by Michael Fitzgerald

Grassroots Technology – Crossing the Digital Divide, One Person at a Time

Jun 15, 20044 mins
IT Leadership

SAN PABLO, Calif. ? In this rough town north of Oakland, Randal Strickland is using technology to make a difference in people’s lives after seeing it transform his own. The vehicle is Street Tech, one in a network of Community Technology Centers (CTCs) around the nation that work at the grass roots to build citizens’ technical skills and computer literacy.

Strickland, a heavily muscled man who spent a decade behind bars, is one of the stars of the San Pablo center. He’s an ex-con who came through its technology training programs, worked for large corporations Chevron and Levi Strauss, and is now Street Tech’s full-time technical programs coordinator.

There are thousands of CTCs in the United States, all nonprofits, all designed to help bridge the digital divide by teaching low-income people technology skills. “We’re trying to get the hardest-to-serve, most difficult populations,” says Paul Lamb, Street Tech’s founder and executive director.

To that end, Street Tech runs a basic three-month class designed to demystify PCs for people who may have never turned one on (part of the class involves refurbishing PCs). But it also offers classes to help people get a CompTIA A+ certification, as well as Microsoft Certified Professional courses; and it teaches professional skills workshops, since few of its students have ever held white-collar jobs. It has graduated between 60 and 100 students a year since its founding in 2000. Even in the pallid Bay Area economy, 60 percent of those seeking jobs found them, and 30 percent have returned for additional training.

Street Tech is one of the larger CTCs, with four full-time employees and 10 part-time (including Lamb). It’s also one of the most creative. In January, it opened ReliaTech, a storefront service center for PC repairs. It shares space with a San Pablo Public Library branch, a center to help people assess skills and find jobs, a child-care center and a couple of small retailers.

While Lamb jokes that ReliaTech’s ambition is to bury retail chains like CompUSA, its real goals are to provide work experience for Street Tech course graduates and generate a profit that will help reduce Street Tech’s need for grants. (The center’s $500,000 budget comes mostly from foundations.) ReliaTech employs eight people, including CEO Jessy Gonzalez, a former technology consultant who was Street Tech’s first technical training director. One of its technical leads is a former auto mechanic named Patrick Cheung, who now works for the Bay Area School Districts. Cheung has developed a passion for technology through taking Street Tech courses and, in less than two years, has become a Microsoft-certified service administrator.

Lamb and Gonzalez were scheduled to talk about ReliaTech at the annual conference of the CTC Network in Seattle, happening June 11-13. The program’s potential might spark new ways of doing things for CTCs in other parts of the country. “I’m very excited to watch Paul. When he is successful, we’ll be able to model that for other CTCs,” says Kavita Singh, executive director of the Community Technology Centers’ Network, an umbrella group in Washington.

There are successes to share. Strickland recalls being told that no one in the high-tech world would hire a former felon, and that he should pursue construction work. After he got a minimum-wage job in a small store repairing PCs, he thought the best he could hope for was getting a similar job at a chain retailer like Best Buy. Coming to Street Tech, he says, elevated his hopes and “rekindled that desire” for his work to be meaningful.

“We have this great impact,” he says. “We’re putting people to work and bringing technology to the streets, and creating a social impact.”