Youth plans for a future in computers, despite hurdles

This is the second of two parts on Internet connectivity issues across the state.



PHILADELPHIA -- If 15 of his classmates had come to school on the last day of class, they would have seen David Dunbar get a 6-year-old Compaq laptop. They'd have heard him ask how good its hard drive was and then describe his plan to give it to his girlfriend as a Christmas present.

But there's a reason most of his classmates weren't there.

"They don't come to school when it rains," said his teacher, "Miss Susan" Guggenheim.

And on this day, it was pouring.

So an audience of five students sat under a broken chandelier and watched David get his congratulatory laptop, the room brightened by heavy industrial lights plugged into the wall. He accumulated the most bonus points in this computer course, answering questions like, "What is a CRT monitor?"

That would be one that uses a cathode ray tube to display images on a screen, and now David, 19, has a hand-me-down Christmas present for his girlfriend: a laptop that Ms. Guggenheim first got from her partner but doesn't need since picking up a used Hewlett-Packard for herself.

When he heard a reporter would sit in on the class, David thought there would be cameras and a news crew to watch the handover.

He would know what to do. He'd put down the hood that always rests on his head and play the "underprivileged black kid:" He'd smile with a thumbs-up and say, "Miss Susan gave me a chance!"

Then he'd go on with his day. The performance would be "the price of getting a laptop."

David's commute to class at the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth is 45 minutes from the Germantown apartment he shares with his brother.

For coming to class, he gets $6 per day and makes another $30 a week at a computer-refurbishing internship Ms. Guggenheim got him. They're both nonprofit programs trying to raise access to high-speed Internet in Philadelphia, the nation's fifth-largest city and one targeted with federal aid as a result of its shockingly low broadband penetration.

He's eating a chocolate energy bar for breakfast while Ms. Guggenheim returns graded finals to the class. David only missed question No. 41 on how to create a slide show display in PowerPoint (hit F5, not F7).

Taped-up pieces of paper with quotes on them line the walls: Henry David Thoreau telling them to sail confidently in the direction of their dreams, Vince Lombardi preaching the gospel of hard work.

There are no mortarboards or "Pomp and Circumstance" here, but the mood is light and laughs are easy as Ms. Guggenheim hands back the tests.

It's a parade of activity compared to the building's first floor, which was once home to an office for Democrat Joe Sestak's failed Senate bid and has the tattered campaign posters to prove it.

Many obstacles

Ms. Guggenheim came here with her partner in 2002 after real estate prices in their Texas town went sinking alongside Enron. They now live in a 126-year-old home with two chimneys, six bedrooms, wooden ceilings, a secondhand commercial fridge and a fireplace overrun with used keyboards ready for donation.

When applying for grants to teach a new class or start a new program, Ms. Guggenheim has been unafraid to go after the big-ticket items. She asks for individual netbooks that her students could carry home in a backpack.

And she's always met with the same criticism from the grant givers: What if it's stolen?

"Then it will remain in the low-income neighborhood," she tells them with the hard logic of a computer scientist. "I'm not going to get it. You're not going to get it. They may lose it or sell it for drugs or whatever -- but it's going to remain within that population."

She recently applied for $96,800 from the government to build a mobile lab that would travel around Philadelphia and offer 80 hours of computer training to unemployed ex-offenders.

Hers was one of the 130 applications from Pennsylvania trying to secure a piece of the $7.2 billion allocated from the stimulus fund for broadband deployment. Nationwide, more than 2,200 applications were received, requesting more than $28 billion in total.

Ms. Guggenheim's application wasn't chosen; only a handful were.

Several Philadelphia-based projects were among them. Of the 10 Pennsylvania-related projects awarded federal funding for broadband expansion, five specifically target Philadelphia. Of the $234 million going toward these in-state projects, those five in Philadelphia account for $152 million.

None of that is going to Ms. Guggenheim right now, but she already works with the neighborhoods and demographics targeted by that $152 million.

Her umbrella in one hand and used laptops in the trunk, Ms. Guggenheim drives her vintage Mercedes with foggy windows around Philadelphia on her own unique tour: past the one-time drug corner whose blue lights signal new surveillance cameras, under the bridge where a student from the library used to buy drugs, in front of the halfway house where she introduced female convicts to keyboards.

David's hero is the uncle who attracted most of the shady guys who hung around his childhood home. That uncle was a crackhead, but sometimes he'd grab a beer and get 9-year-old David a Pepsi, and they'd watch freight trains pass under a nearby bridge.

He eventually turned things around, got a truck driving license and now makes more money than all the family members who teased him for being a lazy addict.

David tagged along on a trucking trip once, thrilled at the prospect of seeing a place other than Philadelphia. He was seriously disappointed when all he took in was interstate scenery, broken up only by the occasional truck stop. It still counts as the farthest he's been from Philadelphia.

