Power to the People
You wouldn't exactly call Anita Brown's introduction to the Internet love at first sight."My oldest brother was working for the [U.S.] Defense Department when the Inernet was born," she remembers. "He used to tell me to come down to the Watergate building to see this 'paperless office.' 'Ha! Right!' I said.... But he knew me and he knew my skills, and he came here in 1994 and put an AOL disc in my computer. I said: 'Get this thing out of my computer. I don't want Big Brother in my life!' "That was five years ago, when Brown was 51. She's had quite a chance of heart since then. At 56, Brown, a Washington, D.C., native, is an Internet maven, a well-known Internet community organizer and a self-proclaimed "E-mail queen." With the help of some friends, she has created an Internet community linked by her Web page called Black Geeks Online (www.blackgeeks.net). The site, geared toward African-Americans, serves as a connecting point for the community that she says is most prone to suffer from technophobia. Each day, Brown (who goes by the online moniker "Miss D.C.") sends literally thousands of inspirational and informative E-mail messages to African-Americans across the nation."My name is well-known," she laughs. "In other words, when [members] get E-mail, they know it's not from a corporation or somebody trying to sell them something. It's Miss D.C.... I think when people, not just black folks but all people, are afraid of something, they put up a barrier. People are just not anxious to take on this newfangled stuff. And for our young people, 15 to 25, it's not a priority, for the most part, in their lives. I don't care if there are computers in their schools. When they leave for home, they want the baggy pants, the hiphop, the nice car. These are the things that are being pushed on them by their role models. They are not riding around with a computer on top of their four-wheel-drive truck.... Our teens need to know that African-Americans plan to work in the 21st century, they're going to need to have some computer skills."According to Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide, a report issued last year by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, although computers and technology have begun to penetrate low-income and disadvantaged communities, there is "a significant 'digital divide' based on race, income and other demographic characteristics."While national statistics indicate that between 75 and 85 percent of the nation's schools have the technology to access E-mail and the Internet, the NTIA's report found that only 7.7 percent of African-Americans and 8.7 percent of Hispanics have access to the Internet.There are people bridging the gap. Many nonprofit and private-sector efforts and partnerships have made it their business to get computers into learning centers, libraries and schools so that people from all walks of life can have access to them. Take Education 21: With the help of the Empire State Development Corp., the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a California-based nonprofit organization called Schools Online, the organization has set up computer learning centers in Troy, Schenectady and Albany. According to Education 21's Assistant Director Dr. Peter Stoll, high-tech computer facilities have been introduced to libraries, community centers and even housing projects, expanding access to members of disadvantaged communities.Which is a noble effort, Brown says. But she thinks that it's going to take more than building a few computer centers to get African-Americans (and other minority communities) mobilized and eager to embrace technology."Opportunities to link up indeed exist in major cities," she says. "But nobody thinks whether a kid has to take two buses to get there or if it's in a high-rise building on the third floor of a building where a kid doesn't feel comfortable or dressed well enough to go to. It's a hard sell to kids and adults in the 'hood, because it's touted to them as, 'Oh, you don't know how to do this?' or 'Well, you have to be a tech geek.' But [kids] need to understand that this is going to create new career paths.... So we need to set up in people-friendly places, with computers bookmarked to teen sites, kid sites, Oprah sites for older women. You must get the connection with people before you can point them to the library."William Jordan, founder of the site MelaNet (www.melanet.com), agrees."There's access, but I don't think in the way people generally use the Internet in a way that would enforce an intimate relationship with the Internet," he expounds. "I mean, you don't want to go to the library to send your E-mail. You need exposure that lets you relax and explore."As computer prices plummet, it is becoming easier for less affluent families to own their own machines -- but Jordan points out that marketing to communities of color just isn't the industry standard."If you look at how computers are marketed in general, you'll see that there's very little advertising to black communities or African-American focused publicity," he says. "In general, people buy computers based both on need and who they are marketed to. African-Americans are just not marketed to."Which, Jordan says, creates a "poor-pitiful type of story" about minority communities and computer use, which is automatically discouraging. He would prefer to see encouraging and successful stories about black computer scientists, Web site owners, engineers and online entrepreneurs. Contrary to popular opinion, he says, there are many successful African-Americans involved in computer-related careers -- and those are the examples the media, marketers and statisticians should be setting out for the world to see.Take Richard Louis. The son of Haitian-born parents who emigrated to New York City in 1980, he could not afford a computer when he was growing up. But after a little time working at a local Radio Shack and then at the University at Albany's multimedia center, Louis realized he had a knack for the high-tech. Today, he is a cofounder and president of AlbanyNet, one of the largest and most successful Internet service providers in the New York. Louis isn't even 30 yet.Brown and Jordan are trying to get people to look at individuals such as Louis instead of statistics. One of the goals of MelaNet, Jordan says, is to give young African-American entrepreneurs some exposure for their products -- the site also aims to present the "uncut black experience" online, with links to newsgroups, cultural sites and chat rooms. Both Jordan and Brown want to give the Internet a friendlier "new dimension" by overcoming the stereotype of the disadvantaged, technophobic African-American. Brown sends her daily E-mails, full of news, views and useful information, unfiltered by corporate interests, advertising or media slants, to more than 11,000 techno-savvy African-Americans coast-to-coast."I highlight black technologists," Brown states as an example. "These are some people who never see their name, let alone their face, in print. I point them out and say: 'You see this brother? He's got a degree from MIT. He's the chief of technology at NetNoir.' Usually it's nothing but sports figures that are pushed on our kids.... What we need is some wholesome entertainers that kids can look up to, so we can say: 'Queen Latifah is a [computer] geek. Sinbad is a geek. Wesley Snipes is a geek.' Kids can relate to them. They say, 'Oh really?' We've got to make it real for them and make it real to their lives.... People want to talk about leveling the playing field? We can't talk about leveling the playing field. We aren't even in the stadium."Erin Sullivan is a staff writer at Metroland newsweekly in Albany, N.Y., where this story first appeared.