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Smart Communities Teams Host D.C. Delegation

Two crowded rooms and plenty of stories provided a vivid picture of Chicago’s Smart Communities Program for a Washington, D.C., delegation checking up on the federally funded effort.

Program Officer Emy Tseng, center, of NTIA's Broadband Digital Technology Program, discusses digital issues in Pilsen.

Gordon Walek

The March 8 tour for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce began over soft-shell tacos, beans and flan in Pilsen, where 25 Smart Communities staffers told how creative outreach and early classroom successes have produced long waiting lists for digital training. 

The tour continued in Charles Johnson’s classroom in Humboldt Park, where 20 students were learning the ropes of the Internet. One of them was Dwayne “Coach” Tyus, who hadn’t really used computers before walking into the Chicago Commons computer lab at 3441 W. Chicago Ave.

“This class has opened up so many opportunities – it is off the chain,” said Tyus. “I’m now using the Internet, texting with my daughter, doing things that wouldn’t have entered my mind three months ago.”

Organizing methods
The tour was part of a two-day visit hosted by the City of Chicago, which received federal grants totaling $16 million for Smart Communities (in five neighborhoods) and expansion of Public Computing Centers (citywide).

Rashanah Baldwin, Demond Drummer and Enrique Salgado talk during a Smart Communities meeting in Pilsen.

Gordon Walek

The Washington delegation was led by Emy Tseng, program officer for NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), and included U.S. Department of Commerce grants officer Jannet Cancino and BTOP consultant Joselle Shea of Booz Allen Hamilton.

Tseng was particularly interested in how Chicago had used “real social networks, rather than virtual networks,” to recruit participants.

Auburn Gresham’s tech organizer Jimmy Prude filled his first Civic 2.0 classroom by tapping into local churches; he found working mothers through child-care centers.

Those trainees, mostly older women, have learned the basics and now want to apply their skills on practical projects like block-club organizing.

Pilsen tech organizer Liz Rosas-Landa said her class of 18 parents at a local school includes many women involved in handicrafts; they are now planning an exhibition of their work that they will advertise via e-mail and other digital methods. Rosas-Landa said an introductory lunch plus word-of-mouth buzz have produced a database of 250 interested residents.

Enrique Salgado of Humboldt Park reported initial resistance and distrust of the program – “skepticism of government and any new initiative” – which he is breaking down by working through trusted local organizations.

Charles Johnson (left) leads the digital training class in Humboldt Park.

Gordon Walek

His colleague, Charles Johnson, recruited students by posting sticky notes on bus shelters.

Englewood organizer Demond Drummer identified information leaders by following up with people who had submitted stories or calendar items to the Englewood Portal, one of five Smart Communities web sites that solicit and publish local news.

Breaking down barriers

Tseng and NTIA consultant Jannet Cancino asked what the primary barriers were to getting online, and whether Internet safety was part of the trainings.

Several neighborhoods responded that cost is a primary deterrent, at $50 to $60 per month for high-speed service. Cellular-based hot-spots can be less expensive, but residents consider that technology complicated and some do not trust a service that “travels through the air.”

Internet safety is part of the Smart Communities curriculum, which was developed by a local partner, Blue Ocean Logic, and a national group, Common Sense Media, that specializes in Internet safety for children and families. Lessons cover protection against identity theft and how to talk to children about potential dangers of social networks and disreputable web sites.

Tina James, manager of Chicago Lawn’s Business Resource Network, said that many small-business owners have little experience with computers or the Internet. “We have to show them the cost-benefit ratio of getting engaged,” she said.

Students in Johnson's class and others have been "breaking down the doors" to enroll.

Gordon Walek

A big benefit promoted by Yesenia Cervantes of Instituto del Progreso Latino is the ease of communication with family members in other states or out of the country. “When you tell them about that, their eyes sparkle,” she said. “When you talk to them about family, everything changes.”

Program design

Rishi Desai and Norma Sanders, who helped shape the program in its early stages, said strong local networks have helped drive success.

“It took some time to get all the resources on board,” said Sanders, “and I think the biggest asset is the tech organizer.” The Chicago program, she said, should “take invention rights” on the tech organizer concept. Tseng responded that NTIA is “really interested in the tech organizer model.”

“We started with a blank sheet of paper and reached out to the neighborhoods first and asked them what they wanted,” said Sanders. “The ah-ha moment was that they told us and we did our best interpretation, and we got it right.”

“People are breaking down the door for (the computer class),” said Desai. That demand, added Juan Pablo Herrera, has prompted other local agencies to offer their own computer labs for trainings.

Sanders said the tech organizer role – a full-time position in each neighborhood – has been central to spreading the word and filling up the classrooms.

The video below, by Charles Johnson, features students in his Smart Communities classroom at Chicago Commons in Humboldt Park.

Posted in Civic Tech, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Pilsen


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