On an enviably sunny Saturday, a small crowd huddles around a table inside a popular Mission building. Despite the nice weather, they’ve been inside for the better portion of the morning, examining an assortment of computers and other equipment.
“How much does that one cost?” a man in a Giant’s hat asks, pointing to a shiny laptop without a price tag. “$129,” the seller replies, enunciating the hundred as if to say, now this is cheap. The man’s eyes widen; he nudges a woman nearby. “That’s a good deal!”
The laptop was one of many reasonably priced computers for sale on Saturday at the Mission Economic Development Agency’s (MEDA) “Get Connected Day.” The event, which was coordinated by MEDA in an effort to connect Mission residents with computers and Internet access, offered everything from computer literacy workshops to affordable laptops and $10 monthly Internet services. In addition to the $129 laptop, there were desktop devices with a large monitors going for $183, laptops with optical drives for $172, and $32 Skype kits.
MEDA’s “Get Connected” concept is simple: Extend affordable technology services and classes to help community members gain computer fluency, in a startup-dominated zip code that’s, well, notorious for its computer fluency.
MEDA noted the digital divide in a 2012 proposal to the US Department of Education: “While San Francisco is a hub and innovator of the high tech industry, these resources and their benefits are not making their way into our low income Latino communities,” Even though the neighborhood is playing host to an increasing amount of tech workers and companies, there are still plenty of “offline” residents living just blocks away from the Google bus protests sites. According to MEDA, 73 percent of Mission Latinos have internet access, as compared to 88 percent of Mission residents overall.
“Our five-year target goal is to ensure that every child who lives in the Mission or goes to school in the Mission has access to a computer in their home and broadband Internet in the home,” said Richard Abisla, the technology manager at MEDA. “We do not want kids doing homework on smartphones. We want kids using their computer to do their homework with a stable Internet connection both in and out of school. We do not want kids excluded from using mainstream educational tools because they can’t afford them.”
The fact that there are disconnected Mission residents might seem incongruous with the high concentration of tech companies in the neighborhood. Just last week, it was reported that Google leased a location on 298 Alabama Street and, as Mission Local mapped out earlier this year, the neighborhood is home to more than 50 tech companies. According to a report released by the brokerage firm CBRE, the tech sector held more than 60 percent of office space in the city last year.
But if the crowd at “Get Connected Day” was any indication, there are still Mission residents without strong computer literacy skills and Internet access.
Victor Corral, the Interim Director of the Mission Promise Neighborhood at MEDA, said that 75 to 80 percent of the Latinos they see are undocumented. ”There’s low literacy rates, low income, and internet cost is a huge portion of someones budget if you’re not living on much.”
Although they found that 70 percent of Mission residents had internet, Corral said they began to notice that many did not have computers. “We’d ask them ‘what’s your email address,’ and they’d tell us they didn’t have one.”
“I saw a lot of families today,” said Willie Lockhead, who manned a booth at the event offering cheap monthly Internet services from the nonprofit organization The Stride Center. “A lot of people out here don’t have Internet service. Sometimes we think ‘oh yeah, of course everyone has it.’ But of course they don’t. It’s not just for entertainment. It’s about access to information, creating resumes, life skills.”
A floor up from Lockhead, District 9 Supervisor David Campos moderated a panel discussion with speakers from Twitter, Square, the Kapor Center for Social Impact, and more.
Roberto Mejia, a support engineer at Jones IT, talked about carving a space out for himself in the industry when he had little formal training. “I used to do nonprofit work, housing work, I was like ‘tech that’s not cool! But in every job that I had, I always found myself solving other peoples’ desktop issues. I started taking classes, reaching out, took initiative. I always heard back. That’s how I got started.”
Campos commended two of the speakers, Jennifer Arguello and Eva Binda, for their involvement in tech as young women of color.
“Most people thought I was born with a mouse in my hand,” said Jennifer Arguello, a Senior Tech Advisor at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. “I’m a nerd!” Arguello taught herself how to program when she was just six years old. But being a female Latina tech nerd, she added, is rare; Latinas make up just 1% of the tech population. “I got tired of the lack of diversity,” she said.
Eva Binda, who works at Square, added: “Sometimes when I go to meetings, the older men there don’t know what to think about me. I wonder if they’re thinking: ‘is she getting our coffee?’ But you have to just have confidence in yourself and what you have to say.”
A message that surely resonated with the crowd, which was largely Latina.
Maria Olivia, a longtime Mission resident, said she came to the event because she has a computer but doesn’t know how to comfortably navigate through the programs. Her daughter Stacey tagged along; Olivia said that she wants to expose her to tech so she can become comfortable with it, as a girl, at a young age.
As the speakers continued, a group of young men wearing black “Mission Techies” tee shirts paid rapt attention. They’re part of a MEDA 12-week training program, partially funded by the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, that teaches Mission residents aged 18-24 tech support skills, IT essentials and operations, and office management with an IT emphasis.
In a room nearby, the audience was significantly younger. A gaggle of children squirmed through a “Digital Storytelling Workshop,” where girls in headbands and party dresses shared their own stories. They also watched a few animated/Claymation shorts to learn about virtual storytelling.
One video, “Cactus Story,” featured a bird gliding through the air. “Ew, he just pooped!” a little boy exclaimed when a tiny brown dot sailed toward the ground and landed with a plop. The class laughed and decided that they liked digital storytelling. A little girl turned to her friend. “I want to learn how to do that!” she exclaimed, watching the bird weave through the clouds and finish its course.