Getting connected: Program brings Internet to Chicago neighborhoods

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Dionne Baux, program officer forLocal Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago’s Smart Communities, works with an Englewood resident on her new computer. Adult students were presented with free netbooks upon graduation from a digital skills course. | Courtesy of Gordon Walek

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Over the past three years, five Chicago communities have made huge strides towards bridging the digital divide.

Coordinated by Local Initiatives Support Corporation and operated by grass roots organizations in Auburn-Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen, Smart Communities is a strategic and comprehensive program that provides both computer access and literacy to community residents.

Through public computer centers, digital literacy trainings, community web pages and the creation of business networks and youth job training, the program has allowed thousands of students, seniors, local businesses, job seekers and other residents to join the digital revolution by providing free technical resources.

Together, these programs are building a culture of digital excellence that supports neighborhood goals in the five communities. Through a partnership with the City of Chicago funded primarily by the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Smart Communities program is building a culture of digital excellence that supports neighborhood as well as individual goals.

Englewood resident, Deborah Payne, is one of more than 2,000 residents who have taken one of the free tech training classes, which cover practical topics such as how to create resumes using Word, manage bank accounts online, and connect with family in other countries. Some courses are built for a particular audience, from parents of teenagers to community leaders, and all are taught by local trainers using a curriculum created with the neighborhoods in mind.

“I feel just empowered and that I can serve the community better,” said Payne, a block club president in Englewood. “I’m excited by Smart Communities, and I’m encouraging all the block clubs in our neighborhood to go and get this computer training.”

Most of the classes are held in what Smart Communities call FamilyNet Centers, and are linked to other programs offered by the host organization that ensure greater access to financial management and job training opportunities for the neighborhood youth and adults. For young people, the Smart Communities have partnered with the Digital Youth Network, a program geared towards enhancing new media, digital arts and technology skills among young people.

As the engines of local economic growth, small businesses too are offered resources by Smart Communities. Business Resource Centers offer local businesses, technology assessments, trainings and, in some cases, free Internet access and have allowed hundreds of small businesses to email, use computers and create a web presence for the first time.

“Economic development is improved in every way by adding technology to the mix. Small local firms can become more profitable by saving on expenses and attracting new customers. Jobseekers can learn about opportunities online and increase their skills in using digital technology,” said Dionne Baux, the program director for Smart Communities at LISC. “Smart Communities has an intense interest in helping our neighborhoods and their residents become part of Chicago’s economic future.”