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The Chicken Littles of the computer world are fond of predicting that the Internet will create a technologically divided society, a place of cyber-haves getting over on cyber-have-nots. Adam Dennis believes it’s time to quit worrying about who is going to get run over on the info-highway and start creating some entrance ramps. And Dennis, a District Internet consultant, is sticking his modem where his mouth is: For the past year, he has been busy finagling a top-of-the-line T-1 Internet connection that will effectively plug in high-schoolers at Ward 8 public-housing communities. In October, cybersites will debut in the Park Lands and Stanton Dwellings housing projects, and a downtown training center will open at 733 15th St. NW. The project’s premier class of about 30 cybernauts will hopefully graduate in the summer of 1996.
Dennis, 31, believes that wiring the disenfranchised is not just a cute notion, but a practical necessity. “We have to be realistic. The technology is moving rapidly, and it’s not going to wait,” Dennis says. He came to the District in 1987 after graduating from Lawrence University in Wisconsin and has been involved in a number of District-sponsored youth initiatives. He believes that the Internet and related technologies could provide kids with a ladder out of chronic poverty.
The Ward 8 Net Project is on a very fast track, with a goal of getting three sites online in the next few months. To get things moving quickly, Dennis recruited Peter Clare, executive director of the East of the River Community Development Corp., and 20 other volunteers, including leaders from the Anacostia/Congress Heights Partnership. Together they collected more than $60,000 in donated computers and assorted hardware from D.C. law and consulting firms. They also landed $40,000 in matching funds through the Local Initiative Support Collaborative. They have applied to the Department of Commerce for a $70,000 grant through the Telecommunications Information and Infrastructure Assistance Program.
But the high-capacity Internet hook-up, which Dennis hopes to score gratis from a major telephone carrier, won’t connect to genuine opportunity unless kids find a way to use it. Dennis says selected Ward 8 students will be enrolled in a triad of eight-week courses on the Internet taught by a professional trainer. Each of the project’s seven proposed cybersites in the ward will hopefully evolve into for-profit neighborhood copy centers, run by the program’s graduates and offering everything from fax services to desktop publishing. Despite the real and apparent need for these business services in Ward 8, “you’ll never find aKinko’s in the ‘hood,” Dennis says.
Greta Dawson works for the consulting firm of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns, & Associates, which donated thousands of dollars’ worth of computer equipment to the project. She thinks the idea has the potential to give technologically isolated kids a shot at participating in the huge economy centered around computer skills.
“It’s getting them off the streets and into something worthwhile, so that they can go anywhere,” Dawson says. She liked the idea enough to enlist as a volunteer.
Professional Internet trainers affiliated with the project will help to fund some of the work by offering training to adults interested in gaining online smarts. Kids from the program who demonstrate the most technical savvy will be hired at the downtown site and will eventually replace the Internet trainers. Beyond that, the possibilities mushroom as endlessly as the Internet itself. The entrepreneurs trained by the Ward 8 Net Project could do anything from starting an online mail-order businesses to launching a digital magazine.
If the project succeeds in the District, Dennis envisions urban clones cropping up nationwide. Already, the organizers are joining forces with the Urban League in Baltimore to set up an online sibling there. The affiliated program in Baltimore will create an instant network of cyberbuddies for the D.C. students. Dennis thinks giving kids access to the ‘net could change their worldview. “A lot of these kids have never been out of the District,” he says.
Dennis is no stranger to the challenges of getting things done in D.C., having toiled as Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s field director in her first campaign. He also volunteered with the Washington Area Project for Youth (WAPY), a nonprofit organization that was established in 1988 to furnish free education and social direction to disadvantaged youth. Eventually, Dennis stepped up to chair WAPY and quickly realized that the rewards from doing the “people’s work” were dwarfed by the booby prizes that always accompany politically based efforts at change. “Just electing an official doesn’t solve the problem. We all know that. In fact, if often makes it worse,” he says.
Dennis and other volunteers grew frustrated because the WAPY’s leading endeavor, the Youth at Risk Program, fizzled when it came time to provide real opportunities. “Once a kid started getting straightened out, he’d want to know how to get a job,” Dennis recalls, adding that participants’ prospects ranged from dim to none. He became convinced that educational assistance didn’t mean much in the absence of viable local employment.
In July 1994, Dennis resigned from Kelly’s administration to hatch his second career as an Internet and political consultant, forming ADK Associates with his colleague Peter Byrd. He immediately began exploring the powerful linkage between kids and computers. “If I can do this [master the Internet],” he says, “anybody can do it.”