Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Amid the shock and dislocations of the past month, and our ongoing sense of loss, one can’t be blamed for sometimes, for just a moment, wondering if there’s really a future worth fighting for.

That giving in to sadness and despair must only be temporary, however—a way of taking stock of where American society is, and where it needs to be that gets us moving again to the goal of helping more Americans climb the ladder to an expanded, more inclusive mainstream.

That ‘s why the technology leadership grant of more than $2.7-million in software the Microsoft Corp. has just given the National Urban League is so significant: It’s a tangible demonstration that Americans from all walks of life realize that the goals worth pursuing before the tragic events of September 11 are still worth pursuing—and in fact worth pursuing now more than ever.

One of those goals was, and remains, closing the so-called digital divide—the gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet, and high-level technological skills, and those who do not—that exists between blacks and whites.

In recent years there’s been much justifiable concern about that gap. Last year one major study estimated its size at 14 percentage points: 50 percent of whites had Internet access compared to 36 percent of blacks.

However, as journalist Joel Dreyfuss pointed out in an essay, “Black Americans and the Internet: The Technological Imperative” in our recent policy journal, The State of Black America 2001, studies earlier this year showed that Latino-Americans had surpassed white Americans in computer use, and that African Americans were fast closing the gap.

That narrowing, Dreyfuss wrote, was due in part to black families responding “to the debate as other groups had. They bought computers to assure their children would not be left behind, for their home businesses, and for their own private use.”

In addition, Dreyfuss pointed out, many private companies, like Microsoft, have organized and invested in programs to close the gap.

These two groups—individuals and families, on the one hand; private companies, on the other—have seen that technological literacy and ready access to technology are essential if we’re to close the digital divide and prevent low-income communities from being frozen out of an increasingly technology-driven society

Microsoft has been a leader in increasing access to technology for poor communities and supporting community organizations, having given last year more than $36.6 million in cash and $179 million in software to more than 5,000 nonprofit organizations. Indeed, its capacity-building grant to the Urban League is one of eight given to a broad range of nonprofit organizations this year which total more than $7.6 million in software.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, meeting with me at our Metropolitan Seattle affiliate, said that “Microsoft is excited to be able to help the National Urban League deliver greater digital opportunities to underserved communities nationwide and to reach its organizational goals. This meaningful way that the Urban League will use these resources exemplifies the spirit” of Microsoft’s high-tech philanthropic efforts.

The software from the grant, which follows a similar grant Microsoft made to us four years ago, will enable the Urban League to do both “foundation-building” and “direct-service” work in more than 70 of our 111 affiliates in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Put simply, that means more of our affiliates can now operate at the highest levels of technological competence: they’ll be able to more efficiently help the more than two million people Urban Leagues serve find affordable rental housing, or get mortgages to buy a home, or find affordable daycare for their children.

Even more important, the Microsoft grant means that affiliates will be to help residents in the low-income communities they serve develop basic and intermediate technology literacy skills through our “Digital Campuses.” These technology centers are typically equipped with 25 state-of-the-art computers, on-line courseware for children and adults, a laser printer, a network server, and high-speed Internet access. Each affiliate offers technology training and on-line courses so that residents in these areas, too, can join the information superhighway and have a fighting chance to build a viable future.

Microsoft’s new grant, coupled with its previous support, means that 73 affiliates will now have Digital Campuses sponsored by the company (An additional 25 affiliates have technology centers that are funded by other sources.) that offer training in the latest MS software titles for adults and teens.

Now, more of our affiliates will be able to train unemployed and underemployed individuals in such areas as computer literacy, MS software titles, A+ certification, and website design.

Now, more Urban League affiliates can mount preschool, child development and after-school programs that utilize the MS titles to engage children and teens in computer related activities that help them learn how to use the latest software available.

The broader goal these pursuits embody—that of joining the American mainstream—is always worth fighting for.

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