It’s been more than a year since Duke, Walltown neighborhood leaders, Cisco Systems and One Economy Corporation began discussing how to use technology to bring about positive change in Walltown. And at last week’s meeting to discuss next steps, residents recalled how full that year and a half has been.
For one thing, thepartners have decided on a project — select Walltown youth will participate in an after-school program, Digital Connectors, that teaches technology skills and allows youth to use those skills to help their community. The partners have also identified funding for the project — Durham and Regional Affairs has given $32,500 dating back to the first feasibility studies, with every dollar matched by Cisco — and they’ve brought on board an AmeriCorps Vista named Laura Parewski, who will coordinate the Digital Connectors program from Duke’s Office of Community Affairs.
But perhaps the biggest accomplishment in the months since the project began?
“We’ve built incredible trust over the last year and a half,” said Bahari Harris, executive director of Urban Hope Ministries and member of the Walltown Advisory Board, at the neighborhood meeting last Thursday.
Sam Miglarese, Duke’s Director of Community Engagement, worked for more than a year to solicit input at community meetings and build consensus on a technology program. Now that Parewski’s on board, she hopes to build upon that consensus and trust. She said the Digital Connectors program won’t be successful unless it has the support and involvement of the Walltown community — that’s why she and One Economy, the nonprofit that created the nationally adopted Digital Connectors program, are working to populate the Walltown program with local youth, local instructors and local equipment.
“We want the community to take ownership,” she said. “I’m only here for a year, and hopefully the project will be around a lot longer than that.”
Parewski is seeking neighborhood computer labs to host the after-school program, and Thursday’s meeting yielded a few suggestions from community residents. She also has asked the Walltown Advisory Committee and other residents to consider their neighbors who might have the expertise and the commitment to serve as instructors for the program. And already Parewski is meeting with neighborhood leaders to recruit local youth participants.
Walltown residents from the beginning have shaped the partnership’s attempts to bring a technology program to the neighborhood. The choice of the Digital Connectors program stemmed from a neighborhood survey that showed one of the biggest concerns for residents was the lack of local youth programs.
That survey also offered greater impetus for getting the technology project off the ground: It showed that fewer than 43 percent of Walltown households own a computer. The same data helped to spur another DARA-sponsored technology project fo Walltown youth: The Office is funding a third year of Digital Durham which this summer will offer a camp teaching technology skills to Walltown middle schoolers by helping them build a digital map of their neighborhood’s history. Trudi Abel, Duke historian and Director of the Digital Durham Project, is already working with Carter Community Charter School and with other Duke officials to build lesson plans aimed at engaging Walltown youth while preparing them for their End-of-Grade computer skills tests.
As buzz escalates around the new technology projects, Walltown residents are warming to the idea and coming to demand big things from the programs. At the Digital Connectors meeting last Thursday, Walltown Children’s Theatre Director Joseph Henderson echoed others in applauding the project and imploring his Walltown neighbors to make the most of the opportunity.
“Let’s make sure that we get the very, very best people,” Henderson said. “People who have a history of moving young people from Point A to Point B, and who are able to buy into the vision of where the digital age can go.”