His uncle hasn't called in months, though, and David's worried. He tried calling him on the road, but his relative's cell phone was off.

Service lagging

About 70 percent of urban households nationwide have access to broadband Internet, according to a February report by the Department of Commerce. That's 10 percent more than their rural counterparts.

However, studies by the Federal Communications Commission suggest more than just ZIP codes can dictate access.

Among adults making less than $20,000 per year, 40 percent have adopted broadband. For Americans making $75,000 per year or more, broadband penetration jumps to 93 percent.

Less than a quarter of Americans with less than a high school degree have broadband, and only 59 percent of African-Americans and 49 percent of Hispanics do.

Ms. Guggenheim runs a computer repair business out of her house, charging $50 an hour to low-income clients and $65 to the rest. Usually she can tell which rate to charge from the person's zip code: 19114 pays $50, 19119 pays more.

Still, she faces challenges that she can only chalk up to a digital divide that's followed racial lines in her community.

In her quest to turn her neighborhood into Philadelphia's own Brooklyn, Ms. Guggenheim organized a grassroots group called Living in Germantown.

Her first meeting was advertised in the Germantown weekly paper, and about 70 people -- black and white -- showed up. The next week, the paper had to cut back production and publish bimonthly, and Ms. Guggenheim could only advertise the meeting online.

This time, 40 white people showed up.

A perfect example

Ms. Guggenheim was a native netizen, helping colonize the online world from the start in the 1970s. The Web then was a series of message boards, and you didn't know if you were chatting with a defense general in the Pentagon or a geeky grad student at MIT.

As the Web developed, her paycheck grew with it to reach six-figures as an operations manager at a software firm. She now makes about 40 percent of what she used to, collecting paychecks from several sources: at IDAAY, at the library where she holds open labs, at the nonprofit where she shows ex-offenders what's been built since they went to prison.

"I had one guy who had never seen an ATM before," she said.

Mr. Dunbar is a ready-made Oprah example, and he knows it -- the perfect exhibit A to testify before Congress on how broadband legislation can change lives: a handsome black kid who knows words like "albeit" and is typing his way off the streets and into the middle class.

Is he a symbol? An ideal?

"A figurehead" is how he puts it when he looks at his own narrative.

His life follows that script: He grew up "in I guess you could say a crack house," with a rotating list of uncles and a mom he loved who died a few years ago.

She'd remember which PlayStation game he had ogled at the GameStop store. Better yet: She'd find the money to buy it for his 12th birthday in a life where currency only included government coupons, and sometimes not even those.

Limited access highway?

"Is the Web a public highway or a private road?" asks Stanley Pokras from his second-floor office at Nonprofit Technical Resources.

Mr. Pokras's office is clearly grant-writing headquarters, while downstairs is the store and laboratory that's made him something of a nonprofit king for the people he employs.

The sale shop at NTR teems with refurbished keyboards and huge dusty monitors loaded with updated software. Computers run about $85, and things such as an ink cartridge are $5 or so.

The shop in the back has rafters filled with spare parts, and you get in through a garage door, pressing your palms upward since there's no handle on the door.

It's a land of misfit toys, ones that were once new gifts but became used tax write-offs that were finally turned into refurbished profits.

The refurbishing team is a random gathering of people, some referrals from Ms. Guggenheim (David is one) and others ex-convicts who unabashedly brag about the customers who say they do a better job than the Geek Squad at Best Buy.

When his cousin recommended he check out computer training at IDAAY, David doesn't know why, but he did. Sometimes you shouldn't think too much about why you do something that creates a "before" and "after" fracture in your life.

Still:

• Maybe it was an established plan from the God that his girlfriend introduced him to ("Have a blessed day," says the recording on the voicemail account they share)

• Maybe it was his Mom looking out for him on the other side ("She's in the afterlife, too; she won't let no demon bother me.")

• Maybe it was just because he knew he was smart and curious and good at asking questions (90th percentile rankings on the GED he took last year, with a perfect score on the reading)

Whatever it was worked, because he always showed up. He missed three classes when an unfinished root canal got infected and the tooth needed pulling. He went to NTR numb, the tissues in his mouth clotting the blood and forming fat cheeks.

"It's like a transformation almost," he said.

Ms. Guggenheim never asks why the time was served.

"If I go down that road, I'm gonna be sorry," she said. "I love Philadelphia, including the struggles. Including the 47,000 paroled ex-offenders in the city at any given time."

One time she spoke at an info session on her programs and learned from another presenter that her students were typically big-time offenders: serious drug users, rapists, murderers.

They are students whose frustration always seems to be about more than just an inability to grasp Microsoft Word. They slam the mouse down.

