How Community-Owned Wi-Fi Changes the Game for Poor Neighborhoods

Dabriah Alston knows her home is at risk of flooding.
As a resident of Red Hook, a waterfront Brooklyn community, she saw firsthand the devastation wrought when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012. The public-housing resident was inside her apartment when she and her family noticed how quickly the water was flooding into the street.
“I remember that the water started lapping on the windows of the first floor of the building, and that’s about five feet off the ground,” she says. She saw cars floating down the street. The lights began to flicker until they eventually went out. They wouldn’t turn back on for another 13 days.
All in all, it took the neighborhood over a month before things started to feel normal again. But there was something invisible that saved her, along with hundreds of other Red Hook residents, the majority of whom live in public housing: the neighborhood’s open Wi-Fi network.
Unlike personal networks that most people access in their homes via a single router, residents can connect — for free — to the area’s mesh network, which uses a system of nodes, or hot spots, strategically placed throughout the neighborhood. The nodes are accessed via cell phones and laptops and, in the case of an emergency, allow people to communicate with each other even when the internet is down.
For the people living in Red Hook, an area that is already remote by New York standards, that access was crucial. After Superstorm Sandy, the area had no power or cell service, much less reliable internet. It was, more than ever, off the grid.
Luckily, the neighborhood’s mesh network — set up by volunteers with Red Hook WiFi in 2012 before the storm — gave first responders and residents online access to exchange crucial information, such as official evacuation routes and where to go for food and first-aid supplies.
“When the [mesh was installed] we didn’t know it was something we would need, something that would become pivotal during the recovery,” Alston says. “At one point FEMA was using that Wi-Fi as well. It made it easier to find people who could volunteer, and it supported [Red Hook’s] recovery.”
The area’s mesh network is an offshoot of the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit that works in part to empower youth in Brooklyn through tech training, among other academic and job-prep programs. Mesh networks had already proven successful in Detroit, where a Digital Stewardship program had been set up by the Open Technology Institute that allowed neighbors to connect with each other wirelessly, even in the event of an internet outage.

Community Wi-Fi 2
Red Hook Initiative teaches Brooklyn youth tech skills including mesh Wi-Fi installation.

“That’s our hope, that the network is used as a source of communication throughout the neighborhood,” Robert Smith, a digital steward in Red Hook, told the New York Times in 2014. “We want to have both, that second layer, so if the Internet goes down we can still connect with each other through the mesh.”
The success of Red Hook’s mesh during and after Superstorm Sandy has led community organizers in other areas with similar characteristics — remote, largely low-income, and at risk of flooding or other climate change–related disasters — to follow in the coastal community’s footsteps.
It’s also a handy solve for the city’s “digital divide,” the term used to describe the lack of access to internet in poor neighborhoods, such as Red Hook and parts of Harlem and the Lower East Side in Manhattan. According to a report released last year, over 1.6 million households in New York City lack basic broadband internet.
The only costs for accessing the internet via a mesh network is the equipmenta rooftop router ranges from $60 to $100and upkeep, which is done by volunteers in some cases. And organizations that install a mesh oftentimes only ask for monthly donations — sometimes as little as $20, a pretty nice price-tag considering that service from a conventional ISP can cost hundreds of dollars a year.
“The big companies would have you think that there’s no option than them, especially in New York City,” Jason Howard, a volunteer programmer with NYC Mesh, told the CBC. “It’s so refreshing to come across this ability to do something else as an alternative.”
The network that NYC Mesh operates, which includes dozens of nodes in low-income neighborhoods mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, gives users internet speeds close to 100 megabytes per second (for perspective, Netflix requires 5 mbps for high-definition streaming).
In the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx — one of the country’s poorest, with 14 percent of its 52,200 residents unemployed — The Point Community Development Corporation is working on a mesh network of its own. Besides providing free internet to those unable to pay for at-home Wi-Fi, the nonprofit sees it as insurance against future disasters Mother Nature might throw its way.
“During Sandy, [the Red Hook Wi-Fi] network helped people communicate with their neighbors,” says Angela A. Tovar, director of community development at The Point CDC. “Hunts Point is by the water too, so it’s important to plan for the next storm.”   
Similar to Red Hook’s initiative, The Point CDC’s program, launched last September, hires residents at minimum wage to work as digital stewards. They are taught tech skills, such as coding, and help set up the mesh network, which includes the harrowing task of accessing rooftops and climbing towers to install the nodes and routers. Citi Foundation has invested more than $500,000 into the ongoing project, which will eventually include nodes on 10 local businesses and three high-rises in the area.
Superstorm Sandy crashed into Red Hook more than five years ago, but the destruction it brought remains fresh in the minds of residents.
“I still think about the storm a lot,” says Alston, who sees a silver lining. “It’s brought the community together and it gives us a feeling of empowerment [that] we don’t have to be caught unaware anymore.”

