News: Youth-Led Tech on Backchannel

Here’s a story on the Smart Chicago Youth-Led Tech program published today by Susan Crawford on Backchannel: Crossing the Digital Divide on Chicago’s Toughest Streets. Snips:

Dan O’Neil, the spiky-haired, fearless leader of Smart Chicago, told me last week he was often on the phone with parents and probation officers, asking “Can we have this kid?” Juvenile court probation officers referred their charges to Youth-Led Tech. And once the youth started to participate, most of them were hooked: more than 90% of the 140 attendees finished the six-week program.

At the same time, Smart Chicago found church basements and community technology centers in the target neighborhoods that had WiFi and could be used as convening places — and here it’s important to point out that Connect Chicago, another program of Smart Chicago, has made sure that there are more than 250 places in Chicago (libraries, community centers, public housing, etc.) where people can use computers for free. It also pays 1,200 city residents to provide part-time help with digital access and skills in those places. “Everything we do, we try to do with real people in real neighborhoods,” O’Neil says.

Smart Chicago found instructors for Youth-Led Tech by way of Facebook and Twitter and email — the instructors were people from these neighborhoods, and from diverse backgrounds, who didn’t necessarily have engineering training. Dan O’Neil says, “We hired a set of wonder-people.” Here are their pictures. Talk about inclusion: the instructors are truly representative of Chicago. “We’re changing all these people’s lives,” O’Neil says. “These people are in the tech industry now.”

For an executive director, Dan O’Neil is remarkably focused on menus. The program fed these 140 kids two meals a day during the six weeks of the program, at five sites. This was no easy task — Smart Chicago wanted to use local food sources and learned a lot along the way about the real problems of food deserts in Chicago: “The giants and slick newcomers in the industry like Peapod or Instacart aren’t accessible to these neighborhoods in need. Those [neighborhood] organizations that are trying to fill those gaps. . . don’t have a polished organizational structure,” says Smart Chicago.

*

There were also social-emotional learning elements of the program — peace circles, restorative justice — and talks about power in the city of Chicago. And here’s where Dan O’Neil’s attention to food fits in: O’Neil says the number one message he wanted to get across to the youth in the program was, “”We love you and we’re never going to let you go.’” He’s emphatic. “That’s what matters more than anything,” he says. “You can learn WordPress, that’s fine, but we’re never going to let you go.”

*

The first pilot summer went well. “Now we’re expanding the program, thanks to Get IN Chicago,” O’Neil says. Smart Chicago is going to scale up Youth-Led Tech and add drop-in centers during the week during the school year. O’Neil is staying in touch with his graduates, all 140 of them. Smart Chicago is never going to let them go. “We are building our tribe, and it’s legit,” O’Neil says.