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.

Remarks at Youth-Led Tech Celebration Ceremony

Here’s a short video of part of the remarks I gave at the conclusion of Smart Chicago’s first season of Youth-Led Tech:

Here’s a complete text of the remarks as prepared:

Hello. My name is Daniel X. O’Neil and I’m the Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative. I, along with my colleagues here, came up with this program that we’re celebrating today.

As you know, this is a technology program run for six weeks in the summer. Here in Chicago, there are hundreds of summer programs. It’s a real thing here.

I like to think about rooms.

When I go into a room, whether it’s at City Hall or Association House of Chicago or Chicago Youth Centers ABC Polk Bros. or the the Governor’s Mansion or  Christ The King Jesuit College Preparatory School, or (NEBC), Dr. Elzie Young Community Center or  Teamwork Englewood or 1871 or wherever my job my life takes me, I like to think about what it took to make that room.

When I go into a room, whether it’s at City Hall or Association House of Chicago or Chicago Youth Centers ABC Polk Bros. or the the Governor’s Mansion or  Christ The King Jesuit College Preparatory School, or (NEBC), Dr. Elzie Young Community Center or Teamwork Englewood or 1871 or this one, or wherever my job or my life takes me, I like to think about the billions of little accidents that had to occur in order for this set of people to be here in that place at that time.

And this is a great room.

Think, for a moment, about how you got here. I know it’s an amazing story, full of wonder and joy and pain and learning and mistakes and mastery.

I know that’s how I got here. How we at Smart Chicago got here.

I did a lesson with each of the youth here, I went to each of the locations and did a lesson called, “Smart Chicago, You, Power, Poetry, and Pictures”. I talked to you all about these rooms, and about how each and everyone of you can go anywhere you want.

And you may remember, the most important thing I told you. The thing you need to know is that we love you, and we’re never going to let you go.

At first blush, that may seem an odd lesson for a tech program.

Maybe the first thing they need to know is the other things we taught them.

How to use WordPress. How the Internet works. How to use GIMP photo editing software. Introduction of game development.

Those are all important, and you all learned that.

But what you really need to know is that we love you, and we’re never going to let you go.

You have our business cards. we’re connected on social media. We have your contact info. All you guardians, we’re connected to you. How many people here have I spoke with personally over the phone? I want you all to call me. (773) 960-6045. This is my job. This is what I do for a living. This is our lives at Smart Chicago.

Because we love you, and we’re never going to let you go.

I need you all to sign up for the CUTGroup, the Civic User Testing Group, and we’ll be connected there. $5 VISA gift cards just for signing up. That’s how we’ll never let you go.

We have new programs all the time. I am on LinkedIn, i am on Twitter, I am on Facebook. We all know, don’t we, to the adults here, we know how random and wonderful and non-linear a career can be.

But if we love each other. That’s the path. That’s the route. That’s what I know. That’s what I can do.

So I am going to love you, and I’m never going to let you go.

Thank you for coming. Thank you for participating, and thank you for being a part of the very first Youth-Led Tech.

Radio: Summer tech program will introduce South and West Side kids to coding

Today I talked about the Smart Chicago Youth-Led Tech program at WBEZ. Here’s a description:

Now that the Memorial Day weekend is over, students around Chicago are counting down to the end of the school year. And for some, that means coding camp is right around the corner. All this week on Tech Shift, we’re looking at different options kids have to explore science, technology, engineering and math over the summer. We examine a new program from the civic tech group Smart Chicago called Youth-led Tech. Its goal is to introduce students on the South and West sides to coding, and to teach them how to translate their new-found programming skills into a job. Joining us to talk about that is Smart Chicago Executive Director Dan O’Neil, and Dr. Toni Irving, Executive Director of Get In Chicago, a violence prevention and reduction program.

And here’s the interview:

Here’s a download of the interview here, for posterity:

Here’s a pic of Navy Pier on a Spring day:


Gordon Tech Inspiration Celebration: 2014 Inspiring Minds Award

This evening I was honored at my alma mater. Here’s some details:

Gordon Tech College Prep will host the 2nd Annual Inspiration Celebration honoring minds that inspire. The gathering will showcase the school, its talented community and its unique partnership with DePaul University which started in October of 2012. The event usually draws 300 Chicago area business and civic leaders, philanthropists, educators, clergymen, prospective and current families.  The event will raise $250,000-$300,000 in support of student academic scholarships and programs. The 2014 honorees are: Priests and Brothers of the Congregation of the Resurrection (award received by Fr. Gary Hogan), the founders and sponsors of Gordon Tech College Prep and 3 gentlemen from the Class of 1985: Alderman Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, Daniel O’Neil, Executive Director, Smart Chicago and Barry Rodgers, Principal, Lake Forest High School and former principal of Northside College Prep.

