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APLIC-I Conference 1998
March 30 - April 1, 1998

Chicago Coalition for Information Access -- A Wake Up Call
By Jean Sack - Librarian, Hopkins Population Center

APLIC-I Conference Session by Carl Davidson, Manager Community Technology Program, Chicago Coalition for Information Access

Carl Davidson, a 1960's radical who has focused his social activism, drew his APLIC audience together to envision community advocacy projects: technology training and computer access for the most under served groups in Chicago. His nonprofit coalition of students, librarians, teachers, called "Networking for Democracy", recycles computers and builds lives. Citing Moore's law that "every 18 months computing capacity doubles", Davidson pointed out that Chicago has thousands of businesses which junk outdated PCs. By offering tax write-offs for hardware donations to educational agencies, advocates from Chicago Coalition and Networking have received and given away hundreds of used computers since 1993. These PCs go to those who need them most: groups rather than individuals, where need is greatest, and to those with no technology budgets.

Through partnerships with business and Davidson's groups, dozens of community-based computer learning centers have been set up, often with ten 386 computers loaded with educational software, games, typing tutors and Internet access to encourage use. Some of the computers last a year or longer. Davidson pointed out that it was easy to get computers but much harder to find skilled persons to manage the centers -- many technicians are already in high demand. Most groups can't pay salaries, but it offers an opportunity for university students who want hands-on experience while making minimum wage and helping the community through the learning centers.

The Community Technology Net in East Harlem, NY organized by Antonia Stone in 1988, served as an inspiration for the Chicago project. A recent national meeting in Pittsburgh hosted reps from 300 centers from all over the nation. Chicago has 30 centers and wants to have 1000 by 1999. But his advocacy group runs up against politics, budgets, and controversy about who gets what as they try to implement these technology experiments in Chicago. To help improve understanding of why these centers are important and the group's mission, they hold forums for political candidates.

Chicago Coalition for Information Access feels that it is important for the City of Chicago to invest in its own information infrastructure, to remain competitive with other cities in attracting and keeping high tech companies and jobs. Part of their mission is working within schools. Chicago school reform has had mixed results, but the city is hopeful, despite tremendous difficulties. Many "failing" schools were given a one year probation to shape up, with the proviso that they had to find an external partner to stay alive. The 1960s radicals from University of Illinois at Chicago's Small Schools Workshop partnered with the worst schools. Carl Davidson was assigned to one of them and considered it "a perfect school". When there is a teacher who cares and the proper equipment, he feels that one can do wonders. He established an after-school computer maintenance and repair shop with industrial arts students and 30 old computers. Corporations were credited fair market value for tax credit. The contract was to take the 1/2 of the donated PCs which were junk and, if the student could build a new one, he/she could keep it. So far 9 rehabilitated computers have gone home. 15 kids re-enrolled and are trying to upgrade their equipment. Now more girls are joining the group but it only took one girl to break the ice.

Games are admittedly the most popular software but Carl points out that these provide valid learning: installing programs, organizing the hard drive, and developing learning age skills with sets, categories, math skills, mouse manipulation. Many kids get beyond games and begin to learn how printers work, for example. Each student could obtain his own free e-mail address through juno.com. One student wrote an article for a newspaper and e-mailed it to the publisher. They love using chat rooms. Web browsers are used to open up new worlds for the students. Word processing is loaded free for these students and according to Davidson, they use the web to do research for papers. One student found the texts of speeches of famous slaves and another located substantial Internet information to write a paper about Lady Macbeth as a witch. Another opportunity available to students is to make their own web pages. This could turn into a lucrative employment opportunity since Webmasters can make up to $50 an hour. Carl's groups use the "Computers for Dummies" series and the kids seem to enjoy it.

In Chicago, 198 high schools are not presently participating in any projects like Davidson's, although many schools have access to decent technology. In Davidson's estimate, 1/3 of high school kids will do OK on basis of home computers or suburban schools that have decent tax bases. Another 1/3 are critical. Students need to actively search for skills to survive in technological age. The final 1/3 of these students are bound for prison service. "We have this portion of our young people who are social dynamite, much worse than the threat of Iraq." Davidson's groups feel that this is intolerable and are pushing for universal access, starting with the people who need it most. It is untrue that there is no money. Even with very little, a great technology plan can be devised such as community-based learning centers with 50 Pentiums, T-1 lines, access in evenings. However, the funding is seldom used in this way.

Networking for Democracy Now is writing a year long curriculum to train community enrollees to pass the industry standard test after 16 weeks training of recycling computers and to tutoring to pass an A+ certification ($100). They are working with industry partners, a trade union foundation, a network of youth organizations, and a coalition of Black churches, funded by a Tech Train $35.000 grant. The goal is to create 12 centers to recycle computers by the thousands. A basic 8th grade reading level is required but they want people who could not get admitted to community college. This sector has been devastated by the technology revolution because their parents who are blue collar workers are now unemployed due to technology. The graduates could attain high-demand employment, good pay, and work within an excellent job market.

Opposition: In response to a question, Davidson explained that many authorities are worried about sex on Internet. Opponents are often people who don't take computers seriously and see it as a fad. They ask "are computers necessary to learn"? "Of course not", is Carl's reply, "but would you like to send your kids to a school without computers to prepare for the next century?"

Vison: After school use of specialized librarians: 2 - 6 p.m. Schools should be restructured to account for non-agricultural economy and the fact that parents are working. Libraries are obvious community based centers but budget cuts in Chicago libraries resulted in fewer open hours. Davidson feels that any kid in Chicago should be able to go to a boys/girls club or the library, and log on to do homework...but they need mentors to be web guides and steer them in the right direction.

Reaching high risk communities: The Tech Train program on Chicago's SW side sets up community-based youth centers which appeal to kids who have dropped out and provide positive alternatives. Summer program called "University Hip Hop" featured poetry readings, use of computers for art, poetry, newspapers. Only 8% of the enrollees could read at grade level. Other USA agencies are working with Americorps and may be able to get links with community to do similar computer training projects. Several APLIC-I members mentioned similar overseas projects such as the CTC net which covers Latin America and Africa. Capetown, South Africa, has an unemployment problem affecting up to of 45% of its population, so a program has begun to get inexpensive computer equipment for training. The Canadian Internet Acacia Project is establishing computer-centered community research centers in Africa as well.

Web sites for more information: Chicago Coalition for Information Access:

Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Conference: Community Space: Cyberspace:

Kids and Computers: Discovering Learning in the Game of Solitaire:

Carl Davidson: cdavidson@igc.org Davidson, Carl: Strategy and vision in the electronic age:

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