Abdiaziz Mohamed is a Somali refugee who is unemployed, can’t speak fluent English and doesn’t have the basic computer skills most people take for granted.
Despite this, the Cedar-Riverside resident has used the Brian Coyle Community Center computer lab almost every day for six months looking for jobs online, hoping his search will land him a job and make him more engaged with technology.
Mohamed isn’t the only member of his community grappling with basic technology skills.
The number of Cedar-Riverside residents trying to acquire basic typing and Internet skills has increased since an AmeriCorps program called the Community Technology Empowerment Program was introduced to the neighborhood in September.
At least 80 percent of the program’s participants are East African immigrants.
The program helps residents create an e-mail account as well as learn how to use a computer and programs like Microsoft Word, Excel and Internet Explorer.
Participants also receive help with résumés and job searching.
Ravi Reddi is a University of Minnesota junior majoring in political science and an AmeriCorps employee at the center. He monitors the lab and provides free one-on-one computer training sessions to adults. He said at least 40 residents, mostly in their 20s, regularly attend training.
“That’s not including people who come in with the goals of getting employment,” he said. “Most do not have a computer at home, so this is their chance to use a computer, period.”
Even 75-year-olds come in to ask how to turn on a computer and use Internet Explorer, he said.
“It’s definitely really humbling. This really means a lot more to them than to college students who just type up papers all the time,” he said. “To see people of that age getting excited over things we take for granted is an interesting experience.”
Reddi said the goal of the program is to first make residents comfortable with computers.
“A lot of the people we have don’t even have an e-mail address,” he said. “A lot of people who do use the Internet don’t know it can be used for purchases and other constructive purposes, like online applications.”
A challenge has been to keep the pool of current participants interested.
“A lot of people have so much on their plate, so it’s hard to bring them back two or three times to consistently use the computer lab,” Reddi said.
The computer lab has been part of the center since the late 1990s, but it was always outdated, Youth Program Manager Abdirahman Mukhtar said.
Even the 12 computers Wilson Library donated to the center two years ago were old, slow and didn’t have recent Microsoft programs.
“But that was the first time we had flat-screen computers,” Mukhtar laughed. “This isn’t just about helping someone find a job; it’s all about access … This is the only resource they have to print, do e-mail or do homework.”
The center purchased 16 brand new computers two weeks ago and has had free wireless Internet for little more than a month.
Center Director Jennifer Blevins said the change has been long awaited.
“The first day we got the computers, every computer had at least two people … We were excited,” she said.
Mohamed appreciates the opportunities the new computers have offered him, he said.
“I came here to find a job, [and now] it’s easy to look for a job and learn something new,” he said. “We’re very happy … It’s very important to our community.”
Steven Clift is the executive director of the online E-Democracy.org forum, which he calls a “hybrid between a good old-fashioned e-mail list and a good old social network.”
Seven neighborhoods, including Cedar-Riverside, use the forum.
“The goal is to create a community forum where users can ask questions, criticize local initiatives and try to create a neighborhood vibe,” said Reddi, who has been helping Clift to recruit new members.
“The problem is, the forum is only as strong and useful as the number of the people who use it, which is why outreach is important,” he said.
The Cedar-Riverside forum, which is only one year old, hasn’t been as active as others, but Clift said it’s too early to judge its success.
“The next crucial stage is to bring it to life in the next six months,” he said.
In the past two weeks, about 50 new members have joined the forum, bringing the total to more than 200 users. About half of those are of East African descent, Clift said.
“Cedar Riverside is an incredibly diverse and dynamic community,” he said. “You might have a Somali dinner at Brian Coyle and a completely different crowd at Acadia Cafe. In a virtual neighborhood, we’ll seek to break the ice between the diverse communities so they can learn about each other as they exchange information and stories.”
He said he’d like to have more people of Korean, Vietnamese and Hispanic descent on the forum.
“I don’t know of anyone in the country that’s working to create these local public social networks in low-income, diverse, immigrant areas,” Clift said. “This is really important work that should be replicated around the city and around this country.”