January 10, 2012; Source: GigaOm | In a recent GigaOm blog, broadband industry analyst Craig Settles profiles the Long Beach, Calif. YMCA Youth Institute as a model of broadband adoption programs that succeed in training youth from underserved communities in twenty-first-century technology careers. It’s the kind of program that embodies the ethos of the $500 million broadband adoption stimulus funding that was aimed at narrowing the urban digital divide.
The author identifies two challenges to programs like the Youth Institute, though there is also a third, subtler saboteur of technology-training programs that exists within the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.
First, many nonprofit technology adoption programs face hurdles in accessing high-speed broadband. The culprit? A form of technological redlining. Whereby lower-income communities pay higher rates for broadband than their more affluent neighbors—or lack high-speed Internet access altogether, because providers don’t deem it economical to build out broadband networks in some areas.
The second barrier is misunderstanding on the part of some policymakers and opponents of programs aimed at closing the digital divide. Blinded by stereotypes, these critics only see broadband in low-income neighborhoods as “my tax dollars supporting poor people wasting time.” Some may also think that job-training programs should focus only on low-skill jobs like cleaning bathrooms.
There is also a third roadblock for programs like the Youth Institute. It’s about who they are.
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This program wasn’t started by a Harvard MBA. It’s not housed at some hip warehouse studio in a tony urban neighborhood, and it didn’t get seed funding via a one-time innovation challenge.
When the Youth Institute trains 200 low-income high school students, 300 middle school kids, and 2000 elementary school students in a range of digital media skills, all of this happens at a YMCA—an organization that is more than 150 years old. Many of the current leaders of the Youth Institute came through the program themselves.
But this old dog has mastered a valuable new trick; the organization found they had so many clients interested in hiring young people to provide media production services that they built their own social enterprise, Change Agent Productions, which is currently generating $400,000 in annual revenues.
Not only should technology providers, policymakers, and critics of broadband adoption programs take a close look at this program and others like it, but many in our own sector should also take notice.—John Hoffman