Bridging the digital divide

Evy Mages/For Capital Business - Danielle Richardson, on left, and Marquetta Washington build a model robot during a workshop at Bread for the City.

When two restaurants in Northwest Washington got together to provide a free wireless network to the community, they discovered a major stumbling block: Many of the residents didn’t know the basics of using the Internet.

This prompted members of a coalition of businesses and nonprofits — called Broadband Bridge — to teach residents the fundamentals of technology.

(Evy Mages/For Capital Business) - Sudi West, on right, offers guidance to Xiao Lian and her son Zhang Lian during Digital Week.

(Evy Mages/For Capital Business) - IT Computer Wiz Kids President Gerard Cooper, President talks with Joey Smith and others during a Bread for the City technology workshop.

At a recent event, nearly 200 residents crowded the first floor of Bread for the City’s Northwest location to attend workshops on robotics and phone applications. They received instruction on operations most computer-literate people take for granted — conducting a Google search and creating an e-mail address and Facebook page.

“It was a culmination and a reset of getting people in the room to bridge the digital divide,” said Greg Bloom, spokesman for Bread for the City, a human services nonprofit. “But it all started with Big Bear Café and Rustik Tavern’s early commitment through their seed money.”

The two restaurant owners are both residents of Bloomingdale.

Five years ago when a friend showed Stuart Davenport, owner of Big Bear Café, an article about free neighborhood wireless networks in San Francisco and Philadelphia, he initially felt it would be the right project to deepen relationships among residents in his own neighborhood.

“For me, it was more important to get people excited and come together,” said Davenport.

During the years of the coalition’s fight to get government funding for the fiberoptics and equipment, Davenport tried to position the café as a community outreach hub. It was the collection site of clothing and food drives, AmeriCorps volunteer meet-ups and donation point for residents whose houses burned down.

Last year, Davenport and other members of Broadband Bridge looked around for contributions to support the project. They turned to Diton Pashaj, who was just opening Rustik Tavern.

“When I thought about what the neighborhood did for me, they responded so well to my business … If I’m giving back, I feel like it’s not enough,” said Pashaj.

The $700 his restaurant donated purchased 14 routers for the Internet connection for the neighborhood.

The coalition still is looking to get the lines running problem-free.

In the meantime, organizations such as Bread for the City are preparing their clients, typically low-income residents in need of free health care and legal services, with computer skills to use the Internet as it becomes available to them.

“For our clients, Facebook can change lives,” said Bloom. “In a real way, poverty is a result of a person’s social network having been diminished and not being able to access resources.”

 
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