Uniting Forces Against a Digital Divide

The digital divide, an alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind, cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike.
Across the nation, approximately 6.5 million U.S. students lack connectivity to the Internet. And half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.
The one-hour documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America,” directed by Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy and narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students who are hurt by a lack of technology access.
“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net” points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?”
“Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at
This post was paid for by Verizon.

Teetering on the Digital Divide

At Jameira Miller’s high school in Lansdowne, Pa., using technology means punching buttons on a calculator. To use a computer, the soft-spoken senior has to give up lunch to wait in line at the media center, which only has a few desktops. Yet five miles away, students at a different school enjoy courses in computer-aided drafting design, engineering and robotics.
Welcome to the “digital divide,” the alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind. It’s the focus of Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.
The one-hour film, narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students, including Miller, who are hurt by a lack of technology access. The hardware shortage is just the start. Approximately 6.5 million U.S. students still lack connectivity to the Internet. Half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.
The digital divide cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike. The only common denominator: a lack of federal, state and local funding. Live in the “wrong” zip code and not only will your child’s ability to learn be affected, but her odds of thriving in the future will also be impacted, explains Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net.
“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Kirk points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?”
The argument, “Well, I didn’t have technology when I went to school,” isn’t valid, she says.
“When people ask, ‘Is it really necessary?’ my answer is yes,” says Kirk. “And then I ask them, ‘Who are you hiring today who can’t type on a computer?’”

UP TO SPEED: The Digital Divide in America

Through the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative, the company has committed $160 million in free technology devices, connectivity, teacher training and hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning for kids in need. So far, the program has helped 300,000 students in 1,900 schools and clubs. After measuring its impact, Kirk says, Verizon knew it was on to something big: 64 percent of kids who participated were more eager to go to college. And 53 percent decided to pursue STEM careers.
Still, “the answer to the digital divide isn’t as simple as ‘let’s give away technology to everyone,’” Kirk notes.
That’s where “Without a Net” comes in.
“We wanted to tell a story,” Kirk says. “Not about Verizon, but about the bigger issue. We wanted to take a closer look at the ecosystem [of the digital divide] — the students, parents, teachers, schools, government, curriculum, zip codes — and shine a light on what our opportunities could be.”
Kennedy was the perfect filmmaker to take on that challenge. “Giving back is in Rory’s DNA,” says Kirk, a NationSwell Council member. “She has incredible compassion for the underserved.”
The film’s narrative, and Kennedy’s focus, remains firmly on those teetering closest to the digital divide. A sixth grader in New York shows how she types out school assignments on her mom’s phone. (“A 10-minute assignment can take her an hour,” her teacher worries.) A frustrated principal in rural Pennsylvania shows off a storage room filled with brand new Chromebooks — which can’t be used since his school can’t afford Wi-Fi.
In Coachella, Calif., one of the poorest school districts in the state, teenagers spend their weekends sitting inside parked school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi routers. Since their families can’t afford Internet access at home, these buses are their only chance to go online and finish homework.

As president of the Verizon Foundation, Rose Stuckey Kirk believes that giving children access to technology puts them on a path to success, both in school and in life.

Kirk knows putting an end to tech inequality requires many factors, including reliable connectivity at schools and homes, mobile digital devices, immersive teacher training, tech-ed focused curriculum — and plenty of visionary leaders. (Those Coachella buses tricked out with Wi-Fi? They were the brainchild of a principal who saw his students struggling.)
That’s why Verizon is committed to continue handing out tablets, training teachers and offering free tech labs to kids who need them the most. And it’ll continue giving a voice to the issue with its campaign, #weneedmore.
When Kirk saw the final cut of “Without a Net,” “I cried,” she admits. The scene that touched a nerve: When Miller learns all those lunches she missed for the opportunity to use a computer were worth it — because she’s been accepted to college.
“Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at
This post was paid for by Verizon.

