Rewriting Life

Bringing High Tech to Low-Income People

From Seattle to Newark, nonprofit community-based organizations are now teaming up with high-tech companies to reinvigorate inner-city economic life.

In Seattle, a nonprofit community-based organization (CBO) employs some of the city’s poorest and least-skilled people to manufacture critical components for Boeing using state-of-the-art technology. The country’s largest predominantly African-American CBO, based in the heart of Newark, N.J., trains health professionals for world-class companies such as pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. In Silicon Valley, a community job-training operation has won consecutive subcontracts with such electronics giants as Motorola and Hewlett-Packard.

These examples illustrate a promising trend in urban development. Community-based organizations provide the economic and political voice that low-income communities of color lack. They shore up, or substitute for, the family connections and influence with business and political actors that poverty and discrimination have so deeply eroded. In the absence of strong CBOs, the economic revitalization of inner cities that would benefit society as a whole is inconceivable.

Nonprofit training-program operators, small-business owners, and housing developers located in low-income areas have long confronted the day-to-day travails of doing business in neighborhoods that have suffered from years of physical, social, and political neglect. Now new forces are adding to the pressure even as they open up new opportunities. Especially challenging are the devolution of federal money and power to the states and the continuing trend toward privatization of hitherto publicly provided services.

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One response lies in forging or joining formal business networks with local technology companies. Subcontracts to supply parts or services to mainstream corporations bring immediate jobs and revenues into inner cities. Over the longer term, participation within the manufacturing “supplier chains” facilitates the technological learning that will help communities compete. And regular interaction with established firms can help give urban developers new private-sector allies-linkages that can pay off not only in job placements for the CBOs’ inner-city constituents but also in future political support and financing.

Consider Pioneer Human Services, a Seattle organization that has long provided transitional housing and social services to ex-convicts, parolees, and people with a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Pioneer now owns and operates a high-tech metalworking facility that employs several hundred people and performs contract work for Boeing. At Pioneer, I have seen young ex-offenders held to exacting standards as they operate computer-controlled machine tools to fabricate parts according to designs transmitted electronically from their world-class customer.

Pioneer must be doing something right. The manufacturing operation is bursting at the seams, and last year it became one of fewer than 100 organizations in the state to qualify for ISO-9002 status-certification by the International Standards Organization as a “highly technically qualified” supplier. Pioneer’s workers acquire skills in a first-rate production setting that offers the patience and support few conventional businesses can afford. A similar relationship links a prominent African-American development corporation in Detroit-called Focus: Hope-to the big carmakers.

The most successful workforce-development entity is the Center for Employment Training (CET)-a mainly Chicano organization headquartered in San Jose that maintains operations nationwide. CET has managed for more than two decades to train and successfully connect people with meager job prospects-including older displaced workers, single parents on welfare, unskilled farm workers, and immigrants-to leading Silicon Valley companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola. Smaller firms have hired CET’s trainees as well; such recruits are “carriers” of skills and technical know-how acquired over the years by CET through its relationships with larger companies.

For three years, CET has teamed up with Newark’s New Community-the country’s largest African-American nonprofit development corporation-to train people to work in health-care occupations. The joint project borrows instructors from organizations throughout northern New Jersey, including Pfizer and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. These instructors in turn reach out to colleagues in private hospitals and other firms to make job placements. All 35 of the program’s graduates have landed jobs, with starting salaries averaging $21,000.

Such success is especially helpful during the recent downturn in public funding for cities. But even if federal and state governments were to spend more money on urban revitalization, the business alliances that the CBOs are forging would still have great value. These arrangements are proving to be excellent ways to expand the technological capabilities of the grass-roots organizations that are most committed to working with the urban poor.

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