Community Outreach Takes IT Twist

B. Keith Fulton

Community Outreach Takes IT Twist

National Urban League Uses Technology in $1.7 Million Project Designed to Help Underserved Communities Help Themselves

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

While media and political attention focuses on the penetration of information technology into business, government and education, a quiet revolution is under way to deliver public access to the national information infrastructure in four targeted communities.

Guided by the National Urban League and a grant from the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program, part of the Commerce Department, the two-year community networking project will serve residents and organizations in four league affiliates: Baltimore; Binghamton, N.Y.; Roxbury, Mass.; and Newark N.J.

Targeting underserved communities, the Technology Access Center (TAC) project is setting up IT centers that tie technology to life skill development and offer education and employment support, such as graduate equivalency degrees, literacy training and job preparation. The project has a price tag of $1.7 million, $650,000 of which comes from the federal government. It ends Sept. 30, 1999.

"We are trying to evolve a modern community infrastructure to dissolve the traditional social safety net that is based on dependency," said B. Keith Fulton, the league's director of technology programs and policy.

The issue, he said, is how to replace this with an empowerment model.

"Working in partnership with affiliates, the community, corporations and the federal government, we can leverage the modern community infrastructure," Fulton said.

The four affiliates were chosen for their technical capabilities and creative approach. The program is also supported by Bell Atlantic, Microsoft Corp., and Educational Testing Services, with the National Urban League assisting in developing the centers and monitoring and evaluating the impact on the community.

Founded in 1910, the National Urban League has 115 affiliates in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

According to Fulton, the mission is to share the benefits of IT with underserved communities.

This focus builds on the league's record of bringing technology to low income neighborhoods, which began in 1968 with mainframes.

One affiliate with an established Technology Access Center is the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, which is in the Boston/Roxbury area.

The center, which is open to the public, features 12 workstations, nine PCs and three Macs, all of which are connected to the Internet via ISDN. There also are a laser printer and a digital video camera, and the center plans to introduce videoconferencing in the future.

According to Rachel Kimboko, the center's coordinator, one highlight of the six-month-old facility is the multimedia adult literacy program. It is provided by Educational Testing Services, which helps adults prepare for the General Equivalency Diploma test.

"We have seen the number of people coming in grow from 50 to 60 a month to over 200," she said.

Public access time is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and until 6 p.m. Friday.

Many people visit the center to conduct research and grant writing as well as personal business. However, the center's focus is employment training and maintenance and education.

Kimboko noted a recent, subtle shift with more younger students using the center. In response, she has developed kids-only projects.

Starting in July, she is also piloting public workshops on Windows, word processing and Internet use.

"People do not have the skills they need to exploit the equipment, so we are offering 90-minute workshops at no cost. That's the minimum level we can keep providing," Kimboko said.

Another affiliate center is the Urban League of Essex County in Newark, N.J. Cranston Chester, technology coordinator, related how the staff decided four years ago that it wanted to create a new technology center for adults and youth that would also provide child care.

Two years ago, with the building in process, they established a technology center that would serve as a learning tool, complete with networked computers, interactive television and videoconferencing.

That plan is becoming a reality through the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program.

"We have 30 machines in the classroom and about 42 machines in the entire building," Chester said. "We have a second site in Montclair, N.J., with a total of 80 machines."

Among the center's innovative programs are training based on the state's welfare reform, called Work-First New Jersey; pre-school for ages 2 1/2 to 4; and Teen Age School to Work, which covers PC assembly, desktop publishing and Web page design.

The center also has a grant from the Bell Atlantic Foundation for interactive distance learning systems, which tie in with educational institutions within the county. They eventually will be used for videoconferencing.

"A goal is to expose children to what's available through IT and on the Internet. With adults, we are focusing on the Internet and the Microsoft Office suite," Chester said. "While many are first-time users, a lot are being bitten by the Internet bug."

The center also features a mobile lab that brings 25 laptops to selected groups, such as teen-agers, and sites within the state.

Chester is also setting up an alumni organization in which students who have used the facility come back to the center and share their experiences and offer support to new users. n

Five Core Lessons

The extensive experience the National Urban League has gained over 30 years of developing such centers has taught five core lessons, according to B. Keith Fulton, the league's director of technology programs and policy. They are:
The need for a vision, a clear and practical focus and issue, whether it be housing, schools, job or creating a work force development initiative.
Identifying the right infrastructure, for example, the kinds of tools that would help people in the community achieve their goals.
Thinking about content: What are you really connected to when you get on the Internet? The content people see and use has to help them make a difference in their lives, Fulton said.
Creating a professional development and maintenance program to train people to teach others.
Performing an evaluation. "We need to know how we are doing, how to refine our programs and whether we are making a meaningful difference," Fulton said. "In one center, we helped 100 people go through a program, and now they are off welfare. That is really meaningful intervention, value-added change."

For More Information:

National Urban League:

Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program:

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