The digital divide in Miami just got a little bit wider with the closing of e-Equality

Deeply Digitally Divided

The only space big enough to hold the crowd gathered at the e-Equality technology center on Biscayne Boulevard last week was the cavernous classroom in the back, where people sat amid rows of beige PCs glowing dully in the fluorescent light. And even though the topic was serious, grim even, many of the kids and adults gathered couldn't help but click a mouse and visit a Website or play a last hand of digital solitaire. Who could blame them? These were people who didn't own computers and this was likely the last time they would be able to log on here. After one and a half years at this site, e-Equality has run out of money and is closing. It was the only tech center in town with the resources to dramatically improve computer literacy.

I remember its opening party in November 2002. It was around the corner from the New Times building. As dusk settled and hookers in torn Lycra took to the boulevard, e-Equality's staff laid out grilled chicken, salad, and cake. A stage with bunting was set up. Politicians stopped by -- Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, county Commissioner Jimmy Morales -- and offered platitudes about the need to bridge the digital divide in America's Poorest City.

I agreed with them. This was a good thing. Poor people could use computers here for free. They could learn a task as simple as preparing a résumé or as complicated as building their own Website. Kids could come here after school to play as well as learn. The place even had its own recording studio! And I thought, naively, that at some point I'd take a break from police brutality and political corruption to write about e-Equality.

But this is Miami, and I should have known: A good thing comes along, you blink, and it's gone. So now I'd returned. There was no chicken or cake that night, and you'd better believe no politicians were stopping by. Instead staff members encouraged everyone to write to the county commission in hopes of scraping together emergency dollars to keep the doors open.

e-Equality survives on grants. Its $600,000 annual budget is cobbled together from the largesse of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Green Family Foundation (Kim Green chairs e-Equality's board of directors), as well as federal antipoverty funds funneled through the city and the county. Intel donated top-end computers and cash for a very sleek Intel Computer Clubhouse.

But e-Equality generates no revenue of its own. It does not charge participants for classes, computer use, or even for the computers it refurbishes and donates to needy families. There was a time when nonprofits were truly that. Now they are expected to be run like businesses. Chalk it up to a tanked economy and the high cost of waging a global war.

Bryan Finnie, head of the Miami-Dade Empowerment Zone Trust, will tell you as much. This is the agency the county contracts to manage federal monies targeting low-income areas -- the so-called empowerment zones. He says when e-Equality came to him in 2002 he thought it was a great idea and made sure it received a $163,000 grant, which in turn triggered a matching grant from the Knight Foundation. He'd like to help them again, he says, but "we have no money."

Federal dollars have been pulled back. "The president is not a big supporter of empowerment zones. The administration is looking at other stimulus" for poor areas, he explains. Essentially the federal government wants to provide tax credits as incentives so businesses invest in poor areas. "They want the private sector to see it as a good investment," Finnie says. "They are looking for something tangible when it's done, a building or a job."

Tangible? This is tangible: Overtown's unemployment rate is 22 percent; Miami's median household income is just $20,000; and nearly 40 percent of people 25 years or older don't have a high school diploma.

e-Equality president Donna MacDonald is angry, and she partially blames Finnie's agency. In a June meeting, she says, Aundra Wallace, the local empowerment zone's VP, verbally promised them renewed funding -- $120,000. After two months of unreturned phone calls and e-mails, MacDonald says, they were finally informed there would be no money. Without it e-Equality faced a devastating budget shortfall. MacDonald would have appreciated knowing sooner. (Finnie and Wallace maintain they never promised repeat funding and in fact warned that after the initial grant, e-Equality shouldn't rely on empowerment-zone money.)

Of course MacDonald and e-Equality's directors share blame for operating on such a thin margin. Clearly they aren't IBM. But what do you expect? It's a nonprofit, not a Fortune 500. Perhaps MacDonald and e-Equality were too ambitious. A $600,000 budget is hefty for a start-up nonprofit. (MacDonald earned about $65,000 a year but is temporarily forgoing her salary.) And yet according to knowledgeable people, it's not out of line for the volume of clients e-Equality reported: 1200 people attended classes and workshops last year.

As soon as MacDonald knew she wasn't going to obtain empowerment-zone funds, she sought other potential donors. Commissioner Morales donated $35,000, though e-Equality isn't even in his district. In November Mayor Diaz talked about including the center in his vaunted antipoverty initiative, an attempt to rid us of the Poorest City title. But no one could move fast enough. (It's easy to forget about the poor when developers are plotting a forest of condo towers intended for the stinking rich.)

In their effort to get the word out, the kids who participated in e-Equality's computer classes put together a 54-second video for the county commission, but they weren't allowed to show it at the designated meeting.

Other cities recognize how important it is for citizens to be computer literate. For one thing, it's imperative for a competitive workforce. In fact e-Equality's founders modeled their program on existing technology centers around the country. Houston, Seattle, and Cleveland support technology centers. As part of a contract with its cable provider, Cleveland's city council negotiated a one-time, three-million-dollar payment that goes to fund tech centers. It even has its own coalition, Cleveland Digital Vision, that helps run dozens of neighborhood computer centers. And Cleveland is not rich; it's the country's third-poorest city. "It's been pretty well accepted within the city's leadership that broad computer literacy is an important goal," says Bill Callahan, director of Cleveland Digital Vision.

e-Equality will close. The computers will be put in storage. Staffers hope the operation will only go into hibernation. Maybe Mayor Diaz and the county commission will come through. Then it will be up to MacDonald to fashion a sustainable business plan. Clearly it can't be so ambitious. After all, we're America's Poorest City. We'd better start acting like it.


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