Generating Coding Fever in Tech-Loving Minority Teens

Alongside the glinting waves and pristine beachfront property, a surge of talent is transforming Miami into a tech hub.
The Kauffman Index rated the metropolitan area of Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach as the number one entrepreneurial area in America, and international tech startups are using the city for its geographic proximity to Latin America.
But in Broward County, just north of the white sands of Miami Beach, there’s a stark reality for the youth of color: They don’t have access to technology or entrepreneurial leaders the same way that some of their well-to-do peers do.
“In areas of high growth in the tech and entrepreneurial or small business sector, [minority] populations are completely left out of that activity,” says Felecia Hatcher-Pearson, co-founder of Code Fever Miami. “If you have an idea, oftentimes you have to leave your neighborhood in order to execute on that idea or get the right resources in order to make that happen. And that’s a problem.”
Hatcher-Pearson’s organization is bridging that digital divide — which she refers to as an “innovation desert” — by providing opportunities to young teens of color in coding lessons and pitching business startup ideas.
Since 2013, Code Fever has introduced more than 3,000 youth and adults to the tech ecosystem. It’s also served as host to more than 100 tech events, including boot camps and hack-a-thons.
This isn’t Hatcher-Pearson’s first attempt at bringing entrepreneurship to youth. After losing her marketing job at Nintendo in 2008 when the financial crisis hit, she moved back into her parent’s Florida home and opened an ice cream and popsicle stand in Broward County. She noticed that the kids in the community looked up to moneymakers: those selling drugs.
“Sometimes the first way [these kids] get introduced to entrepreneurship in their neighborhoods when they live in impoverished neighborhoods, it’s the guy that’s selling on the block, right? And if he’s successful, he’s getting a mentor, like someone showing him how to do it,” she says.
Hatcher-Pearson began pairing teens with entrepreneurs to learn how to market and sell sweets using extra stands she had laying around.
“We know what happens when young people can’t get their first jobs or don’t learn the basic skills on how to be self-sustainable, the entire cycle of poverty continues,” she says.
As Miami’s tech scene started taking off in 2010, Hatcher-Pearson recognized a similar lack of entrepreneurial mentorship.
“It wasn’t inclusive,” says Hatcher-Pearson, referring to the tech scene in Miami. “It didn’t include the black community or the Caribbean community in any of the activity, the resources, the programming or any of the spaces.”
With the help of her husband, Derek, the two started Code Fever.
The organization’s reputation is built on its ability to foster African American tech talent through its Black Tech Week. The summit provides multiple pitch opportunities to help finance burgeoning startups, class intensives geared toward making older generations more digitally native and education for teachers on how to bring in more technology into the classroom — a massive hindrance for students, Hatcher says.
“Oftentimes, their teachers don’t have the right tech training or tech confidence, and they’re the ones that are not doing a good job of allowing technology to be in the classroom,” Hatcher-Pearson says.
Ryan Hall, who heads the curriculum for Code Fever and Black Tech Week, says that based on his own personal experience, the role the organization plays in students’ lives is essential.
“I personally found that I was in a lot of these tech spaces, and I didn’t see a lot of people who look like me,” Hall says. “We care about taking people who are minorities and bringing them into the technology economy, because it has the ability to raise people out of their socioeconomic situation.”
Both Hatcher-Pearson and Hall attribute the program’s success to its ability to allow kids of color to integrate their own personal lifestyles and interests into coding. Code Fever accomplishes this by bringing in local black celebrities and creating hybrid projects that merge music and tech or sports and tech.
“Culture plays a major role in introducing students to [science, technology, engineering or math] fields,” says Hatcher-Pearson. “We have to introduce them to computer programming because… the current narrative is that the black and brown community doesn’t exist in tech, and we are pioneers in tech and innovation.”
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
Correction: A previous version of this video stated that Miami is the birthplace of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He was born in Albuquerque, N.M. NationSwell apologizes for this error.
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The Job-Training Program Giving City Kids a Reason to Hope

