Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY
- = Sustainable Economy Initiatives = -

Computer Ownership for Neighbors

Stockyard, Cleveland

Computer Ownership for Neighbors is a project developed by the Stockyard Area Development Association in Cleveland, Ohio, to bring personal computer ownership to some 1,000 households in an impoverished blue collar neighborhood whose economic culture is stuck in the technologies of the 1950s.

Origins and Development

The Stockyard Area Development Association (SADA) is a neighborhood development organization in a small area of the West Side of Cleveland, Ohio, a basically blue-collar Appalachian and Puerto Rican area (population 8,000) that's going through rapid impoverishment. The Development Association was formed in 1981, and has done a variety of physical development and community improvement work, including low income housing developments, commercial facade renovations, code enforcements, free paint, crime patrols, and occasional issue organizing. Eight years ago SADA helped start a multi-neighborhood industrial retention organization (WIRENET) which runs a local hiring program with West Side manufacturers, funded by a multi-year Pew Trust grant. SADA and WIRENET are partners in an effort to turn 14 acres of vacant land in the neighborhood into a small industrial park. SADA has also turned an old school building into office and classroom space which has attracted Head Start, day care and high school equivalency courses to the community for the first time.

At the beginning of 1995, SADA's leadership decided to take a new strategic direction, based on evidence that these efforts, worthwhile as they were, were having little impact on the neighborhood's underlying markets or the long-term decline in household incomes. Among other things, they learned that more than half of all the births in the area from 1988-93 were to unmarried mothers, double the rate in the early '80s. The increase was not among teenagers, but among adults. This served as a critical indicator that the solid core of blue-collar households - the rock on which SADA had maintained a 50% owner/occupancy rate, a viable local retail base and a few strong churches - was crumbling. SADA believed it to be a generational phenomenon, in that most of the new single-parent welfare-dependent households were the offspring of local working families, warning of long-term downward mobility among the neighborhood's core blue-collar, home-owning families.

In this situation, rehabbing a few more houses or renovating a few more facades seemed like re-arranging deck chairs. A historic change is happening to the neighborhood, which seems to be accelerating. If allowed to continue over the next couple of decades, it will wipe out all of SADA's current community investments just as surely as the '70s and '80s wiped out federal urban renewal projects. SADA's leadership realized that they were a microcosm of a much larger phenomenon, but they knew that if the neighborhood was to survive, they had to figure out a way to change the playing field to their advantage - to create conditions under which a significant number of up-and-coming families could not only survive, but thrive. It was in this context that they decided to launch the computer ownership project.

Aims and Objectives

The goal of Computer Ownership for Neighbors is not just to create access or training, but to get personal computer systems and skills into the neighborhood's homes at the same penetration rate as exists in the U.S. at large (35-40%). Various short-term opportunities are expected to arise from this effort, but the most important effect which the Board anticipates is the improvement of the broad technical and cultural foundation on which the adults and teens of the neighborhood pursue their personal economic agendas. The biggest single obstacle to getting computers into local homes is not lack of interest or understanding, but simply the price. Computer ownership is a small piece in a much larger income/opportunity problem. Development organizations, government grants and even community development workers come and go, affecting handfuls of lives over a few years, but an adaptation which takes root in the daily life and culture of a community, whether through formal institutions or through informal groups and relationships, will stand a chance of making a real difference in the community's ability to function in the long economic term. For example, the culture of cars brought a whole generation of Appalachians to the Stockyard neighborhood, kept them employed in factory work for forty years, and still supports many of their children in garages, tow trucks and junkyards. This culture is still strong in the Stockyard community and many other inner city areas, but it is stuck in the technology of 1930s to 1950s, with machine tools, autos/trucks, industrial metalworking and logistics, and no longer serves the new generation. It does not include skills regarding new technology, education, finance or entrepreneurism. In undertaking the Computer Ownership project, SADA hopes to improve its understanding of the way in which deliberate, planned interventions can modernize a neighborhood's economic culture, and restore the long-term capacity of neighbors to teach and learn the skills, direction and mutual support they need to survive and prosper.

