| Community advocates gathered for the grand opening of Urban NET on Oct. 28.|
Naeemah Saeed once relied on her granddaughter to help her navigate the sea of healthcare, tax and other forms that are part of modern life. But thanks to a partnership between Columbia University's Community Impact (CI) and West Harlem Group Assistance Inc. (WHGA), she can now perform those tasks herself. Saeed is one of many West Harlem residents who have completed computer literacy courses offered at the Urban NET Community Technology Center.
Located at 500 W. 134 St., on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue, the Urban NET (Urban Neighborhood Empowerment through Technology) computer lab is a collaborative effort of CI and WHGA and provides low-income residents of West Harlem with greater access to technology in hopes of closing the digital divide. The facility -- designed by students from the Gateway program at Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science -- offers General Education Development (GED), English as a Second Language (ESL) and computer training classes. Job and college services also are available, and the center is home to America Reads, a literacy and mentoring program for youth. All classes are free and open to the public.
At the grand opening ceremony on Oct. 28, Donald Notice, executive director of WHGA, and Sonia Reese, executive director of CI, were joined by teachers and graduates of the program, neighborhood residents and others in hailing the power of the joint effort, one of many that has grown out of the two community groups' 10-year relationship. "This program is a vital, essential link to equip our residents with access to better jobs, better lives," said Saeed.
The link between computer literacy and greater employment opportunity is crucial for people trying to climb out of poverty, particularly given the changing economy. Lionel McIntyre, adjunct assistant professor of urban planning and director of the urban planning program at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, pointed out during the ceremony that "today's economy is knowledge-based." Information is the commodity that drives it. And being able to manage and manipulate information is a powerful tool that can help eliminate income disparity. McIntyre hopes that alliances like the one between CI and WHGA will replicate the Urban NET project and repeat its success in other neighborhoods.
Magdalena Rodriguez, a teacher in the program, is struck by the lengths to which her students go to attend class: "Students come all the way from Brooklyn and Queens," she said, because these types of programs aren't available in their neighborhoods. And Rodriguez has learned as much from her students as she has taught them. "Many of my students live in homeless shelters, and I have learned something valuable [about education]. The students who come here depend 100 percent on CI to provide them the opportunity to learn," she said. "It's their only way out of poverty."
Before Urban NET opened, classes were taught in a cramped space with little room to spread out books or papers. And there were never enough computers. Urban NET boasts 15 new computers and flat-screen monitors, made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Community Technology Centers Program and numerous other donors. Community Impact applied for the grant and helped WHGA procure the equipment.
The sense of ownership in the program is palpable. Former student Saeed said encouragingly, "I have a list of classes I think should be offered the next go ' round." Writing courses topped her list, ranging from fiction and prose to business plans. If she gets her way, Urban NET may have to consider offering tax preparation classes for entrepreneurs.