As urban areas across the nation experience renewal and transformation, Camden, N.J., is at the beginning of its renaissance.
The city — once known as America’s most dangerous — has been experiencing dramatic decreases in gun crime and violence, namely an 80 percent reduction in homicides during the first three months of 2017. That’s good news for Camden, which has also become a testing ground for tech nonprofits that want to help beleaguered youth find their way out of neighborhoods riddled with gang violence and into well-paying tech jobs.
But for Camden’s young residents, an increase in opportunity might not necessarily mean a better economic future.
“We had seen too many times in Camden, programs that had trained young people the same way, the same old skills, the same old methodology. Our young people needed something different,” says Dan Rhoton, executive director for Hopeworks ‘N Camden. “Our young people needed training, they needed healing, so that they could get a career that not only gave them a pathway to the future, but offered them sustainable opportunities now.”
Other nonprofits work to get minority students or young girls interested in tech jobs, but Rhoton says that the biggest challenge most of those organizations face isn’t getting kids interested — it’s that they don’t address the trauma that comes along with poverty or exposure to violence.
By using therapy as a means to address deep issues that can affect work ethic and personal integrity, Hopeworks has been successful in providing a steady stream of quality graduates that are career-focused and mentally prepared for work.
“Our young people have been hurt. Their legs have been broken, and yet we put them at the starting line with everyone else and tell them to run,” says Rhoton. “When they struggle, when they fall over, what too many programs do is they say, ‘Try harder,’ or they say, ‘You’re not motivated.’ If my leg is broken, motivation is not the issue — healing is.”
Hopeworks began 17 years ago under the guidance of three faith-based community leaders that “looked out on the streets and saw young people with no dreams, saw young people with no opportunities,” says Rhoton. The program was meant to address some of the biggest challenges in Camden at the time: getting teens from the tough streets of one of America’s most challenging and economically poor cities into more fulfilling careers in tech.
With a background working at detention centers and bringing education to those formerly incarcerated, Rhoton came to Hopeworks in 2012. At the time, the organization was experiencing problems, namely that it was only seeing a 10 percent success rate.
“We were bad at our job,” he says, adding that the low success rate was the catalyst for Hopeworks to focus on personal issues, such as abuse or neglect that can hamper a student’s ability to learn. “We decided that a 10 percent, or 20 percent, 30 percent success rate wasn’t okay.”
“Yes, young people need to learn technology, but if you can help them deal with what’s happened to them, then you can help them show up on time, you can make sure they’re ready for work,” Rhoton says. “It’s harder, it’s longer.”
Brandon Rodriguez, a 19-year-old student intern for Hopeworks and lifelong Camden resident, says that when he joined the organization, he was only looking for a gig learning graphic design.
“When you come into Hopeworks, you have this pre-conceived notion that you’re coming here for an internship, or you’re coming here to just talk to someone. You don’t think you’re gonna get as much as you get.” he says. “I’ve only been here for less than a week, about five days now, but the opportunities started flying my way.”
Student-turned-mentor Frankie Matas graduated in 2013. Today he works with incoming Hopeworks students.
“Everybody learns different. If some people need to show them a different way, I help them in that aspect,” he says. “Hopeworks noticed that about me, and that’s what got me to become the first youth trainer. It helped me become a better leader.”
That aspect of youth training and leadership is key, says Rhoton.
“It’d be one thing if someone who looked like me was teaching you how to code, but if it’s someone who, just a few weeks ago, was standing on the corner with you, that’s a powerful message about who can do it, and how you can do it,” says Rhoton.
To that extent, Hopeworks has been successful since Rhoton came on board. The program has seen a 300 percent increase in students going into college and employs nearly 50 students each year after graduation to work within their studios, which take in $600,000 in annual revenue designing websites, among other things. Other participants land part-time and full-time jobs in the tech market, says Rhoton.
“What we wanna do is we wanna make sure we change the equation,” says Rhoton. “So that our young people are not only able to change their lives, but they’re able to change lives in the next generation, as well.
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
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They’re Learning STEM Skills by Dancing to Destiny’s Child

At the start of the L train in the upper-class Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, there are 10 city-funded Wi-Fi hubs within two blocks. When the train hits Brooklyn, two miles east, there are another six Wi-Fi hubs being installed in the hip East Williamsburg area. But the numbers start to fall as the train dives deeper into Brooklyn, where poverty is rampant. By the time it hits the neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville, there are none.
Out here, almost a third of homes don’t have internet access — the gateway to a community’s broader participation in STEM industries and the jobs they offer. High schools, meanwhile, are under-equipped with the basic infrastructure needed for internet access and technology education. Music, dance and the arts, in contrast, are well established in the community.
This disconnect — in the midst of a national trend to move funding from the humanities to STEM — is what led Yamilée Toussaint, a mechanical engineering graduate from MIT, to start STEM From Dance, a program for high school girls that merges the local culture of dance and music with a future in learning complex science and technology concepts.
“Students who would be a natural fit for, say, a career as a coder don’t necessarily know that until they are introduced to it,” Toussaint says. “Through dance, we’re attracting them to a different world that they wouldn’t otherwise opt-in themselves.”

