On 14th street in brooklyn, two classrooms at Project Reach Youth are full with adults bent over worksheets, ringed by humming computer screens. “Who’s used a computer before?” asks teacher Luis Perez, and only one young man, from Ecuador, raises his hand. Perez looks surprised, then says, “OK–he can help the rest of you.”
The students, all Spanish-speakers here to learn English, roll their chairs over to the computers. But they’re no more experienced with DSL than they are with ESL. One woman pushes her mouse around with one finger. Others type. No one knows how to open the internet English program they are to use, and once Perez helps them find it, they can’t read the directions.
Teaching technology skills to the uninitiated is difficult, and community technology centers (CTCs), like the three Project Reach Youth opened last fall, are still working out the kinks. Still, they are providing an opportunity for low-income New Yorkers to learn computer skills, from word processing to data entry to job searching, that can get them white-collar work.
It’s a pricey undertaking. Besides buying computers and other equipment and services, centers have to hire staff, raise money, and develop curricula that use the technology effectively. Computers quickly get outdated, making expensive upgrades a frequent necessity.
All told, running a CTC can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. As the economy slows and technology continues to lose its luster, nonprofits that run CTCs say that raising the money to keep them going has become a formidable challenge.
Many started with big dollars and dreams to match. Project Reach Youth is one of 11 city nonprofits awarded federal Department of Education grants in the last two years to start 34 community technology centers. Those grants went to big nonprofits like Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has built six centers in Harlem, and Lehman College’s Bronx CTC Network, which developed 11.
These nonrenewable three-year grants start out big–nearly $300,000 in their first year is typical. Each year, the CTCs supply more and more of their own funds, starting with 30 percent of their operating budgets the first year (perhaps $100,000), 40 percent the second year, 50 percent the year after that. Then they’re on their own.
The feds expected CTCs to be able to raise huge matching grants from tech companies and private foundations, as well as start profitable ventures that would quickly make the centers self-sustaining. They were fueled by a belief that money would come pouring in to anything associated with technology. Some have made the entrepreneurial model work. The Restoration Information and Technology Education center in Bed-Stuy charges fees for classes and hires out its staff to set up networks, create web sites and assist other nonprofits.
But instead of trying to leverage money from communities that have little to give, most CTCs look for grants and donations. “It’s simple math, really,” observes Nick Noe, a research associate at MOUSE, a nonprofit promoting technology in city neighborhoods. “You are serving underserved populations that don’t have resources. That’s why they needed public support in the first point.”
Even for big organizations, finding big dollars has not been easy, and the competition has been fierce. “It’s been hard to raise even 30 percent. It’s kind of frightening to even consider what the next year will look like,” says Claudia DeMegret, the program director at the National Puerto Rican Forum, which received nearly $1 million over three years from the feds. “You keep having to replace equipment, especially when you’re doing high-quality services, not just letting people diddle on the computer.”
While the centers are in decent shape now, the people who run them say their fledgling programs will have to make serious cuts when the federal funding stops. “When the grant ends, we’re not going to have any money, our computers are going to be outdated and a lot of CTCs are going to be competing for the same money,” says Maricela Brea, CTC director at Project Reach Youth. “How are we going to maintain all this, plus staff?”
Brea may have to find answers sooner than she was planning to. President Bush’s proposed budget shifts funding for community technology centers into block grants that states can spend as they choose. If that happens, there’s no guarantee that centers will receive the grant payments they’re due. At the same time, federal funding is likely to be cut drastically. A new round of grant applications that was supposed to start this spring hasn’t begun, and most observers expect it never will. Says Noe of the new budget, “It’s pretty much going to decimate the CTC.”
Only a year ago, closing the digital divide was a national priority, and the gap is still far from closed. The much-hyped Department of Commerce study “Falling Through the Net” documented that only one-quarter of black and Hispanic households have internet access, compared with half of white and Asian families. Yet while the need for CTCs is only growing–nearly 75 percent of new jobs require tech skills–government has quickly abandoned its former urgency.
