Helping minorities bridge 'digital divide'
Racial gap in technology access prompts action by community groups andcompanies
On a summer day at Boston's Computer Clubhouse, a group of boys huddle together over a cricket - but not one that chirps. It's a small computer, and ninth-grader Bho Zhu is plotting how to use it to guide a toy train.
Nearby, Sean Galloway, an African-American teenager, speeds through a sophisticated 3-D design program, clicking on multidimensional images he has built from scratch. "Everyone else in my house is computer illiterate," he says casually.
It's not an uncommon story.
Although the clubhouse is open to anyone age 10 to 18, one of its goals is to bring in children who have little or no access to computers. And these days, those kids are increasingly minorities.
According to recent evidence, the "digital divide" is growing - in some cases dramatically. And without technical know-how, some observers say, entire sections of America could be marginalized by one of the most significant changes in the 20th-century workplace.
As a result, a new kind of outreach is emerging nationwide - one that attempts to show how minorities can adapt technology to fit their lives.
*AT&T and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for instance, plan to build 20 technology centers in cities including Baltimore and Miami.
*In an effort to help ensure a supply of qualified workers, information-technology companies are pairing with the National Academy Foundation in New York to develop educational programs for high-schoolers. Starting in 2000, schools linking with local companies will receive grants to provide courses, internships, and mentors in information technology.
*Bilingual Web sites such as Oyeme.com are offering Latinos an entree to the Internet by highlighting relevant news items and interviews with notable Hispanics.
Haves and have-nots
The widening gap between the technological haves and have-nots was chronicled in a Commerce Department study earlier this month. Among the findings: White people have more access to the Internet at home than black or Hispanic people have from any location.
"There is a very real possibility that some sectors of the population may be left behind," says Steve Jones, founder of Association of Internet Researchers.
Indeed, those working to ensure equitable access say efforts must go beyond just hooking up machines.
Teaching skills such as Web browsing and e-commerce is fine, Mr. Jones says, "but there is a degree to which we're imposing our own ideas about what we should be doing online." Instead, he and others suggest, people should be allowed to decide for themselves what uses make sense.
The benefit of being computer literate "has to be driven home from people who are in the community, the people that they trust," says Trevor Farrington, marketing director for AFAMnet, a Massachusetts-based Internet service that focuses on African-Americans. "You have to show what you can do with it creatively, not just limit yourself to what people are force-feeding you."
That approach is exactly what changed Marlon Orozco's attitude when he came to the Computer Clubhouse five years ago. "I was scared of computers," he says. Eventually, though, he built a Web site that teaches about the geography and culture of his native Guatemala. Now, he's the clubhouse manager.
Today, 60 percent of the clubhouse's participants are African-American, and 11 percent are Latino.
Some, including Sean, use computers at home as well as school, but they say the clubhouse - developed by The Computer Museum and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory - is special. It offers professional-level equipment (no games or children's software), easy-going mentors, and minimal rules.
Access to opportunity
Local companies have caught wind of the skills flourishing in the one-room clubhouse and have started offering members internships and summer jobs. This fall, 16 similar centers will be set up around the world.
While many such programs focus on young people, the number of Internet sites designed to serve adults in US minority groups - and attract advertisers to the untapped markets they represent - is also burgeoning.
In 1998, about 4.5 million Latinos in the US surfed the Web in either Spanish or English, says Jorge Escobar, a spokesman for Oyeme.com. He predicts that as the Internet is incorporated into television, it will experience a boom in every ethnic group.
And for people who have cultural ties but not geographic ones, the Internet can be especially valuable.
"Some in the Indian community are leaping right over the fight for radio and TV to the Internet," says Eric Martin, director of distribution at American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS), based in Lincoln, Neb. AIROS sends radio programs over the Internet and reaches about 25,000 listeners a month. It transmits in a form that can be easily accessed through a slower modem, which is all that many Indian stations can afford.
"We get e-mails every day from people who wouldn't have access to such programs any other way," Mr. Martin says. "Native Americans want a medium they have control over," he says. But within the community, there are some who resist the new technology. "They blame television for erasing the culture and assimilating the youngsters.... So they are against Internet access," Martin explains.
Yet others hunger to communicate. He knows someone in a remote area who drives 40 miles just to access e-mail.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society