Digital War on Poverty

In their quest to fight a growing digital divide, cities like Cleveland turn to technology in the age-old war on poverty.
Melissa Solomon

IN ECUADOR, Gia Villena and her family had a pretty good life. They had a place to live and food on the table, but they thought things would always be “just OK.”

“Whatever you’re born into is where you’re going to stay” is how Villena explains the situation in Ecuador.

Before her 15th birthday, Villena and her mother set out for Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, leaving her father, two brothers and a sister back in Ecuador. Why did they leave their country? “In America, if you look for opportunities, you can succeed,” she says.

After two years, Villena has proved her theory correct. Though she had little access to education, technology or work in Ecuador, Villena is now a high school graduate who installs computers in her neighbors’ homes, teaches them how to use the Internet and makes house calls to fix ailing machines. She also is helping to build a wireless network throughout Little Havana.

The ink on Villena’s high school diploma is barely dry, but she has extensive computer knowledge, job experience and a good idea of what she’d like to do with the rest of her life.

“I know one thing: I would like to keep helping the community,” she says. “If I keep contributing to the community, the community will contribute to others in need. Maybe I’m optimistic, but that’s how things change. That’s how the world changes.”

Villena is contributing by serving as a “Digital Connector”—a neighborhood youth technology ambassador—for One Economy Miami, a nonprofit organization that brings affordable technology, Internet access, training, technical support and relevant content to low-income residents.

The One Economy model, which is already in dozens of cities around the country, keeps growing, along with similar programs throughout the nation. (See “One Economy: Bringing IT Home ” below.)

The momentum is fueled by two urban realities: the widening digital divide and the increasing power of e-government to provide information and services to even the most isolated citizens.

These initiatives go far beyond providing access to technology: They’re offering new hope in the war on poverty. The pioneering leaders of these cities understand that by broadening access to technology, they can lift up not just individuals, but entire cities.

“It is pretty hard to achieve economic development if you don’t have a solid workforce with the right skills required for 21st-century information-age jobs,” says Cleveland Chief Technology Officer Melodie Mayberry-Stewart. “This creates a workforce to drive economic development.”

Building a Workforce

In the last few years, Cleveland has done a lot to drive development. A Voice over Internet Protocol initiative is in the works at dozens of agencies, legacy applications have been replaced, and new e-government services are up and running.

Thanks to an extreme IT makeover, the city is well equipped to offer state-of-the-art online services to its residents. One problem: Many Cleveland citizens can’t get to them.

However, Cleveland is doing something about that. In 2003, Mayor Jane Campbell set a goal to bridge the digital divide by providing technology access and online community services for all Cleveland residents. (See “Lessons Learned ” on page 47.)

“It does not help the city to offer great services over the Internet … if our citizens cannot use a computer, do not own a computer and do not have access to the Internet,” Campbell pointed out this May at the opening of Cleveland’s first two community technology centers. They are the linchpins of a citywide digital literacy and access initiative called Computer Learning In My Backyard (CLIMB). The goal is to have a viable community technology center in each of the 21 city wards by 2007, according to Mayberry-Stewart.

The centers offer low-income Cleveland residents courses to prepare for their general equivalency diploma exams, as well as basic computer and Internet certification courses, financial management classes and computer loans. IBM is providing computing equipment for the centers, and SBC is offering affordable broadband to poor neighborhoods. Other businesses will get involved by recruiting CLIMB graduates.

CLIMB’s goal is to offer training and services to at least 30,000 low-income residents in its first five years.

The first two centers cost $600,000 to set up, a minuscule expense compared to the total program estimate of $22 million. Cleveland is trying to secure the rest of the funding, and officials plan to use the two centers as models of the program’s effectiveness.

“We’re slaying a couple of dragons at one time,” says Mayberry-Stewart. “The centers will be one-stop shops for families to learn and grow. We’ve taken a very holistic approach. It’s really an antipoverty program.”

Empowering Houston Residents

To address its digital divide, Houston built a bridge—a simulated bridge, that is.

Launched in 2001, SimHouston is a free citywide network with an online suite of productivity tools available to anyone with a Houston Public Library card. While the network can be accessed from any computer with Internet connectivity, it’s often used in the city’s libraries, where citizens who can’t afford technology can get free access to computers with broadband connections.

“The library has always offered people a way to learn and advance, and technology is an extension of that,” says the library’s Chief Technology Officer Roosevelt Weeks. “If our citizens are not using technology, then they’re falling behind.”

