Harvard Establishes a Digital Divide Program in Boston
Last fall, news of the sale of Africana.com to the AOL Time Warner company generated considerable attention for Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies, and Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor in the university’s Afro-American Studies Department, who were founders and part-owners of the educational Web site.
While newspapers speculated on how much Gates and Appiah would profit from the Web site sale, which was reported by the Wall Street Journal to be a $10 million deal, Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute of Afro-American Research was making quiet waves with the launch of a computer-based digital divide outreach program in inner-city Boston.
“It’s time to bring Harvard to the hood. It is also time to bring the hood to Harvard,” Gates told the crowd gathered at a ribbon-cutting ceremony last fall at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester, a predominately Black neighborhood in Boston.
Gates and Appiah, along with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and community leaders, launched the Martin Luther King Jr. After School program, a collaboration between the Du Bois Institute and the Ella J. Baker House, a community outreach center for high-risk youth. Gate is chair of the DuBois Institute.
Since the fall, students have enrolled in classes on a semester-basis for about four hours after school each day. Their coursework has included content from Encarta Africana, the CD-ROM encyclopedia co-edited by Gates and Appiah, and Internet Web sites.
Ken Johnson, executive director of the Ella J. Baker House, says the program has four instructors. Installation and cost of computers and other equipment was $200,000. In daily classes, students are presented interactive lectures by the instructors and are asked to work on teams to complete assignments. Assignments usually have student teams research and develop Microsoft Powerpoint presentations.
“We’ve had the students instructed on Black women activists, hip hop, the history of lynching and other subjects using Encarta Africana and the Internet,” Johnson says. “The DuBois Institute has provided help with curriculum development for our kids.”
Johnson notes that offering enrichment programs around computers and other instructional media has been a long-time goal of the organization based at the historic Baker house. “The bottom line for us is developing ways to get [information] technology into the hands of inner-city youth. We’re using information technology as a hook to get them focused on their broader intellectual development,” Johnson says.
In addition to services provided by the DuBois Institute, local corporations and foundations have donated enough funding to support the program for a year, according to Johnson.
Named for the famed civil rights and social justice activist, the Baker house is a renovated, three-story Victorian that also serves as the home to the Azusa Christian Community. The Azusa community was founded by Rev. Eugene Rivers and Harvard students in the 1980s as a Pentecostal order dedicated to grass roots community development and social uplift. Over the years, Rivers has attracted national attention for his work in fighting gang violence and implementing HIV-AIDS education in Boston’s Black communities. Not long after the Supreme Court’s election decision, Rivers led a group of Black ministers to meet with then President-elect George W. Bush in Austin, Texas.
Johnson, a graduate of Harvard College, says the establishment of the MLK program represents a fulfillment of the original vision Black student activists sought in the late 1960s when they demanded that Harvard establish a Black studies research institute.
“One of the goals of the DuBois Institute was that it was supposed to share the intellectual resources of Harvard with the Black community,” says Johnson.
For years, the DuBois Institute languished neglected and underutilized. After the 1991 appointment of Gates as chair of the Afro-American Studies department, the DuBois Institute benefited considerably under Gates’ leadership, who has raised millions to endow the institute and the department.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com