Cyberspace Experiments -- in the 'Hood


Washington -- Newt Gingrich will head off to Aspen, Colorado, next month to take part in a conference on "Cyberspace and the American Dream." For two days (at $895 a head) experts will mull implications, from social to economic, of the electronic frontier.

Perhaps the speaker should take a look at electronic communication breakthroughs bubbling up at the grassroots -- even in his own backyard, within that much maligned Washington Beltway.

Some of the more exciting cyperspace experiments involve poor people and neighborhoods -- those it's been feared would be red-lined off the Information Highway.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, for example, has arranged for homeless residents of the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter in Washington to tell their personal stories -- with their pictures and voices -- on the coalition's Internet home page.

The coalition's next effort is to get libraries, schools and shelters throughout the Washington area to make free Internet services available, so that the homeless can talk among themselves and communicate with agencies and politicians. The model is the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Electronic Network, whose online discussions led to a Swashlock (showers, washers and locker) program to help the homeless get ready to seek jobs.

But what about turning cyberspace access into direct economic opportunity for people otherwise dependent on government subsidies for subsistence?

If Speaker Gingrich would visit Edgewood Terrace, a low-income housing area in Northeast Washington, he'd see an example of that in practice. An initial class of eight African American men and women are building their way toward independence through a two-month basic computer-literacy course emphasizing data-base entry and basic business applications.

When they finish, they'll start their own enterprise to contract and work with Hamilton Securities, a Washington-based merchant banking firm. With their own Internet address and electronic connection to Hamilton's offices, they'll perform data-base entry for private business and government clients -- working out of an office located directly in their neighborhood.

No one should mistake this for a charitable endeavor. Hamilton ++ and its for-profit partners in the business see real market opportunities in tapping and developing skills in underprivileged communities. The group includes Adelson Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based creative media firm working on challenging entertainment-education software; Future Kids, a Virginia Beach-based international computer training franchise group; and ICS Communications, a telecommunications firm serving the apartment industry.

The reasoning is: If workers in Taiwan or Ireland can be recruited for data entry by American firms, why not residents of our own inner cities?

The Edgewood trainees are being accorded more respect than many assembly-line data keypunchers. They're equipped with fully loaded Compaq 486 computers with CD-ROM drives and color monitors -- and learning along the way how to assemble, disassemble and repair them. It's hoped they'll eventually take on more contracts and projects and become the trainers, in turn, of hundreds more neighborhood residents.

At the same low-income housing location, there are weekly computer classes for kids and seniors. Edgewood Management, the progressive owner of this government-assisted housing, should see multiple benefits. Kids engaged on computers -- first for games, then for education -- are a lot less likely to be plastering the neighborhood with graffiti, or getting into drugs. And as adults get computer training, with good jobs available on site, the economic base of the tenants rises.

None of this means the typical problems low-income people face -- day care, food stamps, Medicaid, income eligibility -- will instantly dissolve. Even motivated trainees face tough spots, and require some counseling. A non-profit, the Community Preservation and Development Corporation, is helping enrollees on these issues at Edgewood Terrace.

But a Newt Gingrich should see powerful promise here -- to turn government-as sisted housing from constant fiscal drain to an opportunity center. Computer and software costs are dropping rapidly. So why not provide, in common areas or even in the apartments of assisted housing, computers or terminals, loaded with attractive multimedia software?

Rather than an extravagance, this could be good business for the government. Why? Computers are the education key of our time. Quality software, or Internet access, may not transform a low-income person's life instantly. But it reduces the terrible isolation of ghetto or barrio life. The minds of young people, the quickest to catch onto and use computer technology, can be engaged. In an information age, that can mean exciting, fresh economic potential.

The House speaker who suggested last fall a tax credit to give a laptop to all our low-income families might see the creative connection here -- especially as private firms take active interest.

Finally, there's great neighborhood potential -- to link low-rent buildings with health clinics, libraries, recreation centers, job-placement offices, government offices.

There's no panacea here, no instant cure for social divisions and ills. But there may be an exciting fresh start.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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