"They cry, their lip is shaking," she said. "It can be a humiliating experience" to learn something as simple as the on/off switch.

Ms. Guggenheim's tools come from a sophisticated and coded world, but she's using them for a cause loaded with feelings and empathy. Maybe it's not that far off; after all, the stupid cat videos that make us smile are really a series of 1s and 0s when you break them down.

And sometimes it's Web tools as frivolous as those videos that can be an accessible start for Ms. Guggenheim's novice students.

"Here's what happens: People get out of prison, they don't know where anybody is," she said. "For low-income people, Facebook is it. It's very easy to use, and a very strangely important application for low-income demographics.

"And it was invented at Harvard for college students."

In real life, David was an ugly kid who had to grow into his looks, a shy loner not always as clean as he wanted to be.

So he'd play "Final Fantasy" for days, his avatar a white man with bulging muscles. He wasn't black in the game world. It didn't make sense to be, not when the hero of the movies was always Tom Cruise, "not the goofy black sidekick who usually died, like Mace Windu in the 'Star Wars' movies."

In "Final Fantasy," he experienced friendship, falling in love, moving up to a higher level based only on experience, practice and skill.

Libraries provide access

In Philadelphia, 40 percent of residents have no home access to broadband, according to the Knight Foundation. That leaves millions whose only access to day-to-day Web activities is through community anchors like the library.

"Philadelphia is woefully under-connected," read a successful broadband stimulus grant proposal by the City of Philadelphia seeking money to build or enhance 77 public computing sites in its borders.

Libraries and other "anchor" institutions were the main targets of other newly secured federal funding:

• The Mission Economic Development Agency won $3.7 million to build computing centers in Philadelphia and 12 other communities;

• The Urban Affairs Coalition won $11.8 million to train at-risk populations like HIV/AIDS victims how to use a computer (5,000 residents of public housing will get a free laptop under the plan).

Ms. Guggenheim's teen lab at the library is a lesson in self-designed lives: Nearly every screen is populated by avatars in a digital world controlled by the user, and they're always bearing lighter skin than their creators and getting hot girls with measurements only possible in the virtual world. The kids don't have drivers' licenses, but they're driving Aston Martins on the screen.

If Ms. Guggenheim's teen lab is a lesson in second lives, her adult lab is a look at revised first ones.

There's Brigitte "like Bardot" Fleming, who was once known among her fellow homeless as the one who handed out condoms and picked up used syringes. With Ms. Guggenheim's help, she's starting a blog for homeless people, trying out article ideas like "The Best Shelters for Men" or "The 10 Best Places to Eat on Thanksgiving."

Next to her is a woman on VietSingle.com, a dating site for Vietnamese people. She's sending a message to a guy posed next to his motorcycle.

And down the row is a guy enjoying Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance."

Loudly.

Today, Ms. Guggenheim's helping Mary "tap, tap, tap" on the keyboard her entry form for Oprah's 12-Day Holiday Give-O-Way Sweepstakes. Among lots of other things, winners will receive a cashmere throw, Tory Burch flats, a $400 gift certificate to Nike, an iPad. Mary set up her first-ever email account to enter.

Oprah's harmless enough, but after the form's filled out, Mary wants to look after the Publisher's Clearing House offer she got in the mail.

"As my partner says, 'I'll buy you a cup of coffee and that's a dollar more than you're gonna get from this,' " says Ms. Guggenheim.

Mary nods and puts the envelope away.

After fair warning, Ms. Guggenheim will sometimes help with the "pernicious" promises of cartoon-sized checks and the pay day loans she knows just cause more debt.

Hey, they're adults. It's complicated.

"I once helped a woman look up to see if her husband had bought a house with another woman," said Ms. Guggenheim.

Had he?

"Not in this state."

Planning a future

David's dream is to live the picket-fence life in the suburbs, where you can pass guys in hoods and not have to cross the street. He'd like two or three bedrooms.

He's 19 and wants "just to relax."

Sometime this year David will have a framed certificate from a second class he's taking on computer repair. If all goes according to his plan, he'll have two certifications in 10 years and maybe a college degree.

He has two clients already that Ms. Guggenheim referred him to -- and countless cousins and neighbors who know he can fix their problems.

One time, he spent four hours removing Trojan viruses from a friend's computer and was paid with a thank you. Once he's certified, that time will be money but he still won't be satisfied.

"It's always, 'What's next? or 'That's not enough,' " he said. "There's someone at Comcast who knows more. I always feel behind."

"It's motivation."

And his girlfriend loved the laptop, by the way.


Erich Schwartzel: 412-263-1455 or eschwartzel@post-gazette.com . First Published May 23, 2011 4:00 AM


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