Information Access Is A Matter of Social and Economic Justice…Just ask The People’s Emergency Center

Bridging the Digital Divide in West Philadelphia

By Allison Rooney                                                                   

Digital InclusionBack in 2003, the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) recognized that computers with Internet access were becoming a basic necessity, like food, heat, and electricity. In order to fulfill its mission to provide social services to underserved families in West Philadelphia, PEC would have to help these individuals cross the “digital divide.”

“If people don’t have computing skills or access to a broadband connection, which are so crucial in today’s society, then they are missing critical opportunities-such as applying for jobs online,” says Tan Vu, Director of the Digital Inclusion program at PEC, which was created specifically to bridge this divide. “We saw that, without these skills and this access, these individuals were at risk for falling behind even further.” Initially Digital Inclusion focused on providing low-cost Internet access and refurbished computers to qualified residents, but the program has since grown to include a range of comprehensive training classes for youth as well as adults.

Digital Inclusion first offered a comprehensive Community Class for adults, a focus that remains strong seven years later. Offered every other month, free of charge, the class is held two to three evenings a week for four weeks. It covers computer and technology basics, including the Internet, email, social networking, word processing, and spreadsheets. Advanced classes are also available. There are generally ten to twelve people in each class, including local residents or parents of students in the teen classes. Adult learners can purchase refurbished computers at the conclusion of the program for $150.

Over time the program has grown to include the Digital Connectors program for teens. These classes build teens’ command of computer operations as well as computer refurbishment/repair, multimedia production, and the digital arts. Class components also emphasize financial literacy, leadership skills, and community service. Students received free computers at the conclusion of the program thanks to the Comcast One Economy Corporation, in partnership with the city’s Department of Commerce.

A third component of the program is Sixth Grade Stars, offered after school for ten weeks  to students from neighborhood elementary schools. Slightly less intensive than the teen class, Sixth Grade Stars teaches technology literacy using proven web-based curriculum and interactive group projects. There are generally ten students per group, and PEC offers the class in spring, summer, and fall.

“We’re proud to see how this initiative has grown,” says Iola Harper, Executive Director of the SCI-West Initiative, which supports collaboration between PEC and three other Community Development Corporations (CDCs) inWest Philadelphia. “It has been successful in cutting across several programmatic areas within the community it serves.”

Twenty-four young people completed the first Digital Connectors Program that started in the fall of 2010. The college-level curriculum includes leadership skills as well as Cisco IT Essentials-one of the first certificates needed to become an IT professional. The required 156 hours includes 60 hours that teen students must devote to serving the community. “Students use their computer skills and laptops to provide communications services or design websites that benefit local businesses,” says Mr. Vu.

One group of students created  a website for the Lancaster Avenue corridor  (www.lancasteravephilly.com) to provide a directory of local businesses, which future classes plan to expand. Another group developed a financial literacy booklet for the families that PEC serves, on such topics as saving for college and banking online.

The program recruits students from local schools. “We talk to principals, teachers, counselors, and members of the community,” says Mr. Vu. The only requirements to apply for a place in Digital Connectors are that students are between 14 and 21 and aspire to learn about technology and gain leadership skills. After an intensive interview process, PEC selects 20 of the more than 40 students that apply for each class.

 Mr. Vu and his team hire instructors and also teach courses. Each class also has teaching assistants, often Temple University students whom he says are in tune with underserved communities and kids who need mentors. “The program provides an opportunity for team-building in a good learning environment,” says Mr. Vu. “We instill in the students that they can be anyone they want to be, and we try to inspire them to be leaders in their own communities.”

“When young people are employed as a result of this kind of effort,” says Iola Harper, “it means the program has a lasting impact-not only on the lives of these individuals, but also on the West Philadelphia community as a whole.”

A surge in funding from national sources reflects the success of Digital Inclusion in achieving its mission. In 2010 the program received grant support through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), as a result of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.

PEC is a sub-recipient of a BTOP Round 2 Grant that went to the City of Philadelphia Public Computer Centers (PCC), starting in July.Philadelphiawill have 77 PCCs, and 20 of those are affiliated with PEC and its partners. Each site will have new computers and a part-time facility assistant.

In September the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC) received $11.8 million for the Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA). Part of these funds will provide instructors for expansion of Digital Inclusion programs at 19 PEC partner sites.

“We’re proud that we were able to weave Digital Inclusion components into programming at other CDCs,” says Iola Harper. The Partnership CDC, for example, targets specific blocks of the SCI-West catchment area, to install green and white roofs and offer workshops for residents on caring for their homes and protecting themselves from dangers like lead paint. The residents of two entire blocks that were the focus of a recent renovation will receive computers through the Digital Inclusion program.

“This program has truly evolved,” says Harper “from serving a relatively small geographical area and addressing the needs of a specific constituency of PEC residents, to now serving the entire West Philadelphia SCI target area. It’s one example of what SCI-West is all about.”

For more information on the Digital Inclusion Program, contact Tan Vu at The People’s Emergency Center (215) 382-7522 x 206.

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