I wrote a blog post in preparation for the evening. Here’s a snip:

I’ve written quite a bit about the focus of my Catholic energy here: Easter Morning for an Urban American Catholic in an Age of Misplaced Catholic Energy. This was written prior to the ascendency of Pope Francis. You can understand that I’m stoked about him and his social justice agenda. Some other links:

I am passionate about helping Gordon Tech move into their future as DePaul College Prep, Fr. Gordon Campus, so I am going to be tweeting/ posting/ going on about this event for the next couple of weeks. Thank you for your patience and buy your tickets now.

Here’s remarks by Mary Dempsey, Vice Chair of the Gordon Tech Board of Directors and President of the Philip H. Corboy Foundation upon presenting the award:

Daniel X. O’Neil After graduating from Gordon Tech, Dan O’Neil went on to receive a BA in English and Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago.  He has focused his work in Chicago on the integration of the Internet and technology with public policy, strategy, and communication for the benefit of nonprofits, schools, small and large businesses and government.  As a result, Dan has been at the forefront of initiatives that keep people informed and make their lives better.  He’s the creator of CTA Tweet and CTA Alerts which are used by thousands of Chicago commuters every day.  He’s also one of the cofounders of EveryBlock, which brings government data and information to the public in meaningful and accessible formats and represents one of the more innovative journalism initiatives of the last decade.  Currently, Dan is the first Executive Director of Smart Chicago, a civic organization devoted to improving lives through technology.  Smart Chicago focuses on creating and supporting open technologies that connect Chicagoans with data, opportunities and information that improve health, education, government and quality of life.  Dan has been extraordinarily helpful to Gordon by facilitating a significant grant from the Voqal Fund that will allow us to upgrade our applied sciences equipment in the woodshop and engineering spaces, technology and art studio to create a 21st century Maker Space this summer.  Dan is also deeply committed to Catholic education.  He teaches religious education in area CCD classes and supports the role of Catholic schools as integral to the future of our city.  For his work to bring technology and information to all people and for his dedication and support for Catholic education, we are proud to present Daniel X. O’Neil with the 2014 Inspiring Minds Award.

Here’s some pics:

Here’s more info from the Gordon Tech website:

As a Catholic, co-ed, college preparatory institution, with 4 straight years of enrollment growth, Gordon prides itself on offering an innovative and highly personalized approach to learning. The school currently boasts a 99% graduation rate and 99% college acceptance rate. The students are a diverse group, coming from over 42 different zip codes and 15 different countries. Gordon students are 37% Hispanic, 24% Caucasian, 16% African American, 10% Asian and 13% Multi-Racial. This year alone, Gordon seniors have been accepted into great universities across the country including: Marquette, Loyola, Babson University, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, DePaul, Bradley, and the University of Iowa. This list continues to grow.

In October 2012, Gordon and DePaul University announced an academic partnership which has already yielded tremendous results, including collaborations with DePaul’s Schools of Education, Music, and Theatre; open use of the University Library; development of a new strategic plan, vision and mission statements; and the initiation of an International Baccalaureate candidacy.

This year we have hired a top-notch principal, secured grants for Connected Learning and Maker Spaces, and revamped the college coaching program, among many other initiatives, as we work to provide a top-tier educational option. We are thrilled by the new programs and progress at the school, and wish to extend an invitation to support the Inspiration Celebration and to join us on May 12th at Gordon Tech College Prep as we pay tribute to our remarkable honorees.

At Gordon, we are dedicated to providing the finest academic opportunities to our students. Tuition alone does not cover our costs and so we are turning to you to help us raise the funds we need to continue the momentum and energy already underway.

Education: The End of Our First #CivicSummer

Today marked the end of the first 6-week #CivicSummer program at Smart Chicago. Here’s a short description of the program:

Civic Innovation Summer is an experimental summer jobs program for teens focused on civics, media, and technology. The program, run in July and August of 2013, includes more than 140 Chicago teens being trained to use the latest digital tools to organize themselves, amplify their voice, and take positive civic action.

And a huge set of portraits I took of many of the staff and participants who took part: