Oakland Fights Poverty with Network PCs

Janet Patterson, a 30-year resident of the Acorn housing development in western Oakland, Calif., has spent a lot of time rallying against drugs and crime in her impoverished waterfront community. As president of the Acorn Residents Council, she admits the complex has been criticized over the years for problems ranging from poor sanitation to prostitution, but she said, "My thing is, if you're going to criticize, you need to do something to bring about change."

Now Patterson believes the tide may be turning, thanks in part to a partnership formed to fight poverty with high technology. In a $1.4 million arrangement, the city of Oakland is working with IBM Corp. and Acorn owner Bridge West Oakland Housing to supply each of Acorn's 206 residents with state-of-the-art PCs, software and training that will allow residents to learn computer applications and to access the Internet.

The partners hope the venture will translate into higher-paying jobs for residents, a better education for their children and a ticket out of economic stagnation. "If we provide people [with] the skills to keep abreast of technology, we provide them [with] something that becomes more important than the welfare they may have lost," said Shad Small, deputy chief of the Projects Division in Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency. "It provides them not only [with] the hope but the likelihood that they can get a job and retain that job and care for their families' needs not only for the moment but for the future."

Small said the city undertook the venture in an effort to address new welfare reform laws mandating that able-bodied recipients find jobs. In Oakland, more than 15,000 families will be affected by the laws, including many Acorn residents, whose average annual income is about $7,500. "We look at revitalizing and rehabilitating buildings," Small said. "But we also need to be prepared to revitalize and reinvigorate people who reside in or work in those buildings."

Economic Sparks

Dave Berman, an IBM spokesman, said the company is optimistic that the proj-ect will help to spark the economy. "Things have been done that are similar," he said. "But I think this is unique in the sense that it's an end-to-end solution, starting with assessing the needs of the residents, installing a network computing environment and getting the community involved, all the way up to the final phase of identifying the job skills that are required by local companies and training and certifying people for those jobs."

In the first phase of the project, IBM plans to install IBM Network Stations-Network PCs built for network-based client/server applications-in each of Acorn's units that are being renovated. IBM said the stripped-down PCs are better-suited to the project than standard desktop PCs for a number of reasons: They are less expensive than standard PCs, programs can be easily updated from a central location rather than from each apartment, and maintenance is minimal because of the Network PCs' operational simplicity.

The Network Stations will be managed by two IBM Netfinity Servers and linked via a local-area network to a computer training facility at the housing complex, which will be completed by March 1999. Until the permanent facility is completed, IBM said it will set up a temporary center and provide training for adults in such basic computer skills as word processing and Internet access. On-site training could be vital to the program's success.

"Picture a welfare mom with several small children," Berman said. "She wouldn't have to go any place to get the training. It all takes place in the building, either in the learning center-which is a classroom environment-or out of her own apartment doing computer-based training or homework. This eliminates the need for transportation or child care, so I think it is very appealing to the residents of Acorn."

The training will be designed to attract residents who might be intimidated by computers, such as Patterson herself. "I'm not up to par with the computer," she said. "I know how to turn it on. I know how to tap in to certain programs. [But] by the Year 2000 we will all need to know about computers, and that goes for our babies at home all the way to our seniors. They need to be able to tap into other parts of the city and other parts of the world."

Customized Training

During the second phase of the project, IBM plans to survey area companies to find out which applications they are using so that Acorn can customize its training. "We will train people in those skills, and in exchange the companies will go ahead and hire those people once they've completed the training," Berman said. "What that means is that the companies have a new employee who's basically prepared to begin being productive on Day One."

Added Small: "Who better to serve those positions but people like those who come to reside at the Acorn proj-ect? We would like to think that with the training provided, residents will be able to unleash their talents and apply themselves in such ways that businesses will be clamoring to hire them."

The third phase of the project will be tailored to the educational needs of the community. Officials plan to work with the Oakland Unified School District to improve communication channels between parents, teachers and administrators. Among the ideas: creating an online help desk for homework or for locating documents not available at the local library.

As the mother of a 16-year-old, Patterson is encouraged. "I want to make sure that before my son leaves high school he has had some kind of computer training," she said.

The partners expect social dividends: "Young people who are spending time in front of a computer would be less likely to spend time on a street corner," Small said. "As they get involved in using computers, they will be less likely to use drugs, we hope. It is not a certainty. We don't have empirical data, but it is an expectation."

-- Joyce Kelly is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

*****

Blueprint for a Community Partnership

The Acorn project came together through a convergence of factors, including leadership from community, political and industry players, the need to react locally to a major shift in federal welfare policy and the availability of the right technical tools.

But it was sparked by the residents themselves. The Acorn Residents Council had been active in seeking funds to get the physical infrastructure of the complex renovated. With the residents' push, the city of Oakland was able to obtain a subsidy from the development's former owner, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to renovate the complex.

Tenants then proposed including high technology as part of the rehabilitation. With the walls already torn apart in some of the complex, workers could more easily run the fiber-optic cable for the Network Stations. "The idea originally came from the tenants, who saw this as an opportunity to improve job readiness, to place themselves literally on the cutting edge of technology," said Shad Small of Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency.

"This is something we've talked about for the last four-and-a-half years in residence council," added Janet Patterson, president of the Acorn Residents Council. "What we always envisioned was that we had the infrastructure in place to support residents' personal computers. We didn't know that every household would be equipped with a computer. This is much more than we had hoped for."

It did not hurt that at the same time, the Oakland City Council had expressed an interest in projects to help move citizens from welfare to work. Nor did it hurt that Bridge West Oakland Housing was considered "very capable" and "well-respected" by public housing officials in the city and elsewhere throughout the country. That, in turn, helped draw the commercial players.

IBM Corp. spokesman Dave Berman said his company considers the Acorn project a commercial venture. IBM did, however, offer the project a discount of about $240,000 on its products and services. Pacific Bell Network Integration, IBM's subcontractor for installing the fiber-optic cable, also contributed $100,000 in discounts for its services.

While the first phase of the $1.4 million plan is being paid for by the city of Oakland, city officials are hopeful they will be able to get funding for subsequent phases from commercial sources as well as from the federal government. "The city has had to tighten its belt in order to do this, and it has to get funds from the outside," Small said. "But the hope is that as this comes to fruition, others might see what good we trust it will do, and they too will want to participate and will see the benefit in participating-if not here in Oakland, [then] elsewhere."

"We have already gotten inquiries from other communities about doing something similar," Berman said. "If this could work at Acorn, then it could as a model be likely replicated almost anywhere else."

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