The Community Technology Movement – A History Of Digital Excellence

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Erie Neighborhood House CTC

The history of digital excellence in Chicago is a history of community technology actors creating and distributing technology resources – from computers to training to internet access – that is now well into its 3rd decade.

Last month, Andrew Mooney, Executive Director of LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation)’s Chicago office which is the manager of the 7-year, 16-neighborhood New Communities Program, wrote an op-ed article in Crain’s Chicago Business in which he basically touted Chicago as Ground Zero for setting the pace in building digitally-empowered communities (U.S.A. 2.0, I believe he called it), citing the $7 million the city received from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to provide training (digital literacy training) for up to 22,000 residents over two years in five targeted underserved communities.

The city has also received $9 million in funding from the same grant pool for providing hardware support for 150 CTCs (community technology centers) basically focused on libraries, parks and public institutions.

We applaud these grant awards. In fact, we are going to take a bit of a bow for tilling the soil and planting the seeds that allowed those grant applications to bear fruit,  because the vast majority of the ideas behind these grant awards came from a community-driven process led by the Chicago Digital Access Alliance more than three (3) years ago which coalesced into a groundbreaking work published by the Mayor’s Committee To Eliminate The Digital Divide, “The City That Networks”. (Download your copy from the City of  Chicago website and look on page 56 for the proof).

While the city’s grant awards tout 22,000 potential trainees, the five communities targeted initially as “digital excellence demonstration
communities” (combining two terms we coined – digital excellence and digital demonstration communities) – encompass 10 wards with a total
of more than 600,000 residents.

While the grant award to the city for CTCs focuses on mostly public institutions, within the city limits are more than 600 CTC/PCC’s
serving tens of thousands of residents a year, created by grassroots community residents and organizations with not a single dime of city
or foundation money (although some state and federal grants were involved in a minority of cases).

Statewide including Chicago, there are more than a thousand CTCs, again the majority opened and developed by grassroots organizations and groups without any funding at all (although the state DCEO Eliminate The Digital Divide Program funds about 170 CTC’s a year).

That program itself emerged out of activism by a community-driven coalition around securing the first funding  – $4 million – from the SBC-Ameritech merger in the late 1990’s for neighborhood technology programs.) That activist process, spearheaded by a coalition of activists and lawyers including Don Samuelson and Layton Olsen, came together at the 1999 CTCNet Conference at McCormick Place, attended by 400 people, which I organized for Chicago along with Executive Director Holly Carter of CTCNet.

There are two wireless networks in Chicago neighborhoods (one in Lawndale and one in Woodlawn) and two more in development. None of them were funded by city money or grants awards. (The city, according to a Medill News article, may spend up to $21 million for setting up wireless networks. Will they also fund the networks that are already established?)

There are at least a hundred community-based technology training programs in Chicago where residents learn everything from basic digital literacy to computer troubleshooting to web development to network design, offering certificates and professional certifications to residents, most of them offered free of charge. Outside of two programs offered by two city colleges (at Kennedy-King and Malcolm X) to my knowledge, none of them is funded by the city or foundations (I said to my knowledge, if I am wrong please send me the proof correcting me).

I was at a meeting at IIT in 2000 or 2001 where David Weinstein, then working with the Mayor’s Council of Technology Advisors, and a fellow names Sean Lapp of a company called Iworks, stated that the city would create 1,200 CTCs within three to five years. Here we are nearly a decade later and I defy anyone to show me where any of those CTCs were created (unless you want to count CTCs in the Park District locations which were almost entirely funded by outside funding).

The grant awards given to the City of Chicago don’t propose to fund any of these groups or programs.  This is a very different scenario than the BTOP grant awarded in Philadelphia with help from the New America Foundation.

So my question is: how can a claim to make Chicago the innovation leader for digitally-empowered communities be made without acknowledging the community-driven process that created and implemented all the ideas on the ground and has done all the work for the past two decades?

The neighborhood technology movement in Chicago has created a wealth of community-driven programs and established the standard – digital excellence – by which future programs will be measured, all without any city support at all, that are the envy of the nation. (Ask the Knight Foundation, which created a 5-year, $25 million Institute For Digital Excellence based directly on the content of the Chicago report).

Despite what people may think from reading this, I am not living in the past. As Mike Ditka says, “Only cowards live in the past.” But as
Frederick Douglas observed, “Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.” We in the neighborhood technology/digital excellence
movement are mindful of history.

The history of neighborhood technology in Chicago is filled with activities from men like Carl Davidson, who directly created or helped start a hundred CTCs in Chicago and trained dozens of residents in computer troubleshooting repair through his groups Chicago Coalition For Information Access, Networking For Democracy and Techtrain (which I named and helped start). It grew from the community activism of  Rev. Lewis Flowers (13 church-based CTC/PCCs), Walter Gillespie (14 sites currently in operation), George Gilmore (who championed HUD ‘s Neighborhood Networks Program with over 40 housing-based CTCs in Illinois, the ITRC/Lumity Digital Accelerators program (more than a dozen CTCs established), and the work of the Chicago Digital Access Alliance, CTCNet Chicago, (with more than 90 Chicago CTCs in its membership) the FaithTech Network of church-based tech ministries, and many others.

We know that the only way that the city can showcase itself as the innovative USA 2.0 touted in Mr. Mooney’s op-ed piece is to do what
the city has not done in more than 20 years: actively engage and work with the grassroots technology movement that has led the way on its
own, from the bottom-up.

We support the principles of open democracy, open data, open collaboration, community interoperability and open stewardship that will bring our underserved communities forward in a new community development paradigm.

If anyone wants to interact or engage with the grassroots technology leadership in Chicago that is making and continues to make things
happen, come to the 1st Chicago Neighborhood Digital Excellence Conference and Technology Fair, Friday October 29, 2010, from 8:00
a.m. To 6:00 p.m. At DePaul Egan Center, 1 East Jackson, Lower Level. Come join us. We’ll share the history and the future of digital
excellence with you.

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