SimHouston is just the first of what Weeks hopes will be a series of attempts to empower city residents with technology. At the Melcher Branch Library, Houston officials have been teaming up with Technology For All, a nonprofit group that trains citizens to use computers. The program also offers free or low-cost equipment or services to those who can’t afford it. Weeks would like to expand the program across the city.

“In the long run, it ends up helping businesses overall,” he explains. “Employers will be able to find technically skilled employees. And if you have an intelligent citizenry, you can build a strong economy.”

One Economy: Bringing IT Home

WHEN ELSA JESUS heard about a new program offering computers for $50, she jumped at the opportunity. The one-hour limit on the library computers didn’t give her nearly enough time to study for the nursing exams she’s been preparing to take.

Now Jesus, who was a registered nurse in her native Peru, has her own computer to study on. And she can learn English through a free Internet course and exchange e-mail regularly with the son she had to leave behind in Peru. “It’s a miracle for me to have this computer,” she says.

Hers is exactly the type of experience that Rey Ramsey and his colleagues envisioned when they created One Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that’s working to bring technology to poor neighborhoods around the country.

A former housing director for the state of Oregon, Ramsey had a clear view of the most vexing obstacle to serving the poor. “You have people living on the east side of town and services on the west side of town,” he explains. “How do you bring them together?”

Instead of trying to bring the people to the services, Ramsey wanted to bring the services to the people. Technology was the ideal vehicle to do that.

“Our philosophy is about bringing technology into the home—[creating] a new educational channel in the home,” says Ramsey. “Imagine what you can do with that.”

Step 1: Access

Jesus’ computer was one of 110 machines that One Economy Miami bought from Per Scholas, a New York-based nonprofit organization that refurbishes corporate equipment donations. Thanks to a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant, One Economy was able to subsidize the computers so they would cost buyers only $50 per machine, including a suite of applications, six months of free dial-up Internet access, and training and technical support.

Initially, there was a lot of skepticism among residents of Little Havana, a neighborhood in Miami, says One Economy Miami Director Cathy Colmenares. They thought it sounded too good to be true, and questioned whether the $50 was a monthly rental fee or the sale price.

So Colmenares and her local youth interns, called “Digital Connectors,” worked the neighborhood to explain the program. They handed out fliers, joined community groups and earned residents’ trust.

“The residents started seeing this as a community program,” she says. “Before, they didn’t get the digital community idea. They just saw me as the lady with the cheap computers.”

Getting computers into homes, however, is just the first piece of the access puzzle. One Economy is also working with cable and digital subscriber line providers and housing developers to get broadband connectivity into affordable housing projects.

By creating markets of interested residents, One Economy is able to strike deals with broadband providers to let families join neighborhood networks for $10 a month instead of $50 a month for individual connections.

On a larger scale, One Economy is working with states to change the way affordable housing tax credits are allocated so that developers are either required—or given heavy incentives—to provide affordable broadband in new housing developments. So far, 31 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to rewrite their tax laws.

Step 2: Content

Part of Jesus’ three-hour-a-day computer routine is to look for new information about immigration and health. Her starting point is her city’s Beehive portal (, which was developed by One Economy and includes information about jobs, health and child care.

Content is just as critical as infrastructure, according to One Economy’s Ramsey. “You have to give them a reason to use it,” he says. “They’re not interested in technology for the sake of technology.”

Instead of each city spending the time and resources to manage its own Web hosting, design and content, One Economy has created a national network centered on its Beehive Web portal. The network, built with the help of corporate and foundation support, is used by 23 cities, and more are scheduled to join this year.

The Digital Connectors, now established in 11 cities, show their neighbors how computers can help them. In exchange for their work, they get valuable training and job experience, a stipend and a free computer.

“[Technology is] the one thing that young people are on the cutting edge of, and older people will listen to them,” Ramsey says.

Step 3: Cultural Transformation

Jesus says her life has changed 180 degrees for the better thanks to this program. But she’s just one of thousands of success stories resulting from digital urban renewal programs like One Economy.

Ramsey’s been working with several mayors on digital blueprints that will outline formal technology visions and strategies for entire cities. One Economy also has strong support at the federal level, with Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) serving as honorary co-chairmen of its Bring IT Home campaign, which aims to make high-speed Internet access available in low-income communities.

The momentum surprises even Ramsey. “That’s how cultural changes take place,” he says.

Oct 31 2006