Intelligent Machines

Computers and Hope in an Urban Ark

Revealing how computers can provide hope amid poverty, children in one urban community are posting their drawings, poems, and other creations on the Net.

The widespread exhilaration about the Internet, cyberspace, and the global economy must seem puzzling to those who live in rapidly decaying neighborhoods of America’s inner cities. As measured by levels of illiteracy, unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and violence, today’s high-tech miracles have brought few benefits to those mired in urban poverty. If the power of digital technology is as marvelous as its advocates proclaim it to be, then why has it done so little for those in most desperate need?

In scattered but highly promising efforts around the country, people of good will are beginning to address this problem, forging links between low-income communities and the realm of networked computing. I recently visited one such site: the Ark, an arts and literacy center in a decaying section of Troy, N.Y. Located in the ground floor of a decrepit nine-story public housing block, sustained by donated time and materials, the Ark offers some 150 boys and girls from poverty-level homes after-school programs in reading, music, painting, pottery, and homework help.

Two years ago a group of professors and students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute-artist Branda Miller, architect Frances Bronet, and grad student Ann Sundberg-organized a class on Social Spaces and Electronic Installation, using grant money to connect the Ark to the World Wide Web. They set up computers and modems and taught the boys and girls the HTML programming language that is used to create interactive pages on the Web. With these tools in hand, the kids put together a Web site filled with their photos, drawings, poems, biographies, and editorial comments.

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The experiment flourished from the start, involving dozens of kids in projects both lively and fruitful. As part of the plan, the RPI team created a regional network called WYRED (for Wired Youth in Rensselaer County Every Day) connecting the mainly African-American and Latino children of the Ark to students at two mainly white suburban schools. At special workshops, the children of the Ark taught their suburban colleagues how to write their own Web pages. Another event entailed planning a dinner for homeless people in Troy, and placing the children’s recipes on the Net along with photos of the feast. More recently some of the Ark’s older boys and girls have started Sparks, an electronic ‘zine with a hard-hitting first issue on money-an interesting topic for kids who have so little of the stuff to spend. To find these musings, tune your Web browser to www.rpi.edu/dept/iear/wyred/spzine.html.

The projects at the arts center in Troy have succeeded not because they flaunt the big magic of the computer but because they embody a strong, well-tested vision. The Ark was organized two decades ago by its two devoted codirectors, Mary Theresa Streck and Jay Murnane, both former teachers, who decided to take action in response to what they describe as a “terrible storm” raging through the city. To this day, they liken their work to that of building an ark, much like Noah’s, to help children “get through the storm to a better place.” In that light they view computers in roughly the same category as the kilns, wheels, books, art materials, and countless hours of volunteer time people have donated over the years. All are pieces of a vessel at sail on perilous seas, one that tries to buoy youngsters who have so much stacked against them with a sense that they are competent, creative, and important.

Evidence that the computerized Ark sometimes reaches its Mt. Ararat is displayed in the autobiographical blank verse that the children have written and posted on the Web site. These poems express the kinds of hopes and dreams all kids have, but reading them one cannot help but notice signs of a dreadful predicament. Several children casually mention the menacing threat of violence nearby. Here, for example, is the poem of Ivan Garcia, age 10:

Ivan: Lover of sports, mom,
two brothers, sister
Who feels Great, Happy, Good
Who needs patience, attention, TV
Who fears getting killed, bad grades, failing
Who gives clothes, money, love
Who would like to meet Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

What matters is not so much that we can read Ivan’s poem on a primitive Web page. What matters is the process by which the poem was produced. It exemplifies the practice that Paulo Freire, in his classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, called overcoming “the culture of silence.” For here is a boy from a minority community, in a bombed-out neighborhood in America’s Rust Belt, defying all odds to proclaim: “I am here! Listen world, I have something to say.” Surely, nothing on the Web is more significant or informative than this.

Even if only a tiny fraction of the world will ever read Ivan’s poem, or those of his peers, the mere act of displaying such works on the Web confers a kind of recognition and implies respect from the world beyond Troy that these children rarely receive. What the Ark and children like Ivan are doing offers a model well worth replicating.

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