(Photo by Brian Dzenis)
Elaine Skoczylas said she knows how to type. It’s just the other things that are tricky.
“I’ve never really learned Microsoft Office. I don’t have a computer at home, but I had one in my job that I was using, I really didn’t need to know that other stuff,” Skoczylas said. “I knew how to type on our own system, so I got let go and now I’m trying to apply for jobs and I haven’t applied for jobs in 39 years.”
She’s trying to find a job now and has realized that just knowing how to type isn’t going to be enough.
“That’s why I’m trying to learn this.” she added.
To try and rectify her situation, Skoczylas signed up for a free Microsoft Office training course at VICA Technologies LLC, which is located near 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue. She was able to take part in the class thanks to the Freedom Rings Partnership, a collaboration between 16 different community organizations, nonprofits, universities and city government officials charged with the mission of giving Philadelphians access to computer technology and the Internet while also training them in its use.
Below, watch a video on the partnership.
“The Freedom Rings project is actually the leveraging of two different federal grants as part of the federal stimulus funding package the City of Philadelphia competed for and won,” said Ashley Del Bianco, a program manager from the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology. “It’s two grants used for providing broadband technology opportunities to Philadelphia and they’re mostly focused on access and adoption.
The question is being posed: can we tackle poverty here through technology?
“Of the two grants, one is held by the City of Philadelphia, which is the lead partner and the other is held by Urban Affairs Coalition, which is a large nonprofit in the city,” Del Bianco said. “Between those two grants are a lot of key nonprofit partners and those nonprofit partners are really the strength of the partnership, which is the way we’re going to implement and enact this.”
Using the stimulus grants that total out at $11.8 million, Freedom Rings will open 77 public computing centers, provide 200,000 hours of training, distribute 5,000 computers to public housing residents, generate 5,000 broadband home subscribers and 50 small business subscribers. All the above implementations will be done through various local nonprofits and other entities. The centers are spread around Center City, North, South and West Philadelphia, and they vary from being housed at community centers to existing training centers like VICA to homeless facilities. Four of the centers rotate locations, opening at certain facilities certain days and moving elsewhere other times.
Comcast’s newly announced Internet Essential program is a supplement to the partnership, members say.
“The interesting thing that we’ve done with this and the city has done well is to build an external base of stakeholders or partners, so when we wrote the grant, it was written in conjunction with the Urban Affairs Colition on the adoption side of the grant, so we wrote the grant so that they would appear linked but were careful not to link them so closely that if one got funding and the other didn’t, it would be useless,” said Andrew Buss, the director of public programs from the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology.
The partnership has attracted other attention, like funding from IBM. The issue of access is core to the city’s broad Digital Philadelphia initiative, and the public-private partnership model was an accomplishment touted by former city Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank.
“There are some other cities that have a similar model that they’ve received public computing center stream of funding as well as the broadband stream, however I think this model is somewhat unique in its structure of utilizing the community base of nonprofit organizations as the means to make this work,” said Lindsey Keck, a program manager from the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology.
Since winning the grants in September 2010 and centers have started becoming operational, a common type of clientele has begun to emerge: the job seekers.
“I guess it’s fair to say that among the adults, a lot of them have been focused on workforce development, and they want to come in and develop their resumes and so on and so forth, but also just learning how to use the technology,” Del Bianco said. “In many cases, they didn’t have access to it earlier in their lives and in school, so they’re just interested in learning the basics.”
What has provided Freedom Rings a foundation to grow on is the strength of its partnerships, Del Bianco said. Because community members are already familiar with many of the participating nonprofit facilities that the computing centers occupy, they are more inclined to use the centers.
“People will go to these centers because they’re already a known and trusted place to them,” Del Bianco said.
“I think one of the challenges is having this initial client base with some of these organizations. After you run through those people, how do you build the population of the people that you’re serving through the grant?” Buss said. “It’s about reaching that next group of people.”