The Western Addition Community Technology Center Bridges The Digital Divide

The Western Addition Community Technology Center Bridges The Digital Divide
The CTC's Open Access Lab, which has 12 computers for public use, free of charge. Photos: Adam Fischer / Hoodline.
By Adam Fischer - Published on February 20, 2016.

James Rabb is a PC guy.

He’s got nothing against Apple computers, but they’re just not compatible with his current job. They’re expensive, hard to repair if something breaks, and not everyone has easy access to them.

“If you got the money, Macs are probably the greatest thing you can own,” Rabb said. “But for the average Joe Blow, I always recommend they use a PC.” 

Rabb, the technology director of the Western Addition Community Technology Center (CTC), a non-profit on Turk between Gough and Laguna that offers free computer use and classes to the less-tech-savvy public, works mostly with average Joe Blows when it comes to computer literacy. Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, he teaches a class called Basic Computer.

The lessons cover what most people embedded in the digital fabric of society might consider unconscious commands — how to turn the machine on, how to get from the “Start” tab to a web browser, the differences between a right click and a left click.  

“People think that just because they have smartphones they will be computer literate but that’s not the case,” he explained from an adjacent conference room after he got the class started on a project. 

James Rabb teaching his Basic Computer class.

The room Rabb teaches from, stocked with monitors adjacent to towers and a dim projector, looks unfairly archaic in the shadow of Silicon Valley. The software systems are up to date, thanks to a free giveaway of Windows 10 from Microsoft, and the wireless internet connection got a boost from a recent upgrade to DSL. But multiple routers instead of a central server can slow things down, especially when all 53 computers are in use — not to mention the stress some of the oldest machines experience when dealing with today’s powerful CPUs.  

But for the senior citizens who comprise nearly every one of the students in Rabb’s Basic Computer class, the above technical terms are not in their assignments, let alone their vocabulary. The goal is to make a computer part of their daily lives, regardless of where the machine sits on the state-of-the-art scale.  

“[The older students] didn’t see the relationship between social issues and how far computers have come,” said Rabb, a graduate of Hill College with a computer science degree. “They’re learning through personal experience — you cannot apply for a job unless you can use a computer; at the DMV, you need to take a test online; at a dentist’s office, you need to use a kiosk.”  

George Owens, a 75-year-old resident of Fellowship Manor on Golden Gate and Webster was bored of filling his retirement with golf and DVDs. When he wanted to get concert tickets to see blues guitarist Robert Cray, his daughter took him online and showed him how to buy remotely. Now, he’s purchased his own ASUS laptop to improve his computer skills outside of Rabb’s class.  

Owens worked with computers as a merchant marine in the Navy and as a Chevron employee, but those, he said, were tools tied to specific equipment, not flexible devices that could accomplish complex tasks. For now, the intricacies of e-mail and video chat kill two birds: keeping in touch with scattered family, and giving him a cognitive workout.  

“It’s something new for an old fart like me,” he said with a laugh. “The computer wakes up the grey matter.”  

George Owens, who recently purchased his own laptop, enjoys the challenge of learning new skills.

The CTC’s classes run on eight-week sections and are outlined with broad curricula. But both the fixed schedule and syllabi are loose guides for the self-paced nature of each course. People will float in and out over years and progress at different speeds, Rabb said, so teachers cater to individuals' needs. For example, one former student was interested in e-commerce for his carpet business, so Rabb fast-paced him on building template websites. When the student's typing wasn't up to snuff, Rabb installed a training program on his personal laptop. 

In addition to Basic Computer, Rabb teaches Internet Marketing, and is working on a troubleshooting class to make use of all the excess hardware people donate to the center. Three other volunteers and one full-time employee teach the remaining classes, which include Intro to Linux, Smartphone/Tablet, Microsoft Office, Computer/Internet Security  and a popular Genealogy class, which the San Francisco Chronicle covered in January 2014. The center is looking to add a coding class, which already has a waiting list of 70 people, and has reached out to Twitter and Galvanize to act as partners.  

For those simply in need of a computer, there is the CTC’s Open Access Lab, a space with 12 computers that has no time limit on the machines, and limited printing and faxing capabilities.  

“Most of the people that come in are here for job services,” Mary Rivers, the administrative/program director and the CTC’s only full-time employee, said on a slow afternoon.  

