Rob Bentley, a Dover IT guy who overcame a rough childhood, was frustrated. The 2016 presidential election was fresh, and the only time communities like the one he came from were on TV, it showed distress and tragedy.
“No one was showing the message of unity in the national spotlight,” he said.
Bentley, who is white, grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood, where he became aware of his own privilege. “I could walk away from it,” he said of the racial injustice he’d seen all of his life. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the constant stream of nothing but negativity about urban communities was doing harm, and ultimately keeping people down. He became so consumed it gave him nightmares.
Then one day he woke up with a fully formed vision of the project he founded: Cyber Streets.
“Everything in my life culminated into this,” said Bentley, who runs the program with his VP, Jason Stewart, who joined him the project three months ago.
Cyber Streets, at its core, is a mentoring and technology program aimed at closing the digital divide that handicaps kids from low-income urban communities.
“Technology is one of the only things I’ve experienced that is not discriminatory in any way, shape or form,” Bentley said. “The high-demand world of tech is waiting for us all. Unfortunately schools don’t have the capacity to feed the increasing personnel deficit in the IT/cyber workforce. People, businesses and communities like us have to step up and help out by thinking outside the box and pulling communities together for the technical health of our country.”
While tech may not be discriminatory, the world still is, and that’s what Bentley is fighting.
Take the issue of the lack of girls in tech, something he says he doesn’t see with his program. “If we have a deficiency in girls in tech, from our experiences it’s because we’re not focusing and looking in all the right places,” he said. “Perhaps we should be focusing on our inner cities, and not just the ones with already groomed high aptitude in privileged educational support structures. That is how you turn ‘Girls in Tech’ from a popular buzz phrase to an actual sustainable, actionable, impactful, uplifting movement and/or initiative.”
The program serves youth almost entirely via community centers — and Bentley is not interested in state grants or partnering with school districts.
“All of that contributes to the digital divide,” he said.
While the program serves Dover, with plans to expand to Wilmington and Baltimore, Bentley’s ultimate goal is to create a portable STEAM kit, including things like a 3D printer, for every community center in the country.
For now, Bentley, who continues to work his full-time IT job, supports Cyber Streets entirely out of his own pocket. He thrives on partnerships organizations like The Green Beret Project and donated equipment, which volunteers and students rebuild, from partners like SecureNetMD.
“Attention deficit is high with some of our kids,” he says. “I’ve found we need more hands-on. I’ll pull apart a computer and start talking about the pieces, and they’re interested.”
“I printed it immediately,” Bentley said. “I would bring in this beautiful purple violin in and take it apart. Kids would be coming in and out of the center. They’d see these pieces and they’d be like, ‘That’s a violin?!’ Now they’re interested.”
He talks about having the kids take the pieces and figure out how to put them together, and how, once it’s together, they have to figure out how to keep it from coming apart.
“There’s this one little piece that hardly anyone notices,” he said. “Without it, the violin won’t stay together. It’s like that one quiet kid who isn’t quite part of the group. I tell them to imagine this is a team or company — everyone learns to work together, every person at a company is unique. That one person who is left out might have the piece to hold it all together.-30-
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