Issue 1 - Summer 1994

Empowering the Info-Poor: The Community Computing Center Movement (page 1 of 2)
By Peter Miller

"In a large, airy room there is a crowd of young people and adults all working at computers. In one group students are having their first experience using a spreadsheet on an IBM PC. At the same time, in another corner, a senior adult is teaching herself to use a database on an IBM PC.

A young man is updating the church's membership files and printing mailing labels. A young woman is at the Macintosh working on a desktop publishing project, and two teenagers are in another corner debating how best to make the logo Turtle do what they want it to do. Others are casually 'messing about with simulations. They are all using these technologies to achieve their own personal goals and objectives."

The "community computer center" movement is part of the larger community technology movement in general, and is reflected in the growing trend among community-based organizations, social service agencies, churches, and community centers for acquiring and integrating computers into their programs.

Just as schools, libraries, museums and summer camps in our more well-to-do communities are acquiring and developing computer components and resources, so, too, are day care programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA's, and other indigenous low-income community agencies and centers, albeit, as in everything else, with severely restricted finances. The entire field of employment and training itself is increasingly coming to he defined in computer skills terms. The community computing movement bridges generations. Recreation, support, and training programs for seniors are seeking out computer resources, too

No wonder. Computers are powerful tools for helping individuals from many disadvantaged groups. Adult literacy students gain confidence and facility in reading and writing English through use of the word processor. Unemployed workers prepare resumes and cover letters and learn and improve keyboarding, business applications and systems skills for re-entering the job market. After-school and day care children learn how useful and fun computer applications can be. Participants of all ages improve their communications, writing, keyboarding and literacy skills and gain knowledge of the world and others through growing telecommunications options - online chats, email and pen pals, contributing, posting and commenting on essays and stories, and working on joint projects frequently involving graphics and desktop publishing.

As computers become more and more ubiquitous, their appearance among programs and agencies, which serve primarily poor people, is part of their "natural" development. Yet it is a movement, too, which is guided by the radical democratic egalitarian principle that basic tools of daily life need to be accessible to everyone.

Playing to Win

This radical and self-conscious philosophy is most articulate among those programs, which have established community-computing centers in a deliberate fashion. Among these, one of the most developed is Playing to Win (PTW), a 13 year-old nonprofit headquartered in Harlem. PTW is nationally recognized as a pioneer and leading advocate of equitable access to computer-based technologies. The Harlem Center provides a range of computer-based learning and playing opportunities. In 1990, the National Science Foundation provided PTW with funding to help establish a network of 30 centers across the eastern United States. There are currently centers in New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville, Florida. The scene depicted at the beginning of this article comes from the Staff and Volunteer Handbook for PTW's Washington affiliate, Future Center, the community technology lab at the Capital Children's Museum.

PTW is established on the principles that technology is a tool to help participants achieve their own goals; students work together as much as individually and learn as much from play as from work. Teachers are facilitator, resources and participants in the learning process. Curriculum is project-based. Playing to Win founder Antonia Stone is coauthor of, among other books and articles, The Neuter Computer, designed to help educators, parents, students, teachers, trainers and policy-makers overcome the computer gender gap, and Keystrokes to Literacy, which shows how to integrate computer with traditional literacy.

This focused and developed philosophy helps define the Harlem and Washington centers which are complex and sophisticated, and it helps more modestly-sized and financed programs make a substantial impact, too.

Boston's Example

"Recognizing that in our increasingly technological society, people who are socially and economically disadvantaged will become even further disadvantaged if they lack access to computers and computer-based technologies," the Technology Education Council of Somerville, Massachusetts, was formed in August 1959. The Technology Education Council established local control and management of the Somerville Community Computer Center (SCCC). SCCC provides residents of all ages’ access to computer-based technology, which they would not otherwise have.

With active support from the city's Adult Education program known as SCALE (the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences), the Community Action Agency of Somerville, Apple Computer, and PTW, the SCCC provides low-income Somerville residents with access to equipment, training and technical assistance. SCCC serves as the computer facility for adult education and human service programs in the Somerville Community Service Center building.

Programs include employment and training; ESL, ABE, and GED programs; during- and after-school programs for the Community Schools and the Powderhouse public elementary school next door; and other programs for Head Start and Even Start students, teachers, parents, and staff. Elderly participants from the Council on Aging also use the center. The Mystic Learning Center Teen Program, Elizabeth Peabody House Day Care and the Open Center for Children, Short Stop Youth Shelter, and Somerville/Cambridge Elder Services come over to the SCCC to use its technology. More >>


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