Pratapsinh Saraiya found out about the center through EDD and travels to the CTC weekly from the Richmond District.

The center is not a direct resource for jobs, but the CTC works closely with EDD, Veteran Services, SCSEP (a job program for senior citizens), and other agencies to turn new computer skills into tangible gains. According to data provided by the center, over 1,600 people who used the CTC in 2015, either as a sole client or a referral from another organization, found full- or part-time employment. 

The center also assists with more indirect needs of job hunting, such as polishing up resumes and cover-letter writing, as well as hosting job fairs and offering certified courses for security guard training. 

Beyond running a smooth business, the biggest challenge is getting the word out that the CTC exists.  

“Some people will stop in and say, ‘we didn’t realize you had computers.’ Then they’ll walk to the back and say, ‘we didn’t realize you were this big,’” Rivers, who also teaches the Smartphone/Tablet class, explained. 

The biggest (and most cost effective) marketing assets are the students. Mazie Williams, a student in her mid-70s, was allergic to technology. After she reluctantly enrolled in Basic Computer, she set up an e-mail address only to find herself limited to the CTC’s computers for checking the pictures her son in Atlanta sent. A former teacher then let Williams borrow an old smartphone for the Smartphone/Tablet class. She learned one task per week, and showed off her new skills in church every Sunday. Now, she uses the digital tools of someone five decades her junior — Google Maps, YouTube, Facebook — and lobbies whoever will listen about the CTC’s benefits.

The CTC, founded in 2001 through a federal grant, has navigated the competitive world of non-profit fundraising for the last 15 years with long-term partners, state money and donations. The key to success is to not get complacent during fruitful funding years.  

“There’s not a whole lot of funding out there for what we do,” said Bobby Sisk, the board chairman of Allen CDC, the company that runs the CTC along with two other community centers in the Western Addition. “You might be successful in getting funding for two or three years then someone else — be it their bid, or be it their influence or a contact — gets on the gravy train and that cycles for three years. So you've got to recognize when to start looking for other funding.” 

To combat the dry spells in funding, the CTC has a strategic partner: Bethel AME Church. Situated two blocks away on Laguna and Golden Gate, the church has allocated funds for outreach in the community to the CTC for a number of years. Sisk, a San Francisco native, has been a member of Bethel AME Church his entire life, and a trustee in the organization since he was 18. After using his business acumen to help the church acquire assets for affordable housing, he sold Bethel AME’s board on the CTC’s value and continues to prove the center’s worth as a sound investment in the community.  

“We just don’t put our hands out at Allen CDC and say, ‘Help us.’ We’ve got to demonstrate to them they we’re responsible gatekeepers of the money, and that the expenses that we have are legitimate expenses, and that we are managing it in such a way that we’re not wasting their funds.” 

The CTC’s building, which is located next to the Margaret S. Hayward Playground, has a moratorium of understanding with San Francisco Rec & Parks that allows the organization to operate rent free (the CTC covers utilities) as long as the center provides a service to the community. But the building will be knocked down at the end of the year, and the CTC will need to find a new home.  

The building that houses the CTC is scheduled for demolition by the end of the year. The search for a new space is ongoing.

Sisk is calm over the search for a new facility. SF Rec & Parks holds weekly meetings with the CTC and has assured the center they’ll help to locate a new short-term (if needed) and long-term space, Sisk said.  

Sisk did admit he is wary about two possible outcomes: one, the CTC losing its identity as a hub if it gets consolidated into another community center; and two, moving far enough outside of the Western Addition to deter the attendance of those who really need it.  

“Sometimes you ask a kid to walk three blocks to his left or to his right, and that might be the difference between night and day to that kid. And they might not tell you, but that might be a driver for that kid not to come,” Sisk said.  

Rivers' Google Calendar, dedicated to the relocation effort, now resembles an oversized Tetris board. When we asked her, a former student and employee for the last four years, how she felt about changing locations, she didn’t have time to dwell on the question; a new student had walked in, and he needed help uploading his resume.  

The Western Addition Community Technology Center is located at 1003A Turk St. and is open Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. For information on classes, services and volunteer opportunities call 415-431-2206 or visit www.westernadditionctc.org.