NAMIC Works to Bridge the Digital Gap

If one issue galvanizes those who care about diversity and its ability to transform the workplace, it’s the “digital divide” — a term often used to describe the gap between technology “haves” and “have-nots.”

For those in the cable industry seeking a diverse workforce that better reflect cable’s customer base, this gap is especially concerning. “The whole notion of leaving people behind technologically is something we have to pay attention to,” says Walter Oden, president of the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications New York chapter and vice president business development and affiliate sales and marketing at A&E Networks. “The digital divide will be the [industry’s] central focus for the near future.”

In that spirit, NAMIC in 1999 launched the “Digital Bridge Alliance” initiative to bring together programmers, cable operators, broadband and high-tech companies in an effort to close the digital divide. Since debuting national public-service announcements in 2000, operators and programmers have run about $5 million worth of public service announcements related to the DBA.

In addition, NAMIC chapters across the country have partnered with operators, local community organizations and tech companies to launch DBA Web sites, which run programs to educate, train and empower individuals with technology. (The first site launched in March 2001 at the Mexican American Opportunities Foundation Family Service Center in Santa Ana, Calif.) NAMIC won a 2002 Beacon Award from the Cable Television Public Affairs Association for its DBA Web site efforts.

NAMIC-New York is one of the most active chapters in the DBA initiative. It’s earmarking part of the proceeds from its its annual holiday benefit gala on Dec. 1 to fund computer-technology upgrades at the Charles B. Rangel Technology and Learning Center at the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. The center, housed within the Armory Center in New York City’s Washington Heights area, serves some 3,000 local residents of various races and ethnicities in an effort to “educate kids through sports,” says Oden.

The facility consists of 35 computers with broadband Internet access, Microsoft Office software and learning programs focused on literacy, technology training, adult education classes and professional development for teachers and parents. Norbert Sander, founding president of the Armory Center, says proceeds from NAMIC-New York’s gala are vital. “A benefit like this is life-saving to us,” he says, especially since the center’s federal grant money ran out a few years ago. “We’ve cobbled together a program, and we’re just surviving. We’ve had to cut back on a lot of programs.”

Sander hopes the center will collect at least $15,000 to $20,000 from the gala — not insignificant, considering that the center’s total annual operating budget is only $200,000. “We’ll stretch it,” he says. “It will help a lot, believe it or not.”

Sander plans to launch a new initiative dubbed “Fast Start” by October 2005, with the goal of sheparding dozens of children through an intensive after-school “tutoring and enrichment” program to get inner-city kids on par with their more wired suburban counterparts. “If you don’t have that help, the gap is insurmountable,” he says. And will he be looking to NAMIC-New York for continued support? “We’re hoping that this is the beginning of a relationship,” he says.

To be sure, NAMIC-New York has its pick of worthy causes. Past beneficiaries have included the DBA itself, The Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, Thurgood Marshall Scholarship, The Birch Family Camp (AIDS Safe Haven), and the New York City Board of Education, among others. NAMIC-New York donated the 2003 gala proceeds to the Goddard Riverside Community Hospital.

NAMIC-New York’s DBA initiatives also include efforts to help minority small businesses in the metropolitan area. In 2002, the chapter began a partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation to create the Small Business Initiative. Through the program, NAMIC-New York donated computers, software and printers to eight small businesses in Harlem to help them become more competitive.

By 2004, the SBI expanded to 10 small businesses, with each business receiving a team of volunteer experts to provide technology training in different areas, depending on individual need. (NAMIC volunteers are involved with four of the teams assigned to businesses.) NAMIC-NY plans to focus efforts on the Bronx in 2005 and then Brooklyn the year after that — all in an effort to broaden the program’s scope to reach as many people as possible. “We have so many members that are passionate about the community,” says Oden.

The group also set up an eight-week training program for the entrepreneurs at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center. (Time Warner Cable provided a free broadband connection.) “It’s a diversity issue,” says Christina Pisano, vice president of NAMIC-New York and a director of market research for America Online. “It’s really getting into the community itself — really bringing it to the community.”