Crossing the Digital Divide on Chicago’s Toughest Streets

Youth-Led Tech, Summer 2015, North Lawndale | Photo Credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, and Roseland are all neighborhoods in the City of Chicago that have been devastated by violence. They rank near the top of the city’s 77 neighborhoods on the city’s “hardship index,” which combines factors like poverty, unemployment, and crowded housing. And that’s why the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a “civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology,” devoted its attention to precisely those neighborhoods this past summer — and ended up by getting laptops into the hands of youth 13–18 while keeping them out of danger.

The successful Smart Chicago summer program, called Youth-Led Tech, combined crucial elements that meant the effort actually reached and held the attention of teenagers in these neighborhoods. What Smart Chicago learned should be put to use by cities across the country; the group has posted online all the information it can about the program for just this reason. But cities will need substantial philanthropic and private support to pull this off. And they’ll need a local Smart Chicago.

Too often the “digital inclusion” crisis in America is seen as a low-emotional-valence issue that is both exhausting and impossible to fix. The facts behind the crisis are easy to tick off: In many cities in America, 40% or more of citizens don’t have high-speed Internet access at home. Data caps and overage charges make mobile wireless access by way of smartphones unattractive as a substitute for that wire, and about two-thirds of Americans say they wouldn’t want to rely on a smartphone alone for Internet access. If you can afford it, you probably have both smartphone access and a wire at home — about 85% of Americans with a smartphone also have home high-speed Internet access.

A far larger portion of poorer Americans are smartphone-dependent than richer Americans: About 13% of Americans in households with less than $30,000 in annual income rely on smartphones for Internet access, while just 1% of Americans with annual income of $75,000 or more are smartphone-dependent. The chief obstacle to being part of the 21st century world — in which jobs, education, healthcare, and access to government services are all online — is the cost of high-speed access and computers. Only a quarter of teenagers in households with less than $35,000 in annual income have their own laptops, while 62% of those in households with incomes of over $100,000 do. And digital skills are also sorely lacking in underprivileged households.

In a sense, it’s a simple story: Low rates of Internet access and digital skills are tightly correlated with just the kinds of devastating factors that put Austin, Englewood, and the rest of the list of Smart Chicago-served neighborhoods at the top of the city’s hardship index. And that’s what makes the narrative of Youth-Led Tech, a six-week summer technology mentoring program Smart Chicago launched last summer, so important.

Last spring, Smart Chicago, with support from Get IN Chicago (an anti-violence nonprofit backed by corporate money), The Chicago Community Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation, went looking for 12–18 year olds from the violent neighborhoods on which Get IN Chicago is focused.

How’d they find the youth for Youth-Led Tech? With flyers around the neighborhoods. With tools like Wufoo, Google Docs, Slideshare, and Zapier. And with shoe leather. The participants had to have an address in one of these neighborhoods to be in the program — the Chicago Tribune neighborhood boundary tool was useful for this.

Dan O’Neil, the spiky-haired, fearless leader of Smart Chicago, told me last week he was often on the phone with parents and probation officers, asking “Can we have this kid?” Juvenile court probation officers referred their charges to Youth-Led Tech. And once the youth started to participate, most of them were hooked: more than 90% of the 140 attendees finished the six-week program.

At the same time, Smart Chicago found church basements and community technology centers in the target neighborhoods that had WiFi and could be used as convening places — and here it’s important to point out that Connect Chicago, another program of Smart Chicago, has made sure that there are more than 250 places in Chicago (libraries, community centers, public housing, etc.) where people can use computers for free. It also pays 1,200 city residents to provide part-time help with digital access and skills in those places. “Everything we do, we try to do with real people in real neighborhoods,” O’Neil says.

Smart Chicago found instructors for Youth-Led Tech by way of Facebook and Twitter and email — the instructors were people from these neighborhoods, and from diverse backgrounds, who didn’t necessarily have engineering training. Dan O’Neil says, “We hired a set of wonder-people.” Here are their pictures. Talk about inclusion: the instructors are truly representative of Chicago. “We’re changing all these people’s lives,” O’Neil says. “These people are in the tech industry now.”

For an executive director, Dan O’Neil is remarkably focused on menus. The program fed these 140 kids two meals a day during the six weeks of the program, at five sites. This was no easy task — Smart Chicago wanted to use local food sources and learned a lot along the way about the real problems of food deserts in Chicago: “The giants and slick newcomers in the industry like Peapod or Instacart aren’t accessible to these neighborhoods in need. Those [neighborhood] organizations that are trying to fill those gaps. . . don’t have a polished organizational structure,” says Smart Chicago.

The 170 hours of curriculum were rigorous and based on learning WordPress. “I just like WordPress,” O’Neil says, “because it’s super simple and we know the youth will be able to put up a Web site using it. And for the more advanced youth, they can get under the covers of the program and really learn.” The youth were empowered to imagine and build their own websites. They had to complete several hours of financial literacy training. You can see the day-by-day, hour-by-hour schedule here.

There were also social-emotional learning elements of the program — peace circles, restorative justice — and talks about power in the city of Chicago. And here’s where Dan O’Neil’s attention to food fits in: O’Neil says the number one message he wanted to get across to the youth in the program was, “”We love you and we’re never going to let you go.’” He’s emphatic. “That’s what matters more than anything,” he says. “You can learn WordPress, that’s fine, but we’re never going to let you go.”

Microsoft provided Smart Chicago a discount on laptops for everyone who completed the course, and held a graduation ceremony to hand them out. Corporate money also backs Get IN Chicago.

Youth-Led Tech, Austin. Photo Credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

Even though programs like Youth-Led Tech are not going to close the digital divide on their own — because we’re not, at the moment, fixing the access-cost part of this issue by adopting a national policy mandating the availability in cities of wholesale fiber networks at low cost to competing ISPs — there are many lessons to take from Smart Chicago’s work this past summer. For starters, without the persistent, substantial support of The Chicago Community Trust and the MacArthur Foundation, there would be no Smart Chicago. Community foundations around the country need to support intermediaries that can reach deep into neighborhoods and work with, not for, communities. Second, instructors can and should come from all walks of life.

Third, good food matters. Here’s one comment from a probation officer in Chicago: “Youth-Led Tech is the real deal. As a probation officer I’m looking for structure, tech help, and lunch for my kids on the West Side of Chicago.” And the officer found all of this in Youth-Led Tech. It is likely true that some youth were not shot in Chicago this summer because they found a place in Youth-Led Tech, and food was unquestionably part of the draw.

Finally, unquestioning acceptance and respect made this program tick. O’Neil says he wanted to make sure that the students were able to “mess around on the Internet.” And so the program covered WordPress dashboards, themes, how to post, how to make an app, how to add media to a WordPress site, and included plenty of time for students to work on their typing skills. O’Neil didn’t want to set up a program that required that attendees not use Facebook, for example. “Everybody else who’s richer gets to mess around on the Internet and just randomly get jobs,” he points out.

The first pilot summer went well. “Now we’re expanding the program, thanks to Get IN Chicago,” O’Neil says. Smart Chicago is going to scale up Youth-Led Tech and add drop-in centers during the week during the school year. O’Neil is staying in touch with his graduates, all 140 of them. Smart Chicago is never going to let them go. “We are building our tribe, and it’s legit,” O’Neil says.