As a teenager, Lance Lucas ran his own counterfeiting operation, making duplicate tickets to movies, parties and special events. His tickets looked identical to the originals, which meant Lucas didn’t need to mark them up to make a profit. He recruited classmates to push his product for him—in seven different high schools across three school systems.
At 17, he was a consummate salesman: suave, attentive and eloquent. Even more, he was damn clever. But one day, Lucas was peddling a story, not tickets.
As a senior at Woodlawn High School, he was in the cafeteria when he was called to the principal’s office. He ditched his pager first, passing it to a classmate at the table behind him. He threw away the fake tickets he still had on him. To a friend, he handed the wad of $1,500 in his pocket. Lucas then walked into the principal’s office and told his principal and the policeman that, yes, he did sell some of those duplicate tickets to Woodlawn’s Pow Wow to friends, but, no, he didn’t know who the ringleader of the operation was.
For a high school student, $1,500 before noon is a handsome take, had he gotten away with it. Instead, that was the day Lucas was expelled two months before graduation. “You’re a very smart young man,” the policeman tells him. “You just use it in a totally wrong way.”
Today, people know Lance Lucas as the gregarious, fast-talking, pencil-mustached founder of Digit All Systems, a nonprofit group on East Lexington Street that offers computer certification courses, Microsoft certification, programming courses—even a class in Lego Mindstorm robotics. In an economy where the unemployment rate for computer hardware engineers and network architects was a combined 2.7 percent in 2011, compared to the battered countrywide unemployment rate of 7.9 percent today, Digit All Systems is providing a pathway out of poverty for unemployed Baltimoreans, one A+ computer programming certification course at a time.
“We treat the symptoms of poverty, but we do not treat the actual flu,” said Lucas, 37, whose outfits—on a recent morning it’s black wingtips, dark trousers, a striped sweater and a Phillies flat brim cap—can be as eclectic as the sequence of his thoughts in conversation.
“The only inoculant for poverty is education,” said Lucas, forcefully. It’s a line he repeats often to as many people who’ll listen.
Lance Lucas talks about “fighting poverty” through STEM education:
Since its founding 14 years ago, Digit All has provided computer training and certification to nearly 2,400 people, about 180 certifications each year. For a company with just seven full-time employees and 10 contract teachers, Lucas boasts, his certification classes get results.
- An 85 percent certification rate in A+ classes—the starter course for anyone interested in a career in information technology—which takes two months of 15-hour weeks to complete
- A 90 percent certification rate with Microsoft programs
- On average, 80 percent of the people Digit All certifies find a job, and half of that number are hired in IT or computing, Lucas says.
“His certification numbers really seemed too good to be true,” said Daniel Atzmon, a policy analyst with the city Mayor’s Office of Information Technology who helps Lucas out as a volunteer from time to time. “Once I started meeting the teachers he works with, I became a believer.”
Still, Lucas knows that 80 percent employed leaves another 20 percent looking for work, but he insists it’s better than nothing. And in many of the neighborhoods that Digit All focuses its work, that’s what the job prospects are like without its certifications: nothing. For Lucas, low-cost computer certification courses are the way to create jobs in Baltimore city’s overlooked neighborhoods, places like Edmonson Village on the West Side, where the unemployment rate tops 16 percent. Lucas focuses on that 16 percent and works to make most of them job prospects.
It’s that 16 percent Lucas is after mainly because, at one time, Lucas was just as overlooked.
He grew up in the Liberty Heights neighborhood of northwest Baltimore, and his parents separated when he was eight, making paying bills more difficult for his mother, Brenda, a schoolteacher. He thought things would improve once she finished her master’s degree in special education.
“We begged mom to work in a county school to make more money,” Lucas recalled. “But she wouldn’t. ‘They need me here,’ she said—in the city schools.”
His father, whom he visited often, lived a different life in Baltimore County, throwing parties, keeping girlfriends and eventually falling into recreational drug use.
“I was emotionally disturbed, [my father] living it up and us suffering,” said Lucas. “It caused me to act out.”
Act out Lucas did, running with a crew on Park Heights Avenue near Pimlico Race Course—a notorious drug area in the late 1980s—when he was just 14, a rage growing inside him for the life he felt cheated out of. Although Lucas says he never sold hard drugs himself, he did lose interest in school and focused instead on making money.
“I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just the one who slipped through the cracks,” he said.
Watch testimonials from students on what they’ve learned through programs Digit All sponsors:
Early in his senior year, Lucas was recruited into the U.S. Army, with plans to start basic training upon graduating. His counterfeit-ticket operation slowed that down. After he was expelled from Woodlawn High, it took his Army recruiter crying in front of a judge to keep him out of juvenile detention, he said. Lucas’ mother then had to drive him to night classes in Catonsville and Dundalk just so he graduated on time.
From there, life moved quickly: in the Army, Lucas was trained as a medical lab technician at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and eventually worked at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, his mother moved from his childhood home in Liberty Heights to his great aunt’s home in Randallstown in Baltimore County. When Lucas, now 18, came back to the city in early 1993, he moved in with his father—who had just finished a stint in rehab—and was broke within six months, his savings from the military used up.
Salvation, so to speak, for Lucas came abruptly, and in the last place he expected.
After getting a job in fast food, Lucas moved in with his Aunt Francine on his father’s side and entered Coppin State University in 1994. He was working two other jobs and taking classes full-time, but flipping burgers at McDonald’s was getting old. Aunt Francine, who had worked for IBM, owned a color Macintosh with speakers, which Lucas discreetly carted to class with him often as a way to show off. Lucas’ entrepreneurial endeavors took a decidedly different tack after setting eyes on that Macintosh.
In 1998, still in school, Lucas had moved into his own apartment, quit his other jobs and began working for Staples, selling eMachines to make ends meet. On the side, Lucas recruited his classmates for a new money-making venture: computer instruction. They taught classes in computer certification out of Coppin State’s computer lab, and Lucas soon advertised his services to customers at Staples. Digit All Systems was born.
Since then, computer instruction is all Lance Lucas has done. Students, former prisoners and drug users and homeless Baltimoreans have been certified through Digit All Systems. This, ultimately, is the point of Lucas’ work: to take technology education to neglected people in the hope that some can work themselves out of poverty.
Not all who are Digit All-certified find work. Some with certifications end up working, like Lucas did for a time, at fast-food joints. But the soft skills his students learn—like coming to class on time, following directions and realizing cooking fries is a first job, not the job—keep them employed. Chipping away at unemployment, slowly, is continuing work that excites Lucas.
Over coffee one morning, Lucas tells Technically Baltimore about one man, Willy. Formerly incarcerated, once on drugs, Lucas convinced Willy to start taking A+ classes, and then “dogged him,” as Lucas said, to make sure he kept showing up. For a month now, Willy has been clean.
“I kept looking at this dude, I just kept looking at him and saying, ‘My father, my father, my father,’ ” said Lucas. “[Digit All Systems] is helping me, and it’s helping people like my dad too.”