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Bridging the digital divide in the Twin Cities

December 11, 2007 By Julia Degen, TC Daily Planet

In the age of information technology, living without use of a computer and especially the internet seems unimaginable to many. How could you possibly do your homework, apply for a job, get to know when which movie runs or stay in contact with friends living far away?

The use of information technology provides access to social, civic, educational and economic opportunities. But it creates inequalities as well. The Community Technology Empowerment Project (CTEP) in the Twin Cities tries to address those inequalities. This AmeriCorps project helps low-income youth and adults learn to use technology.

"Our mission is teaching technology," Joel Krogstad, director of the program, says. "We work with disadvantaged, low-income families and immigrant groups. We want to teach people so that they can live a full life."

The ability to use the Internet enables people to conduct their lives with access to communication and information. A report from the Institute on Race & Poverty (IRP), Digital Justice: Progress towards Digital Inclusion in Minnesota, states: "When portions of a society are unable to access tools that other strata use constantly, the gap widens, resulting in long-lasting divisions in opportunity and outcomes." The Center for Rural Policy and Development reports in its annual Minnesota Internet Study that 63.5 percent of all Minnesota households now maintain a home Internet connection.

Americorps is a local, state and national service program whose membersaddress critical needs in communities. Currently, there are 25 AmeriCorps members working for CTEP in the Twin Cities. They work full-time or part-time at 16 different community sites that are partners of the CTEP program. Each of them is offered health insurance and they receive a modest living allowance.

"As an AmeriCorps member you can't save or make money. You just get a minimum, and most people do not do service because of financial benefits," says Joel Krogstad.

Gina Nilsen is one of the AmeriCorps members in the Twin Cities. She works as a full-time teacher at YWCA in St. Paul, giving lessons in the computer lab. "The CTEP mission really appealed to me and I just really love the kids," she says. She is a former college teacher of graphic communication and communication technology, now in her second year at the YWCA.

The computer lab sessions are part of youth programs at the YWCA, such as the Y`s Kids Club or the Youth Achievers Program. Those programs serve children and young people from urban St. Paul, focusing on academic enrichment, healthy lifestyles, social skills and leadership development.

"We want to serve the kids that need most help. Otherwise they would stay at home," says Jocelyn Hall, manager of the Youth Achievers Program. "In this environment we can work with the kids, build on their skills. Working with the CTEP programme and profiting from Gina's technical knowledge is a huge asset to us."

Most of the children come to the YWCA after school or during school holidays. After having a snack, it's passport time, when the kids may choose between different activities taking place in the knowledge room, the art room, the game room or the computer lab. Their "passport" makes sure that they attend all different activities at one time or another. Otherwise they might end up in the computer lab all the time.

"The kids definitely like the computer lab, no question," Gina Nilsen says. Actually, this seems slightly understated.

Storming into the computer lab at the beginning of their class, anticipation and excitement are written on their faces. There are twelve computers and eleven kids so that each of them can use a computer of his or her own. On the one hand, there is a certain amount of free lab time where the kids can play appropriate games or watch videos. But on the other hand, CTEP member Gina shows them how to use educational software and offers a variety of different classes.

"I've taken a Powerpoint class, a digital camera class and a video class," says Zaki, one of the kids. During his video class, he videotaped the others, thus making a video of the video class.

"The kids are here to learn, but also to have fun--to explore," Gina says. "Judging by what most of them say, they don't have a computer at home." It's the CTEP mission to bridge those digital gaps and to provide opportunity to the kids.

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