|BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : FEBRUARY 1, 1999 ISSUE|
|LETTER FROM BROOKLYN
A Cyber-Community Grows in Brooklyn
On the fourth night of Kwanzaa in Brooklyn, a storefront gathering of four adults and seven kids breaks the Ramadan fast and lights black, red, and green Kwanzaa candles. Macaroni and chicken wings are on the menu. So are some vital lessons. ''What day is this?'' queries an adult, Kibibi Oyo, who observes both Ramadan and Kwanzaa, the African-American holiday. She wears the gele turban and kinte-print dress of her Muslim faith and Afro-centric focus. ''Ujamaa!'' the children call out; it's one of the principles of Kwanzaa. What's it mean? The kids fairly shriek the answer: ''Cooperative economics!'' Elisheba defines it further: ''Working together to earn money!'' A boy, Tabari, correctly volunteers a definition for another Kwanzaa principle, kujichagulia, or self-determination.
Elisheba is 6; Tabari, 4. Yet already, they're absorbing the big issues facing their religious and residential community, the African Islamic Mission (AIM), here in a low-income neighborhood adjacent to welfare-dependent Bedford-Stuyvesant. And if at first the setting--AIM's ultramodern ''cyberlounge'' with six PCs--seems incongruous with Kwanzaa, it ultimately makes sense. For while AIM, like other bootstrapping Muslim groups, supports itself selling fragrances and books, encouraging blacks to buy and use computers is its mission. Indeed, high tech is the key to both kujichagulia and the future of these kids. AIM's adults were smart enough to recognize that fact--early.
Oyo knows that not everyone shares AIM's vision. ''Priorities in our community are totally screwed up,'' she says with a sigh. She left a career in the recording industry to join the mosque and now teaches 6 of AIM's 22 weekly computer classes and edits its newspaper, Blacks and Computers. She tells of a woman who wrote in with ''the standard 'white man's fault' argument,'' suggesting that blacks should protest the lack of computers in schools. ''I'm not down with that philosophy'' of blaming whites, says Oyo. And as for protesting, she simply told the woman: ''I'm not going to do that.''
''DIGITAL DIVIDE.'' That's because African Americans are to blame, too. In a predominantly black classroom, ''you will see $2,000, $3,000 worth of new sneakers; they buy Air Jordans that cost over $160 a pair. So if you average 25 kids in a classroom and the average kid spends $100 on sneakers, you're talking $2,500. You could get two nice computers for that,'' Oyo says.
She isn't alone among African Americans in her concern over this ''digital divide''--the fact that even some blacks who can afford PCs don't buy them, don't go online, and don't encourage their kids to do so. A 1998 Vanderbilt University study reports that among lower-income households ($40,000 or less), 27.5% of whites own PCs, vs. only 13.3% of blacks. Even more disturbing: 37.8% of white students without home PCs said they had used the Web in the past six months, but only 15.9% of black students did--suggesting a major access problem.
And that's not just because many black families can't afford computers. ''If you walk into a home in Bed-Stuy today, you'll see a couple of Nintendos, a large-screen TV, cable TV--there's money being spent,'' says Pat Bransford, director of the National Urban Technology Center Inc. Nor is technological intimidation a factor, sources say, judging from all those VCRs being programmed out there.
This lower rate of computer interest is especially alarming in light of a recent Benton Foundation/National Urban League study showing that 60% of future jobs will require technology skills and 75% of transactions between individuals and the government will be electronic. Currently, a mere 7% of computer-systems analysts and computer scientists and just 5% of programmers are African-American, according to the U.S. Office of Technology Policy. John Mack, Los Angeles head of the National Urban League, dubs access equity ''the civil-rights issue of the 21st century.''
Oyo and other African Americans are starting to attack that problem. In church basements and community centers, groups such as AIM are offering computer classes at low or no cost on everything from the basics to advanced graphics. And this year's Black History Month will feature the first ''Black Family Technology Awareness Week'' on Feb. 7-13. Church-based activities nationwide will promote computer literacy, culminating in a Baltimore ''summit,'' where participants will hear speakers, meet groups such as Black Geeks, and learn of projects such as Computers in the 'Hood, which finances PCs for low-income families. AIM will observe Black History Month with a computer careers day.
Even with such encouragement, obstacles loom. School computers are nonexistent or hopelessly old, Oyo says. And the Internet is largely a white world, points out David Bolt, the producer of a four-part PBS series, Digital Divide, that's scheduled to air next fall. There are cultural factors, too, such as black kids ''not wanting to appear white''--or geekily uncool. Notes Marsha Reeves Jews, president of Career Communications Group, sponsor of the Awareness Week program: ''We've got to figure out how to make it sexy.''
More confusing is the role of family income--or the lack thereof. Bransford, whose center operates 40 inner-city locations (including a Bedford-Stuyvesant site) using National Telecommunications & Information Administration funds, says her group started ''with the assumption that we were going to have to come in with a very cheap, recycled computer to get people started.'' But, no, Bransford recalls. Even families earning $25,000 told her, ''We want the new computer; here's $2,000 cash.''
FASTER ACTION. AIM's six PCs are state-of-the-art. On a Saturday morning earlier in December, Oyo is at the cyberlounge passing around a modem to five 7- to 10-year olds. ''See these holes?'' she says. ''These two holes are where you put the telephone wire. This one little piece lets us go on the Internet.'' The children pair up at the PCs. Eresha and Antoinette, both 7, play an Edmark Corp. CD-ROM, watching as a goose plays a xylophone, then replicating the tune. Eresha affirms that she likes the class: ''They teach you things you want to know--scary things and sometimes nice things.'' Nearby, Carolyn Rogers exults at daughter Kenya's progress with typing and with the computer mouse. ''In the near future, that's what the world is going to be about,'' she says. Like most here, she has no home computer.
AIM, with the core of its Brooklyn congregation--26 adults and children--in two apartment buildings, charges parents $5 a class. Half the 35 kids schooled each Saturday can't pay and attend free. Sales of AIM's computer newspaper underwrite the classes, software, and most hardware. (One computer was donated by the National Urban Technology Center's NTIA grant).
AIM, which is affiliated with five mosques in five cities, was also lucky enough to be included among the 35 community groups in Brooklyn benefiting from a $50 million ''diffusion'' fund. The fund was set up by Nynex, now Bell Atlantic Corp., after a local assemblyman successfully sued Nynex for overcharging economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Now, the Brooklyn Public Library and a group called Brooklyn Information & Culture are using the fund to design a network that will give those 35 groups speedy T1 and digital-subscriber line Internet access by summer.
That's progress, Oyo says, as she turns to watch her young students bent over their keyboards. Just two years ago, she and her AIM ''brothers and sisters'' took to the streets to sell 300 bottles of fragrance to buy four PCs. For her own two children and other Bed-Stuy kids, Oyo believes, computers are the equivalent of the encyclopedias that her grandmother--who raised Oyo in Brooklyn's tough Gowanus project--struggled to buy for her.
She wants children like Jasmine, 5, to become as enthralled with computers as she was with those books. Oyo leans over the little girl to see what she's up to. ''This is how your hands should be placed on the home row. This big button: Enter. It takes you to the next line. Push it and see what happens,'' Oyo says softly. ''Right, yeah. You're catching on already. My gosh, you're brilliant.'' Jasmine pushes the button, then beams at Oyo. Oyo beams back.
By JOAN OLECK
EDITED BY SANDRA DALLAS
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