“The whole craze for CTCs and the digital divide, well, the heat of the issue just started to cool off,” says Francis Lam, program manager for the Asian Americans for Equality computer center in Chinatown. “A year ago, it was the biggest thing in the world. But when the dot-com world started disappearing, a sudden disinterest was very apparent.”
In the late 1990s, more than a hundred small community technology centers sprang up within nonprofits all over the city, funded by donations from computer giants like Gateway, city and state grants, and private foundations. AAFE’s Division Street computer lab opened in 1999 with 12 computers paid for by start-up grants from the State Assembly, Bell Atlantic and Verizon.
At first, it focused simply on access. Then, as more of its clients acquired computers at home, the center tried to switch its focus toward structured, socially relevant projects that incorporate technology training, like a workshop where teens create a community web site in English and Chinese. But that kind of project requires extensive staff, and the center has yet to win the grants it needs.
In part, that’s because finding money for hard costs like computers and software tends to be easier than raising cash for staff. Funders can see the results of buying a dozen monitors, and those cost a lot less than a full-time teacher, Lam observes. While the Chinatown center scurries for funding, it has ended up offering mostly open access and few classes, and cut back its hours. “Like a restaurant,” Lam says, “we started to close earlier.”
Smaller CTCs are already deep into what the federally funded centers will soon have to face–trying to generate enough in grants, donations and partnerships with other nonprofits to scrape by. And while large organizations say they’ll have an easier time raising money, the experience of the Fortune Society, a large nonprofit whose computer center serves 500 ex-offenders each year, suggests otherwise.
Fortune got money two years ago to build a 14-computer lab and staff it with one instructor, Eric Applegate, who jokes that he’s “always screaming about getting another paid instructor.” Applegate has created sophisticated programs–ex-offenders learn to build web pages, email with a class of adults in Germany, and join online discussions of the criminal justice system–but he still teaches almost every class himself, from 9 to 5. “A lot of grants are focused on equipment, but if you look at offering a curriculum that makes any sense, the training is what’s important,” Applegate says. “We often get mesmerized by the technology, but we should be truly empowering them to use the technology as a tool.”
If the experience of small CTCs is any indication, the federally funded programs will soon be in trouble, too. None of the small centers have the money for software and hardware upgrades, broadband lines or adequate staff–exactly the things the government grants have covered so far. This fall, MOUSE released a study of city CTCs, and found 60 percent “anticipate funding difficulties.” Noe now calls that “a tame way to say they’re having serious problems.”
A major obstacle for everyone is that CTCs have not formed a strong community among themselves. In everything from planning courses to finding profitable side projects, the centers have been reinventing the wheel, sometimes paying to write a curriculum that’s hardly different from what’s offered down the block. CTCs could run more efficiently by saving money on group purchases or by sharing programs.
That’s why MOUSE and other CTCs lobbied the City Council’s Subcommittee on Small Business, Retail and Emerging Technologies back in March, hoping the council would budget funds for a CTC Bank. The bank would act as an intermediary to provide centers citywide with resources like grant writing, technical assistance, pooled curricula, staff development training, bulk discounts and connections to social venture philanthropies. It would primarily be directed toward small CTCs, especially in underserved outer-borough areas. The council added $500,000 for the bank to the budget, to be followed by $1 million each year, part of which would go toward grants to small centers.
But Mayor Giuliani’s budget included no mention of funds for CTCs. That may be penny-wise and pound foolish; the city’s economy, after all, depends on a supply of skilled workers. A lot is riding on the public sector’s ability to teach word processing and web surfing to people who can touch a keyboard for the first time, look for a job on the internet or feel the thrill of sending email to relatives in China.
“Technology is not an end in itself, but using technology in service agencies can change people’s lives,” says Mara Rose, who ran the CTC Playing to Win in Harlem. “Exposure is what makes us think bigger, and dream what we’ve never dreamed before.”
Nora McCarthy is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer