Chicago Tribune, June 1, 2008: For poor, a gaping digital divide

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By Deanese Williams-Harris

Tribune reporter June 1, 2008

Paula Marie thought computers were just for important people. So she never logged on to the Internet or Googled anyone.

“I didn’t even know how to use a mouse,” she said.

Desperation three years ago forced Marie, 54, to jump across the “digital divide,” the line separating people who have access to personal computers and the Internet from those who don’t. She needed a job, and because most jobs require computer skills, she took some classes.

“I was tired of eating at soup kitchens,” Marie said. “I didn’t feel like a real person. I didn’t have an e-mail address.”

Chicago heralds itself as one of the largest cities launching WiMax, a wireless network that will provide consumers high-speed Internet access almost anywhere in the city. Yet thousands of its residents, including schoolchildren, won’t be logging on because they can’t afford home computers or Internet access.

The significance of such a barrier isn’t lost on Nicol Turner-Lee, founder of the Neighborhood Technology Resource Center, a non-profit where Marie learned computer skills and now is an instructor. People with computer skills in places like India, China and African countries are quickly advancing in the global economy, Turner-Lee said, while Americans without such skills are slipping further behind.

Technology training needs to be ingrained in our culture as it is in many other nations, she said.

“We believe that 21st Century technology is creating a tipping point internationally,” Turner-Lee said. “People of color and those from diverse backgrounds tend to lag behind, and if this continues they will never achieve full participation in society.”

A survey of Chicago Public School children in 2006 found that 28 percent did not have home access to the Internet, which means they could fulfill some class assignments only by using friends’ computers or visiting the city’s 79 public library branches, where demand for computer time requires advance reservations.

In West Englewood, Clara Kirk runs a computer lab downstairs from her Clara’s House women’s shelter to give children another Internet option.

“Our neighborhood schools don’t have the best resources for our children to get the best education,” said Kirk. “I think this community needs more Internet access for children as well as adults so I’m trying to provide that service.”

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn wants 15,000 laptop computers provided to public school students. At a cost of about $200 each, the laptops would come loaded with about 500 books. The reasoning, Quinn said, is that books in use in the school system “are so outdated that the Berlin Wall is still up.”

The effort would be similar to One Laptop per Child, a program that is dispatching laptops to children in Cambodia, Haiti, Rwanda and Afghanistan. “You can’t have a two-tiered society where some have [Internet access] and others do not,” Quinn said.

The digital divide is particularly acute for poor people. As of March, according to the Illinois Tech Policy Bank, 70 percent of households in Illinois earning less than $15,000 annually do not own a computer, and nearly 80 percent have not used the Internet.

Computer, but no Web

While the disparity between owning a computer and not getting on the Net might seem incongruous, consider Rosalind Smith.

Two years ago, Smith’s daughter gave her a used computer with the hope it would improve her life. High-speed Internet service is available in the West Woodlawn neighborhood where Smith, 53, has lived for 15 years. But the computer sits idle because Smith, a security guard, can’t afford the charges that can add from $20 to $33 or more to monthly phone bills.

Increased costs of rent, food and utility bills have made it harder for her to get by, she said. As she sat on the steps of a two-flat where she lives near 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, she spoke almost wistfully of what life might be like if she could cross the digital divide.

“I feel like I’m missing out on something,” Smith said. “I could pay my bills online, I could shop online, I could even send out resumes to find a better-paying job.”

Michael Bailey, who helps provide computer training for Chicago Housing Authority residents, said that once people develop computer skills “they start to see that they can succeed. When they have the motivation, you begin to see lifestyle changes.”

LaTashia Robinson, 33, a single parent, is a case in point. Robinson grew up in the Dearborn Homes housing projects on Chicago’s South Side. Last month she started introductory computer classes at the Neighborhood Technology Center’s Bronzeville location.

“I’m mad I didn’t know about this place earlier,” said Robinson, whose classes were paid for by the Section 8 federally funded rental assistance program. “So many people are stuck in minimum-wage jobs like I was because they lack basic computer skills and they don’t see how to get ahead.”

Road to independence

Training centers help people set up e-mail accounts and teach other basic skills, such as how to download files. Then they can go on to be certified in Microsoft Office, PowerPoint and other computer applications that can help them land a job.

Internet access is perceived as being so critical that in the Lawndale neighborhood residents banded together to set up a wireless service. Funded by cell phone-maker Motorola, the service currently is free but later will be offered at low cost.

Already it has had an impact. Residents have been taking online college courses and launching online businesses.

For instance, Clift Augustine, 41, a maintenance worker, started an online business selling general merchandise. Not so long ago he was selling CDs and DVDs on street corners and trains. “The technology center changed my life,” he said. “It was getting dangerous selling on the streets. Now I gross between $800 and $900 a month without the risk of getting robbed.”

For Paula Marie, computer skills have helped her become financially independent, she said.

One of Marie’s proudest accomplishments was finding a photograph of her grandfather, one of the first black dentists in Bronzeville, on the Internet after the family photographs were destroyed in a flood.

She made copies for family members and wears her grandfather’s photo in a portable computer drive around her neck. “I have him close to my heart.”

Marie said she sees herself in many of the Chicago Housing Authority residents she teaches.

“When you become addicted to the crutch you’ve been handed, you lose your self-esteem,” Marie said. “We have to stop that. The first time I was on a computer, I saw a sign of hope.”

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