Released June 2002
New York, N.Y -- Uptown on 5th Avenue in New York City there is a small storefront in a housing development. Behind the glass door, the place hums with activity. Men, women, boys and girls from the community drop in and bring their friends. They take classes, check email, work on resumes, play games, make art, study science, and a host of other activities in the hive-like rooms of the Playing 2 Win Community Technology Center. One day, the hum of community may traverse every block of the city with invisible and yet very real connections.
Rahsaan Harris, Playing 2 Win Executive Director, keeps an eye on what's happening through windows that separate rooms filled with tables, chairs, workspace, and networked computers. Whether he is hosting a group of national educational leaders or checking in with students in an after-school program, he displays the same smile and warmth, making everyone feel welcome and at ease.
"Technology doesn't change lives," says Harris. "People with great ideas change lives. We put people in contact with information that's useful: educational opportunities, how to take better care of families, better employment or first employment. Playing 2 Win is for people who want to be around like-minded, forward-thinking people."
Founded in 1983, Playing 2 Win is a nationally recognized model for Community Technology Centers worldwide in partnership with the Boys Harbor, Inc. youth organization and the Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT) at Columbia University. It houses "HarlemLive," (www.harlemlive.org) an Internet publication by Harlem teenagers. More than 600 members belong to the center and take advantage of youth and adult programs, open access, and professional teaching workshops.
The Corner Stone
Antonia "Toni" Stone, Founder of Playing 2 Win and the Community Technology Centers Network (CTCnet), saw the educational potential of computers in the 1970s when she worked as a math teacher in New York City.
"I had a philosophy that mathematics teaching was for the birds and that's why everyone hated it," she said. "In using computers with kids, I discovered that they were an important learning tool, not just for sums and arithmetic." She offered short courses in computers and watched her students learn.
"I began to worry about people who didn't have access and might not ever have access because of economics, geography, or whatever." Stone decided to create a place where people could simply come to use computers in Harlem. Of the 25 CEOs she wrote to, explaining why they needed to sponsor a community technology center in Harlem, only Warner Communications responded. They offered her a grant and a promise to provide equipment (from Atari), if she found space and funding for personnel. As Stone's project became reality, she enlisted the help of many partners, including Madeline Lee of the New York Foundation.
Stone knew she had succeeded because "the place was jammed." People kept returning, bringing more friends and family. She met a counselor who brought a group of boys and girls to the center and started fooling around with the computers. She created a graduation program using clip art and became fascinated. Eventually, she taught herself graphic design and started a new career.
From a Hub to a Network
Word of the center's success spread, and soon Playing 2 Win was inundated with requests for advice. Stone realized that it made sense to link people together and let them share their experience.
"The best assistance comes from people who are doing the same thing you are," she says. "You connect people with each other so one person isn't always being called on." The Playing to Win Network was formed with 6 centers in Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. In the early 1990s, they received a grant from the National Science Foundation to grow to 45 centers throughout the U.S. and became the Community Technology Centers Network (CTCnet).
In addition to supporting professional evaluation of the centers, the grant enabled CTCnet to develop manuals, guides, and toolkits for new centers (available at http://www.ctcnet.org/publics.html). They have become a clearinghouse and resource center for 600 member organizations.
Keeping It Local
Stone recognizes that one model does not fit all and encourages members to reflect the needs of the community in their offerings. "You have to remember that it is theirs, not yours," she says. "The center's survival depends on them."
As the Executive Director of Playing 2 Win, Rasaahn Harris takes Stone's philosophy to heart. The organization is located between East and Central Harlem and most people will not walk into the technology center on their own, so he brings the community to them. They participate in service activities and hold open houses for members and nonmembers with refreshments and DJs. They look for new partners and ideas such as financial workshops in conjunction with the Harlem Renaissance Economic Development Corporation.
The Future of Opportunity
Bruce Lincoln, Senior Educational Technologist at the Institute for Learning Technologies, recognizes the achievements of Playing 2 Win and has a vision for how much further it can go.
" People need to think about economic equity in a telematic society from narrow-band to broadband," said Lincoln. "You won't have to have a computer; it will be a device, a screen, glasses, clothes. If we don't bring the networks to these communities, the people who live there won't be tied into the economy."
Like Stone, Lincoln is a catalyst. In 1994, he joined the Institute for Learning Technologies (http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/community/index.html) at Teachers College, Columbia University, to assist in the dispersion of advanced technologies throughout New York City. In February 2002, he helped found the CTC Bank with the New York City Council and the Economic Development Corporation to aid, coordinate and disseminate the technology efforts of the City's 136 Community Technology Centers (CTCs).
Putting Value Back into Community
Lincoln envisions virtual markets based on transparent networks where everyone has the ability and resources for access. He makes a business case to technology partners and a political case to government leaders: when they invest in these communities and make technology relevant to people's lives, people will respond by creating more value and new markets. If a parent sees that his or her child benefits from using a computer, they will want to purchase a computer for home.
According to Lincoln: "People have to have a social, moral sense that everyone should have access to this. America's success is based on making this transparent. We won't have a wired school anymore, but a wired America."
The CTC Bank supports the creation of a city-wide, high-speed network, using smart cards and a portal. ILT advocates for technology through written testimony and white papers. When companies sign leasing agreements with the city, they commit funds to support public access, and Lincoln helps city leaders understand how to use the revenues to create more value in the community.
The Changing Face of America
"The demographic makeup of America is changing," says Lincoln. "The racial and ethnic makeup is changing. These groups are under-represented in science, math, and engineering. The next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs probably looks more like Carly Fiorina. We have to make sure that the girl who doesn't speak a lot in math class still feels comfortable being able to hang out in that environment." And one last word from Toni Stone on her legacy: "I was delighted to visit Playing 2 Win a few years ago. I couldn't have been happier, it was alive and kicking, hosting programs, building itself. There is a lot more to the neighborhood, then the tools. People learn to get along with each other; they learn that someone can help them and they can help others."