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Equitable Pursuits

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Elsie Crum leans close to a fresh-from-the-box personal computer and points with pride at the small metal tag that identifies it as an Urban Technology Center machine.

It isn't a brand that you'll find in any retail store. And that's exactly the point.

With the help of corporate donations, inventive finance plans, and the collective marketing savvy of its backers, the nonprofit Urban Technology Center hopes to make its brand of new and reconditioned computers at least as affordable for inner-city residents as television sets.

By providing low-cost access to information technologies, and training in how to use them, the center hopes to furnish poor people with increasingly vital electronic links from their homes to community services, public schools, and new economic opportunities.

"We don't want the computer to become a glorified typewriter," says Crum, a Harvard-trained lawyer and one-time chief of staff to former New York Mayor David Dinkins. "We see the most powerful application of the technology as its communications capability. It's not just using the Internet as a research tool, but using the Internet as a lifeline."

The center is working with Concord Family Services, a green oasis amid the graffiti and chaos of the troubled Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, to develop a model program in which UTC-brand computers, computer labs, training methods, and other innovations could be adopted by almost any community in the United States.

The family-services center is an arm of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, which has served the local community for more than a century. Area residents can now use a bank of computers at the center and enroll for classes in basic computer use. The center also offers some pilot courses in computer maintenance and other highly marketable skills.

Through an arrangement with the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, which has a branch at the family-services center, even area residents without established credit can get a loan to buy a computer at a low interest rate and with extremely flexible payment, provided they enroll in a UTC course.

"We see this as the technological equivalent of affordable housing," says Crum, an executive vice president of the technology center.

Fostering Self-Reliance

The Urban Technology Center is not the only effort to bring the information age to the inner city. In South Central Los Angeles, Kent Salveson, a real-estate developer, has established technology and tutoring centers in public-housing projects he has built there. The centers are staffed by students from the University of California at Los Angeles, who teach coursesin technology and other skills. Residents can take the Educational Excellence for Children with Environmental Limitations programs free of charge.

But Crum believes the UTC approach is unusual because it attempts to foster both self-reliance and economic development, tapping into a wellspring of community pride that causes residents to post signs in their yards that read, "Help us to keep our block clean."

Joseph Placide, Concord's liaison to the technology center, explains that the involvement of community institutions is an important symbol for residents who too often have seen fly-by-night economic-development schemes come and go.

The technology center, meanwhile, is working with the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. to develop electronic links with a local public school that would allow students, parents, and teachers to communicate.

But even without a direct connection to schools, Crum hopes that the training and equipment her organization supplies will fill a gap that New York public schools, like those in most urban areas, are unable to meet because they lack the equipment and staff.

"Forty-five minutes of access to computers once a week is not enough. You'll never learn to play the piano if you can't practice at home," she says, drawing on personal experience. "Which is why we're stressing the importance of having the computers in the homes."

Placide stresses that placing computers in homes also provides stability to many urban youngsters, particularly the children in Concord's comprehensive foster-child program.

"The idea is to create a support structure in the home," he says. "The computer is not a parent. It's not a substitute for a parent. But it can become a stationary and accessible learning tool."

The resources mentioned in this story can be reached at the following Internet addresses:

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