At STEM From Dance, students learn to code stage and costume lighting along with visual effects for their performances.

Toussaint, a tiny woman with large hair and a soft voice, created the program five years ago. Normally it spans a full semester, but this year she increased the number of girls she can reach with a summer intensive curriculum focused on circuitry.
During the course of one week, participants practice a dance routine that they pair with lessons on building and coding circuits.
“It was hard at first,” says Chantel Harrison, a 17-year-old participant from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I didn’t know what it was about, honestly.”
Harrison and a couple dozen other girls are taught to wire battery-powered light circuits. They sew them into their dance costumes to create splashy light effects synced to a song’s beat. For many of them, this is their first introduction to computer science and coding.
And that is a stark reality check. In New York City, where technology often seems boundless — and where there have been huge strides to build up “Silicon Alley,” New York City’s own version of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley — kids educated in the city’s outer borough’s face significant barriers to a future working in the tech industry.
“If we cannot allow our children to have first-class computer equipment in a first-class city, they’re not going to be prepared to be employed at a first-rate corporation,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams tells NationSwell. “We cannot have a digital divide in our borough and in our city.”
Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have pushed for high-speed internet access and STEM course integration into the city’s high school curriculum by 2025. But in Brooklyn, a study published in December 2016 by the Brooklyn Borough President’s office found there is progress to be made: Internet access is subpar (the average rating is 3 out of 5) in the district’s schools; there are only enough tablets and laptops for 7 and 20 percent of the borough’s student population, respectively; and 70 percent of schools don’t have an established computer science curriculum.
“The mayor has a very strong goal, but the question is, are we set up to meet this goal based on current investments in schools?” says Stefan Ringel, a spokesperson for Adams. He adds that reaching the 2025 goal will require more investments in infrastructure upgrades as well as in the curriculum.
“There is a lot of talk around getting these students active in STEM education, but I’d say for our program, if we have 12 girls sign up, maybe one has actually been exposed to coding,” says Toussaint, as she watches a group of six teenagers practice a dance routine to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.”
“We’re not trying to make engineers or professional dancers within a week,” says Arielle Snagg, an instructor with STEM From Dance who also has a degree in neuroscience. “But we are hoping to give them an idea on how they can use technology within this art.”
Snagg, originally from Bushwick — another impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood — says she understands the plight of students who live in these parts of New York. Of those who work (and only about half the population does), just 5 percent do so within the tech and science fields. And getting more women into technology can help a labor force that is desperate for diversity, especially when it comes to women of color.
After a week in the camp, Harrison, who will be a senior at Achievement First Brooklyn High School in the fall, says she gained a new appreciation for the integration of dance and science. “And I’ve gotten better in math — I’ve even learned to love it.”
Next spring, Toussaint will see her first group of students graduate from high school. And though she hopes that many of them pursue technology in college, more than anything she wants them to enter any career with confidence.
“The point is to let [these girls] know that they can do anything, and they don’t have to do one thing,” she says. “They just have to open up their minds a bit.”

Here Are Your 2016 Inherent Prize Finalists

One of these movers and shakers will be awarded with the Inherent Prize in recognition of their social entrepreneurship. The grand-prize winner receives $50,000, with the runner-up nabbing $25,000. Get to know more about each below, and check back after November 15th to read about the winner.

Rutgers University Admits Unlikely Student Body, Journalists Use Reporting to Urge Politicians to Act and More

A University That Prioritizes the Students Who Are Often Ignored, The Atlantic
Traditionally, America’s colleges seek to attract the best and brightest to their hallowed halls. Committed to cultivating local talent regardless of status, New Jersey’s Rutgers University is bucking that trend, recruiting low-income, public-school graduates with mediocre GPAs and test scores — the very students that other schools shun.
A Plan to Flood San Francisco With News on Homelessness, New York Times
Can journalists advocate for a cause while remaining unbiased in their reporting? Next month, writers and editors from 30 Bay Area media outlets plan to do just that while collaborating on coverage focused on San Francisco’s homeless problem. The goal: To serve as a catalyst for solutions to the seemingly intractable problem.
This City Is Giving Away Super-Fast Internet to Poor Students, CNN Money
No longer are the poorest families in Chattanooga, Tenn., forced to visit a fast-food restaurant so their children can access the Internet needed to complete their homework. Two new programs are bringing citizens online in the Southern city, where 22.5 percent of the population lives in poverty.
MORE: Only 1 in 5 New York City Students Graduate from College. This College Is Going to Change That

