Bridging the Digital Divide, Part One: Community Computing Centers

Karen Schaefer- Oberlin's community technology center - known locally as The Bridge - has only been open since July. But already people are streaming in to take advantage of the free service. Tutor and Americorps Vista volunteer Paul Pitcher says there's an almost infinite variety of uses for the center's eighteen computers - all with high-speed Internet access.

Paul Pitcher- People come in to do everything. A lot of people want to come in and get e-mail. I've helped some small business women create a flyer and I help kids with their homework and teach them how to play games. Barbara over here, she works on her novel and also on her own website.

Barbara Yeats- My name is Barbara Yeats and I've written a book, I wrote it in Mexico. And, you know, writing, handwriting, so now I'm typing it in on the computer.

KS- The Oberlin center is staffed by the local public library, which also serves as its fiscal agent. While the library does have computers available for public use, Director Stephanie Jones says a computing center like the Bridge was needed, even in this small college town.

Stephanie Jones- I grew up here in Oberlin and, not even just the digital divide, there always has been a divide in Oberlin amongst the community and with the way technology is going, it has helped to expand some of the divide. But hopefully giving everyone the opportunity to use computers, we can hope to close that divide up some.

KS- Like many others, the Oberlin center was started through donations and grants and is now supported by local foundations. But Oberlin also got help from the Ohio Community Computing Center Network. Executive Director Angela Stuber says while there's plenty of money out there for starting new programs, the biggest hurdle for many community centers is finding operational support.

Angela Stuber- There's been a big push with the Digital Divide, there are many different initiatives around the country, people are doing some really exciting things. The part that's missing is the funding for the centers - to take the time to do fundraising means you're not taking time to do the programming that you want to do.

KS- Stuber says computing centers like the Salvation Army Center in Cleveland can usually get the operating funds they need from their parent organizations. But smaller groups need help. She says this year OCCCN will spend half of its portion of an Ameritech settlement on operating costs for existing centers. But Stuber says this fall the city of Cleveland signed a deal with cable TV supplier Adelphia that could provide even more support.

AS- For those of us in community technology centers, the idea that a local cable company would provide sustainable funding for operating costs - not for just, you know, buying a new computer - is really, really exciting. What they're doing in Cleveland has been done a few other places around the country, but it's still a very new idea.

KS- The Adelphia deal will ultimately create a $5 million technology fund to support centers in Greater Cleveland. Kevin Kronen heads Digital Vision, a coalition of community centers that helped engineer the agreement. He says city leaders saw the potential for economic development in the new technology fund.

Kevin Kronen- It was all driven by the needs of the city of Cleveland. The sense was that Cleveland is not as far along in the use of technology as others might be and I think that came from a variety of people. It was the gaps in training and education that were going to hold not just people back, but the region back.

KS- Organizers of the Westown Computing Center on Lorain Avenue are one of many Cleveland groups hoping to cash in on a piece of the Adelphia pie, once funders decide how it will be divided. Through a comprehensive youth training initiative, the center is not only teaching youngsters how to use the Internet, but how to be better citizens. McKinney Morris is the center's director. He believes that bridging the Digital Divide will take more than a computer, a mouse and a modem.

McKinney Morris- And therefore, that's what kind of gave way to our whole community youth development initiative. When we looked at it, we had to do something more than just provide computers in a room. It's not just about computers and the Internet. We wanted them to be able to learn to use the computer as a resource.

KS- At Westown, kids are learning not only how to use computers, but how to build them. And beginning this week, they'll have even more resources at their fingertips. Yesterday the center officially dedicated a new computer network of 20 new Gateway computers, printers and high-speed DSL Internet access lines. The network was funded by the federal PowerUp program, a joint government/business initiative. Westown is the first of only four PowerUp sites in Ohio and one of what will eventually become 250 sites nationwide. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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