All's Dell

So long to slackers and laid-back lifestyles. Now that cash-rich techies have taken over, can Austin survive the great digital divide?

Bagpipe music floats on the spring breeze cooling the first annual job fair sponsored by the River City Youth Foundation, a nonprofit community organization housed in an abandoned former neighborhood association clubhouse in the Dove Springs area on Austin's southeast side. The bagpiper is local -- well, he says he is only visiting from "78704," shorthand for the bohemian area of Central Austin south of the Colorado River with that zip code. He is among a couple dozen local business people, professionals and merchants joining representatives from the police and fire departments, a lawyer, some journalists, a natural food multilevel marketer and others who have come to see if they can get kids in this poor neighborhood to think about careers. Only one of the booths houses a technology company, Trilogy Software Inc., a privately owned e-commerce software company. It has sent a trio of its fresh-faced young employees along with their laptop computers to see if the burglar bars and peeling paint of Dove Springs' residences hide nascent programming talent.

"What's all this?" 13-year-old Jeffrey Allen says as he spots the sleek black IBM Thinkpads resting on Trilogy's table. Jeffrey, a pudgy kid with steel glasses and a torn T-shirt, is carrying a plastic tote bag loaded with candy, calendars and other gimmes from the career fair booths. The idea that these computers may be part of the potential loot clearly flits through his mind. Then one of the Trilogians at the booth, a recent Carnegie-Mellon grad named Stephanie, offers him one of their actual handouts, a plastic zippered case that looks like something a sewing kit might come in. Jeffrey slips it into his bag with a pout. But he sits down at a computer when Stephanie beckons him.

"This is a programming language called LOGO," Stephanie tells him, displaying an almost entirely blank screen on one of the laptops. "What would you like to do? Make a circle?" Jeffrey appears more interested in escaping to a more promising booth -- the City of Austin firefighters, for example, are letting kids try on their boots and yellow fire-retardant coats -- but he manages to stay for a few minutes of demonstration while Stephanie plumbs him for interest in computers. He nods in answer to questions about whether he is interested in computers, but shakes his head when asked if he knows much about them. Later, when he signs up to register for an RCYF-sponsored camping trip, he puts down "policeman" in the box for career choice. Stephanie responds to the news of her lost recruit philosophically: "I guess we'll have to survive somehow."

Psychologist David Cramer deals with the sudden-wealth problems of Austin clients.
John Anderson
Psychologist David Cramer deals with the sudden-wealth problems of Austin clients.

Here, you might say, is where the much-celebrated digital divide rears up. It is as obvious as the Balcones Escarpment running through West Austin, which is said to mark the exact separation of the Gulf Coast littoral from the Rocky Mountain uplands. And Mona Gonzales, the cheerfully dedicated woman who founded RCYF 17 years ago and still runs it, is less sanguine than Stephanie about the prospects. She enjoys the sponsorship of Trilogy, but she's not kidding herself about the chances of anybody from her constituency joining the ranks of Trilogians.

"Trilogy is pretty demanding about its educational requirements," Gonzales notes. Indeed, one Trilogian in attendance sported a Cornell sweatshirt, and another graduated from Duke, in addition to Stephanie's Carnegie-Mellon degree. "If our students are going to compete for high-tech jobs, they must be prepared. And when you've got kids who have high absenteeism and don't get good grades, they're not going to compete."

That's interesting talk coming from someone on the front lines of trying to raise kids from rough neighborhoods -- Gonzales's current term of approval is "at-promise youths" -- and get them into the mainstream. The digital divide ascribes the difference between rich programmers and poor burger-flippers, flat-fixers and systems engineers, to the lack of computers and Internet access in schools, libraries and homes.

That's not the whole story, or even much of it, according to those who live on the digital divide. Take Sandra Elizondo, RCYF's coordinator of life skills. "This neighborhood," she says, shaking her head over what she considers low turnout at the job fair. "Motivation is a problem." Computers, however, aren't a problem, at least at the RCYF. The center's computer lab is stocked with eight pearl-gray computers courtesy of the Dell Foundation. The machines get heavy use from the after-school crowd, Elizondo reports. "A lot of them know a lot more than I do about computers," she says. "Some of them even know how to do their own Web pages."

But placing Internet-connected computers into libraries, community centers and schools, while promoted as a potent remedy for the digital divide in a U.S. Commerce Department report, gets little respect from those on the frontiers. "Now, we need to get computers into their homes," says Elizondo. "That's the real digital divide."

Computers in Dove Springs' public places often do little to help those who would get the most use from them. Phyllis Mendoza, a librarian at the nearby Southeast Austin Community Branch Library, says they are wired to the Web, but they lack some basic computing offerings. "Kids come asking if we have a computer to type a school paper on," she says. "We don't. We have a typewriter, and we just got that." Mendoza is hoping to get some computers donated from Dell, but until then, it's Liquid Paper and typewriter ribbons instead of Microsoft Word and laser printers for Dove Springs schoolkids.

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