Like many public housing developments in New York City, the Red Hook Houses suffer from low broadband adoption rates and a lack of computer access. But the Red Hook Initiative, a non-profit devoted to youth empowerment in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is rapidly changing that.
During Hurricane Sandy, Red Hook Wi-Fi, a free internet service hosted by the Red Hook Initiative, stayed online throughout the storm and in its immediate aftermath — providing a lifeline to stranded residents in the largely flooded coastal community.
Building on the success of that service, Tony Schloss, director of community initiatives, started the Digital Stewards program in 2013. Using a curriculum created by the Open Technology Institute and Allied Media Projects, the Digital Stewards are neighborhood 19- to 24-year-olds who are employed in using technology as an agent for community development. This includes maintaining and expanding Red Hook Wi-Fi, which now consists of a mesh network that can re-route and stay active even if several nodes fail.
Of the eight Digital Stewards from the initial 2013 group, four are now employed in the tech world (one has entered the restaurant business and another is in school and working as a video consultant). Rob, one of the four remaining in the tech industry, continues to work for the Red Hook Initiative as a Wi-Fi system administrator, teaching his newly-acquired skills to the 2014 Digital Stewards cohort.
Although Red Hook has been identified in recent years as an up-and-coming hip locale, about 70 percent of its population are public housing tenants whose lives are quite different from the area’s more affluent transplants. Schloss and Rob see their work as addressing several issues, including breaching the digital divide and increasing diversity in technology. But at the micro level, their work is facilitating greater interaction between newcomers and long-time residents in Red Hook — creating a true 21st century community in one of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhoods.