Bridging the Global Digital Divide is a tall order even for giant development agents like the United Nations Development Program's Sustainable Development Networking Program and the World Bank's InfoDev Project. But while the likes of UNDP and the InfoDev may have millions of dollars at their disposal to carry out their projects, an Oakland-based NGO is slightly ahead in addressing issues of closing the digital divide locally and internationally.
The Global Education Partnership (GEP) is approaching the digital divide challenge holistically, offering not just computer skills to the more than 800 youth who enter and leave its programs every year, but also entrepreneurship skills, work readiness skills, and skills for the global marketplace, all on a shoestring budget. This approach fits well with its mission: to provide access to educational resources that increase the capacity of young people to become employable and self-reliant in today's global marketplace. Its School-to-Career model is implemented through its flagship program, the Entrepreneurship and Employment Training Program (EETP).
EETP offers skills in job readiness, cross-cultural and international programs and entrepreneurship and computer training. It is offered after school in four divisions spread out in three continents. Each GEP division has a 25-computer facility- with donated computers- that provides the medium for the EETP. Recently, GEP has completed a new curriculum for the EETP titled From Vision to Action, which is designed to help the organization move from the development phase to curriculum marketing and teacher training. This curriculum will also be adapted and/or translated for each of its international divisions found in Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia and Guatemala.
The idea of starting this global initiative was presented by an African American Studies Professor to his student at the University of California at Berkeley. It was started with $20,000 collected from UC Berkeley students and has now grown into a $1.5 million dollar a year budget. What is unique about GEP is that it targets the rural areas in the Third World, and economically challenged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. GEP treads where few, including various governments and private telecom investors, dare put their money. Not only has GEP ventured into the last frontier of the digital divide, it boasts the highest number of computers in its rural facilities, outside of the cities.
According to Professor Percy Hintzen of the African American Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-founder of GEP with his former student Tony Silard, global access to information technology is the hallmark of GEP. Dr. Hintzen envisions that, by giving the youth the knowledge and skills they need to succeed right in their locales, his organization will not only give them the required tools, but also stem the brain drain. He points out that youth are apt to leave the rural areas and move to the city in search of work. "By providing them with the resources they need, they'll participate in development of their own community."
GEP has its Headquarters in Oakland, California, where it targets economically marginalized communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. Ismael Cardenas grew up in a little city in San Francisco Bay Area that had high crime rates since the 1950s. He was 9-years old when in 1992, his city, East Palo Alto suffered the highest murder rate (based on population) of any city in the U.S., attaining the infamous title, the "Murder Capital of the World." According to him, his childhood peers are "selling this and taking that." But 17 year-old Ismael, otherwise known as "thegaragegeek" in the business world, runs his own Web development start-up, thanks to skills he acquired from Global Education Partnership.
Ismael signed up for the Entrepreneurship and Employment Training Program (EETP) in search of extra credit for high school. In addition to the extra credits, he learned how to put a portfolio together, salesmanship, and earned a $500 scholarship grant that allowed him to start his web development start-up. "GEP gave me the motivation to start my own business. My first idea was to start a T-shirt business because people like them in my neighborhood. Instead, I decided to build a Website after attending the EETP," Ismael said. For the last six months, Ismael says he have had the happiest job in the world. As a web designer, he currently has five customers, and more are coming. Just recently, a dot.com (bizziboard.com) flew him to Florida from East Palo Alto to check their Website and see if he could redesign it. "Where in the world did I think I'll be doing something like this?" I am all over the place at this time (traveling for business)."
Ismael is among 800 low-income youth who benefit from EETP's 12-14 week program offered after-school 2 days per week, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kenya, Tanzania, Guatemala, and Indonesia. According to Anita Akerkar, Director of Bay Area Division, GEP targets economically-challenged pockets of the Bay Area. They work with selected partners to provide computer-based employment training for high school youth. They teach the youth how to use technology on a basic level, and important life skills, instilling a greater sense of self. Some of the recipients of GEP services have never seen successful role models, according to Ms. Akerkar. The EETP focuses on 4 core skill areas:
Work Readiness Skills
Skills for the Global Marketplace
"Everything they do is hands on. They do market surveys, write business plans on their computers," she says. In the Bay Area, students are recruited from community-based organizations, especially those that deal with foster children and teen mothers, and schools. The organizations GEP partners with have to have:
A base of students to recruit
A computer facility with at least 15 computers
A monetary contribution
GEP not only offers its students computer skills, it also gives them work readiness skills, and help match students with employers. "Before they get out of EETP, we make sure they have a business plan in hand," says Akerkar. She adds that computer skills are the major component of their programs. "If you don't have technical skills before you leave us, we haven't done our job completely." GEP recently authored a tech-focused curriculum for teachers called "From Vision to Action," to be available nationwide. One of the chapters in this curriculum is called Global Connection: Understanding how people interview in South Korea. It is meant to teach about cross-cultural communication, to prepare the global workforce of tomorrow. "They begin to realize there is a vast variety of people out there," says Akerkar. The program also emphasizes community service by having the students use part of their business profits to set up a foundation to help the needy. After completing the Skills for the Global Marketplace component of the EETP, students in all five of G.E.P.'s divisions will have:
Communicated via the Internet and video-conferencing with their partner students in Kenya, Guatemala and/or the U.S.
Researched economic, political and cultural information on other countries using the World Wide Web
Discussed global business and cross-cultural interaction with guest speakers from over 5 foreign countries
Addressing the Global Digital Divide
With its unique model of sustainable development, GEP has grown from an idea hatched in a college classroom between a student and his professor, to become an international organization focussed on empowering low-income communities in the U.S. and in developing countries. It is not just bridging the digital divide in economically marginalized communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is a pioneer in bringing computer centers to neglected rural hamlets in four developing countries in three continents. GEP is steered by the vision and belief that development is only possible if the people that ultimately benefit from a program are viewed not as recipients of the program, but as participants in designing and implementing a program to suit their needs.
GEP was started in 1994 in Oakland, California. In 1995, G.E.P. divisions were established in Kenya and San Francisco Bay Area, and in 1996 G.E.P. established its third division in Guatemala. Divisions in Tanzania and Indonesia were formed in 1998 and 1999, respectively. As a Community Development Worker in Kenya with the Ministry of Education, Silard listened to community voices and saw the dire need for textbooks and basic school supplies that developed countries take for granted. Working with a local education specialists, Silard provided Kenyan parents with an incentive to raise funds for textbooks for their children by matching the amount they raised with funds from U.S. donors. Within two years, "the matching-funds textbook project" provided over $120,000 in textbooks to over 40,000 students in 58 schools. Silard was inspired by the "Harambee" spirit of developing Kenya, where leaders promised to bring outside money to develop a community, as long as that community would organize to match the donations.
The Harambee Model
"Harambee" is a call towards self-sufficiency. The slogan "Harambee" was given to Kenyan workers for the purposes of national development by Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya. Kenyatta likened the task ahead of the new nation to that of workers with a burden that would only be overcome by working together to successfully heave up or put together their heavy load. The workers successfully did their work spurred on by the rallying cry of "Harambee". Nowadays it's used to exhort people to actively participate in many development projects: roads, dams and other self help projects. People have successfully identified with the Harambee call to the extent that it now seems as a way of life. It is a Kenyan self-help and self-reliance movement. The Harambee call served as a political call to enable people to participate in raising education funds, building social amenities required by a community, being mindful of the plight of others in all aspects of human life, raising bursary funds for education, national disasters, health and medical care.
GEP plans to provide long-distance learning to its divisions around the world by piggybacking on those who have the infostructure like the World Bank's Virtual University. One of the problems the organization is facing is lack of infrastructure on the ground, in the remote areas they serve in developing countries. Lack of trained maintenance workers for their computer hardware is another challenge they face, but plans are underway to train local people how to repair the hardware. GEP receives funding from Hewlett Packard to the Governments of Finland and Japan. It plans to expand services in the countries it serves by opening facilities in other remote villages in the future.
According to Professor Hintzen, who is also the Board President of GEP, he and Tony disapproved of the way development was being carried out in developing countries. "We felt there should be a partnership between the donors and the community being served," says Prof. Hintzen. So, the two embarked on the mission of providing marginalized communities with the resources they need to develop, by empowering the youth.
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