinds of equipment offered, and in their staffing. Some centers, particularly those that are independent or can be found in museums and science institutions, could consist of two or three labs with high-speed Internet connections and multi-media workstands. But many technology labs lie in a back room off of a neighborhood center that offers additional services besides computer training.

Centers may also be tied together through regional or national organizations like Computer Technology Centers Network (CTCNet), which offers written and online resources, conferences and workshops, partnerships to obtain hardware and software donations, and an in-depth evaluation and assessment program. The Edgenet Computer Center is a member of the Ohio Community Computing Center Network (OCCCN), which itself is the regional association of CTENet.

One annual struggle all community centers face is funding. Their very choice of clientele ensures that they cannot be self-sustaining through fees. This is where the job-training pitch comes in. Some funding comes directly from city governments, and even more from local foundations, both concerned with improving the economic status of residents. As it’s put by Cary Williams of OCCCN, “Columbus wants to be Tech Town, so we tell them to invest in the organizations that can prepare residents for that type of job.”

Another source of funds that many centers can, for the moment, tap into are grants from telecom and cable companies that offer aid to public institutions as part of their deals with communities. In Boston, for instance, the Urban League opened a community center on Labor Day with $50,000 from the city of Boston and $100,000 per year from the Bell Atlantic local phone company. Ameritech, the phone company for the northern Midwest, promised 225 million dollars as part of a rate settlement. But such deals cannot be expected to be renewed indefinitely.

Partnerships can also reduce costs. Many community centers offer training in libraries or work with them to develop programs; libraries may pay for trainers. But libraries are not perfect places for training. Staff are uncomfortable with the presence of homeless people, for instance, and have to establish time limits on computer use in order to accommodate all patrons.

Schools are important partners for computer community centers. Both schools and libraries may benefit from the Universal Service Fund set up by the Telecommunications Act and the FCC, but this fund can be spent only on hardware, software, and connectivity. There’s no funding for the crucial element of training, and here a community center can step in to help.

Sometimes one hears worries that computers will draw people’s attention from neighbors and community. Luckily, this doesn’t seem to be the effect of the Internet-connected computers at community centers. They offer such benefits as helping kids keep in touch with buddies they met at summer camp. Amy Borgstrom of the Southeastern Ohio Regional Freenet and ACENet, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, reports that rural small business owners are thrilled to find themselves exchanging advice on how to start enterprises with people as far away as New Zealand.

And the centers themselves are foundations for community, particularly as clients teach each other. A downsized professional may well form a bond with a homeless youth, and even learn useful Web-surfing tips from him.

In some places, self-sustaining, pay-per-use services like “cyber-cafes” are meeting the public’s needs. According to Aki Namioka of the Seattle Community Network, a wide range of such private services is available to anyone interested in getting on the Internet in that city. But even Seattle has a number of community centers, funded by the city as well as corporatios like Boeing and Microsoft. So long as there are people who have trouble scraping together the money for an Internet fix, or group sessions and activities continue to be efficient channels for training, community centers will help carry out the promise made by the Clinton Administration and the European Union alike: to make the information infrastructure open to all.

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