Activities

Computer Ownership for Neighbors was approved by the Stockyard Association Board of Directors in February 1995. The Project Planning Committee met in May 1995, and met regularly through July to develop the initial 'Almost Free' program, which focussed on providing donated, recycled computers and basic computer training to low income households in the community. The first class of eleven families finished eight hours of training and took their computers home in August 1995. Since then, six more classes have raised the total 'graduates' to 102. Most of the computer owners receive their on-line experience through a free trial membership in the Greater Cleveland PC Users Group, which provides electronic mail service to members through its Bulletin Board. They are also been able to surf the Net using Cleveland Public Library's free on-line service, which provides text-only World Wide Web access compatible with 2,400 baud modems. In addition to the Almost Free program, SADA opened the SADA Computer Buyers Club. This is a consumer coop for working families who can afford to buy a more modern (but still used) computer. 66 purchasers, including Stockyards residents and employees of local companies, have put up $350-$425 each for a group purchase of used 486 and 386 systems with enough memory to run the newer Windows applications and high-speed modems for Internet use, and SADA has 25 requests for a second round.

Structure

SADA is a locally-based, non-profit, membership-driven community development corporation, with 30 business members and 100 active resident members. Decisions are governed by the elected Board of Directors. SADA does not receive any government funding.

Finance

SADA has established an effective solicitation process for donations of used computer hardware and software, with delivery or commitment of over 300 computers, 130 monitors, 100 printers and a great deal of software. The biggest donors have been National City Bank, BP America, Sherwin Williams, Lotus Development and Bank One, with smaller contributions from other firms, including a number of West Side companies. Despite this success, and growing interest in Computer Ownership for Neighbors around Cleveland, fundraising to support the program's costs is still in low gear. SADA has received small grants from the Morino Institute, the Gund Foundation and the Campaign for Human Development, as well as gifts from individual donors. The program expenses (parts and peripherals for donated equipment) are mostly covered by the $50 fees paid by participants, totaling $3,000. SADA is still operating Computer Ownership for Neighbors on a wing and a prayer.

Problems

The project has been one of the easiest that SADA has ever done, although they have yet to find other communities doing anything similar. There is a big market for computers and computer skills among low income working people who understand that they are getting left behind, and also among those who are unemployed and on welfare. The problem is getting the resources into their hands, and transferring the skills. There is some resistance from community development professionals who believe that it is access which matters, not ownership. The Stockyard experience is that once people have ownership, they can immerse themselves in learning the skills. Access to working used VGA monitors is the most significant internal limit on the growth of the project.

Performance

Since 1995, seven 8-hour classes have been held with 102 families receiving recycled personal computer systems and training. A further 40 families are on the waiting list. The classes have been very effective due to the teaching time contributed by volunteers from the Greater Cleveland PC Users Group. Half of SADA's graduates are families living on welfare or disability payments, many of whom are enrolled in high school equivalency preparation classes. Most of the others are lower income working families. Already, one woman has been given extra on-line work, and her 12-year old son, after impressing his teachers by turning in word-processed homework, has been hired to load Windows '95 into his school's computers. Other users are able to include Word Perfect skills on their jobhunting resumes. SADA will have provided affordable computers, training and on-line access to more than 160 neighborhood residents and workers by the end of 1996.

Future

The 35% penetration goal (1,000 households) might be achieved by 1998. SADA is in the process of setting up a Community Bulletin Board, to allow neighbors to communicate with each other by email outside the Cleveland PC users group. Young volunteers from the City Year program are slated to start home visits with program "graduates" to find out how the users are doing, and what kind of further training they might need. SADA and several neighboring organizations have proposed a Community Computer Center in the area, funded through an Ohio telephone company rate-case settlement award, equipped with 20 computers, with open hours and staff to run formal and specialized trainings, which will make ongoing training easier.

For further information contact :

Bill Callahan,
Stockyard Area Development Association
3288 West 58th St.
Cleveland, OH 44102, USA

Tel : (216) 631-1270
Fax : (216) 631-4848

Email : bill_callahan@sbc1.com


Written by Guy Dauncey for The Planning Exchange, Glasgow, Scotland.

guydauncey@earthfuture.com