This nonprofit is training shelter residents in the tech skills they need to keep up with the workforce
Despite government programs and private initiatives aimed at promoting equitable access to information technology, the District’s digital divide persists. This global phenomenon is becoming ever more problematic in our increasingly technology-dependent world.
“Everything we do—from applying to a job, to paying bills, to getting around the city—those are all things we do with technology now,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, Executive Director of Byte Back, a local nonprofit that offers computer training courses in libraries around the District.
Street Sense Media has previously featured Byte Back in its pages, as well as Connect.DC, the local government program with which it partners, but these are not the only groups engaged in bridging the digital divide. Another program, which is less well-known, is the WildTech venture at the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV).
In 1983, after years of activism on behalf of people experiencing homelessness in D.C., Mitch Snyder led CCNV members to occupy the vacant building that had formerly housed Federal City College. President Ronald Reagan originally agreed to allow use of the decrepit building as a temporary shelter, but two long fasts by Snyder and others eventually convinced Reagan to renovate the shelter and turn over the deed to D.C. government. That movement created the largest shelter in the country.
The organizers of the CCNV wanted to do more than just shelter homeless residents; they wanted to help residents move beyond homelessness. That is where the WildTech-CCNV venture comes in.
Founded in 2006 as an East Coast branch of the Washington-based Wilderness Technology Alliance (WTA), WildTech-CCNV seeks to bring technical skills, experience and access to shelter residents. “We created this WildTech model where people in the shelter create a technology company,” said Lou August, founder of WTA and Director of Arts & Education for CCNV.
August founded a technology company in the 1980s and quickly became concerned enough about the growing digital divide to use his profits to found WTA. After his company won several contracts with schools, August said, he discovered “what was really surprising was how the wealthy schools were getting technology, while those that weren’t wealthy weren’t.”
In Washington State, WTA took the form of a camp for youth where they learned technology skills while also exploring the outdoors, a passion of August’s that he believed could inspire people to put their newly learned skills into creative and productive use.
When August came to the District, however, he found this model more difficult to apply. It is quite a trek from the CCNV shelter on 2nd Street NW to the nearest outdoorsy locations. But beyond this practical issue lay another challenge. August had never applied for or received a grant for the program at CCNV, so he organized residents to create a company that would be eligible for such support and partnerships.
The organization, located in the computer lab of the CCNV shelter, offers free technology trainings to shelter residents and low-cost trainings to outside organizations. Thanks to donations from government agencies and private corporations, WildTech also provides free laptops to shelter residents who complete the basic training program.
Further, some residents opt to become more involved in the venture by running trainings, distributing laptops and refurbishing computers, which they learned how to do in the trainings. Despite being built without grant funding, WildTech–CCNV has been able to pay past participants between $50 and $500 over the course of their time in the program.
These services, as well as their independent location and administration, have taken on increased importance in D.C. with the closure of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library for renovations. Byte Back, which teaches in libraries in partnership with Connect.DC, has found that “there’s just less space for us and other nonprofits to teach,” said Lindsey, its executive director. For the homeless and housing-insecure community, which Lindsey said makes up one third of her clientele, the loss of the public computers and internet in MLK Library is even more problematic.
Lindsey called Wi-Fi access part of the “three-legged stool” necessary to bridge the digital divide. The other two legs, she said, are possession of a device and the training necessary to use it. Providing people with these tools empowers them to get a job that pays them well and “just transforms people’s lives,” Lindsey said.
August is optimistic that those jobs are out there and can help people achieve secure housing.
Through training people experiencing homelessness, handing them free laptops and engaging them in leadership roles, WildTech-CCNV is attempting to build the three-legged stool that Lindsey described for shelter residents.
“It’s not the youth paradigm bridging the digital divide, it’s the untapped potential paradigm that exists in the homeless community,” August said.