Chicago is a City of Neighborhoods

 |   Adam J. Hecktman

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood (and there are more than 200) has a distinct culture, character, and vibe. They also have varying levels of digital assets and a population that may embrace technology to a greater or lesser extent. We had the good fortune this week to take a tour of some key city neighborhoods doing interesting things around bringing digital literacy to their citizens. It is clear that the tech movement is taking hold in Chicago’s neighborhoods. The tour was led by Laura Williams of World Business Chicago who took us to 4 neighborhoods who used a variety of approaches to this challenge, each reflecting its community’s unique attributes and assets.

Englewood

This tour started in Englewood. Englewood is a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, and one whose name Chicago: A City of Neighborhoodsappears in the news quite a bit. The news pieces that report on violence in this area do not show the full picture, and is certainly not representative of the positive momentum that has been built. There is the full spectrum of community-led engagement working to bring economic development, housing, quality education, and healthy living to Englewood and the surrounding communities. Teamwork Englewood is a partner that is a catalyst and focal point for these activities.

We visited a FamilyNet Center, which is part of the Center for Working Families. Located at a city college (Kennedy-King College), this is positioned as an “online entry point” for Englewood’s residents. Perry Gunn and Clarence Hogan spoke to how this community facility is staffed by career Chicago: A City of Neighborhoodscounselors to help residents land a job, and a retention counselor to help them retain those jobs by building the foundational tech skills.

Tech Organizer Demond Drummer has built a number of programs that influenced public policy as much as it did citizen digital literacy. Englewood Codes has taught teens to learn competitive skills around web development, design, and coding. The Englewood Portal helps residents find services, job prospects, and community news. And LargeLots was successful in not only simplifying land ownership, it influenced public policy. And the list continues.

Pilsen

We then moved on to Pilsen, a neighborhood on Chicago’s lower west side. Manufacturing jobs brought thousands of immigrants to this area in the 1870s. In the middle to late part of the 20th century Pilsen saw varying degrees of decline and crime. Today, a largelChicago: A City of Neighborhoodsy Latino neighborhood, Pilsen prides itself on its colorful street murals as much as its amazing food. We visited (my second time) a community organization called The Resurrection Project (TRP). TRP is a neighborhood organization that works on education, organizing and community development. They have been working tirelessly since 1990 to turn Pilsen into the vibrant and thriving community that it is today.

Pilsen’s transformation can be summed up thus:

When I used to tell people I lived in Pilsen, their response was something along the lines of “I’m sorry.” Now they say, “Pilsen, there are some cool things happening over there.”

Chicago: A City of NeighborhoodsCool things, indeed. We looked at TRP’s Smart Communities plan, where they envision a tech ecosystem that expands beyond tech. Rather, it uses tech as the foundation for workforce development, the arts, culture, and commerce.   It represents a balance between building a forward thinking base of digitally savvy residents, a sustainable community, and cultural preservation. The plan includes broadband access along the portal main commercial corridors, tech kiosks and connection centers around the neighborhood, and a portal that serves as a focal point for it all.

Being a predominantly Latino neighborhood, TRP has taken care to take into an account a large immigrant community. Chicago: A City of NeighborhoodsThe portal is in Spanish and English, as is much of their programming. They have special Skype access points to facilitate communication with friends and family outside of the US. And the list continues. They also recognize that they have a large number of creative residents. To that end, they are leveraging the technology in their portal to become a platform for citizen writers, journalists, and poets. This is the perfect example of leveraging tech to highlight your existing assets.

Little Village

The residents of Little Village call it the “Mexico of the Midwest.” I remember about 10 years ago participating in a run that went through Little Village, and it lived up to its name with older men cooking chicken on grills on the street, and the sounds of mariachi music welcoming the runners.

The focal point of digital literacy for Little Village is their public library branch. They are currently housing a traveling Mini Maker Lab, where residents can experience digital design, fabrication, robotics, and coding. In addition to using Chicago: A City of Neighborhoodsthe 3D printers, vinyl cutters, and Microsoft Kinect 3D cameras, library patrons can take workshops that take them from never being in a maker space to building 3D objects and doing robotics programming. The idea is to make every leading-edge technology accessible to everyone, as well as building learning communities.

The point here is to get residents exposed to science and engineering concepts. They can explore, at no or little cost, digital design and advanced manufacturing in a fun and nurturing environment. As we were told, it gives them the ability to connect with Chicago’s informal “maker ecosystem,” as well as more formal spaces like the Chicago City Colleges Advanced Manufacturing curricula.

Downtown

Chicago: A City of NeighborhoodsThen we were off to the Harold Washington Library downtown. We were met there by my friend, Library Commissioner Brian Bannon. Brian is young, smart, energetic, and very emblematic of what we have come to see as the new crop of public servants in urban areas. He honed his craft building the digital and technology strategy for the San Francisco Public Library, as well as leading the design and construction process the largest capital improvement program in the history of the SF library system.

At Harold Washington, we visited the YOUmedia labs. The YOUmedia program thinks about how to support youth learning by leveraging digital media. According to First Deputy Commissioner for CPL Andrea Saenz, it starts with the understanding that teens need to have regular access to digital technology. As chief of staff to the Chicago Public Schools prior to coming to the library, she knows a thing or two about how to engage youth. Since digital technology is such a broad term, she understands that you need a variety of tools for students to access and tap into. To that end, YOUmedia includes spaces that are designed for video production, audio production, design spaces, and the like. YOUmedia has become a national model for what is known as Connected Learning.

The CPL is not only focused on teens. We also visited the Computer Commons, which gives everyone access to the internet and Microsoft Office tools. We saw 133 public access computers, and everyone seemed to be occupied. Brian told us that these access areas, open every day of the week, serve out 400,000 sessions per year.Chicago: A City of Neighborhoods In addition, the library has digital coaches called CyberNavigators. CyberNavigators are available to residents for one-to-one coaching. They assist people in everything from how to use a mouse and a keyboard to building a resume using Microsoft Word.

And that is just four examples of a fraction of what is being done in four parts of the city. We are at the cusp of a transformation of the digital landscape of Chicago, where we can take the best of what each of these neighborhoods is doing and scale it out with coordinated and aligned investments and programs across the city. It is a truly amazing time to be here and to be part of it.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.