Oct 31 2006

Column I

Dr. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart reports on Cleveland's initiatives to help its low-income citizens cross the digital divide.

Dr. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart

You can book your vacation, find the perfect set of china and earn your bachelor’s degree on the Web. So why not pay your taxes or file for unemployment online?

In the last few years, more and more Americans are doing just that. Virtually every agency, from the Cleveland water department to the White House, is expanding its electronic services to make government more accessible to the people it serves.

Here in Cleveland, we set out in February 2003 to overhaul the technology used in City Hall with the goal of improving e-government services. We still have a long road ahead of us, but we’ve learned a lot so far.

For starters, we’ve learned that in order to offer useful online government services to our citizens, we need to help the public get Internet access. Our efforts can’t end at the doors of City Hall. We need to bring technology to our communities and into our citizens’ homes so they can use the services we offer.

That’s where Computer Learning In My Backyard comes in. CLIMB is Cleveland’s digital community initiative, which is geared toward bringing technology to citizens living at or below the poverty level. We intend to make Cleveland a more digitally literate community within the next five years.

We’ve learned that e-government isn’t just about offering services. It’s about fighting the poverty that creates digital divides within cities. It’s about building up neighborhoods. It’s about developing a skilled workforce and, in turn, creating a solid economic foundation for the city.

A Strong Beginning

In May, we opened the first two CLIMB centers where citizens can go to take Internet and Computing Core Certification (IC3), general equivalency diploma and financial literacy classes. The centers also help foster in-home computer ownership and technical support; secure discounted Internet access in low-income neighborhoods; and offer internship and employment connections.

We have learned that business can help us achieve our goals. Banks are assisting with financial literacy, and local businesses from all sectors are interested in recruiting CLIMB graduates for jobs, particularly since the program teaches in-demand skills like word processing.

In addition, we’ve learned to look at existing successful programs within the community before reinventing the wheel. For example, Cuyahoga County Community College already had a technology learning program in some low-income neighborhoods. And Cleveland Housing Network operated a computer training program with support from area banks to increase financial literacy. So the city partnered with existing programs and integrated the IC3 certification and other elements to provide a comprehensive, life-enhancing program.

The first two CLIMB centers, which cost approximately $600,000, can impact thousands of lives each year. When you think about it, spending hundreds of dollars per person to build a skilled workforce is a pretty solid investment for a city.

We plan to use those first two centers as models to prove the concepts behind the program. Our goal is to have a viable center in each of Cleveland’s 21 city wards. That will cost about $22 million over five years.

One of the most important things we’ve learned is that if we work together throughout the city, we can lift a family out of poverty. We can lift thousands of families.

That’s a pretty valuable lesson.