How Do You Keep the American Dream Alive? End the Digital Divide

More than one in five Americans don’t have access to the Internet. For the majority of the disconnected, the biggest issue is cost. As CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit working to close the digital divide, NationSwell Council member Chike Aguh lobbies policymakers in Washington, generating awareness of low-cost options for connectivity and partnering with corporations to provide computers and Wi-Fi to American families. Aguh has helped connect 200,000 families in the last four years, and he plans to help 350,000 more by the end of the decade.
NationSwell spoke to him about what he’s learned from serving a disconnected and forgotten group of Americans.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
It comes from a professor I used to have — his name is Harry Spence — when I was in Cambridge. A public manager extraordinaire, he managed a number of public bureaucracies from housing authorities to school districts. I always call him a mix of Peter Drucker [the mind behind modern corporate management] and Confucius [the ancient Chinese philosopher]. The first day of class he said, “Does the staff exist to support the manager, or does the manager exist to support the staff?”
Great managers — and by extension, great leaders — support their staff, not the other way around. Your job is to help them do their job. Particularly as I’ve moved into leadership, I’ve realized more and more that my job is making others better, and in many ways, the work that I do at EveryoneOn for the communities we look to serve is about helping them be better. It’s not about me saving them. This is about giving them the tools to empower and save and change themselves. I think the same is true of leadership, and I want an organization that can operate without me: that is the goal. I think it is very easy, particularly in a very hero-centric view of social change, to see a social entrepreneur or a CEO or a leader as the sole change. That’s not true. It’s a movement of people, not a person.
What’s your favorite book of all-time?
I would probably say “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch, which is really one of the best histories of the Civil Rights movement that there is. It’s easy to forget where we were 50 years ago as a country. In many ways, it shows us what’s possible and also what’s left to do. The movement was a movement of people, not a person. Of course, Martin Luther King figures very heavily, but there are many other people whose names we forget and don’t say enough.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
It was as part of my work at EveryoneOn with ConnectHome. One of the communities we work with is the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. I think we know, but it’s important to say, Native American communities on reservations are the most underserved parts of our country. So to be able to go there with one of our tech partners, Github, from Silicon Valley and give out 136 computers to families there, take them through digital literacy workshop and have Thanksgiving dinner with them was one of the proudest and most inspiring moments I have ever seen.

Aguh’s organization, EveryoneOn, helped provide more than 100 computers to members of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

What inspires you?
I, in many ways, am a prisoner of my biography. To give you a sense of my background, my parents are from a small, out-of-the-way village in Nigeria that most Nigerians themselves have not been to and will never visit. None of my grandparents went past middle school. My dad grew up one of nine, my mom grew up one of 11. What changed life for both of them was the opportunity to come study here in the United States at public universities. My dad got a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship. He went to the University of Texas in Austin; my mom went to Rutgers. I always say, without education and the economic opportunity of this country, I would not be here, quite literally. I consistently feel like I’ve been given more than I could ever repay, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying. It’s what I’ve tried to do and I’m going to continue until I can do it no more.
When I was first taking on this role, I began to think that my country can’t do what it did for my parents for others without the Internet. What has happened over a generation in my family, that’s in many ways because of the American Dream. The only way that’s still possible is with everyone on and having access to the Internet. Eighty percent of kids need the Internet to do homework every night. I can tell you stories of families who go to the parking lots of hospitals or libraries to use the Internet. Ninety percent of job applications are online, particularly as you go up the income scale. Ninety percent of college applications are preferred or required to be done online. So, just with those three data points, if you are not online, you are economically and educationally marginalized. The Internet is the platform on which the wealth of tomorrow is being built through apps and tech companies. For that wealth to be shared by everyone, you need everyone on it: not just as consumers, but as creators.
The next Mark Zuckerberg is a young kid in Albuquerque, in Brooklyn, in L.A. We don’t know who they are, but we’re never going to find them if we don’t give them access to be creators on the Internet.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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How Old Computers Can Make a Lifelong Impact on Low-Income Kids

Between personal computers and the machines in computer labs, there are about as many computers on college campuses as students. But when these electronics become obsolete, what happens to them?
If tossed into landfills, they become a big environmental hazard. But the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) has figured out how to turn them into a solution that helps out low-income students.
The school’s program, Computers to Youth, runs camps for inner-city students, teaching them about life in college and how to refurbish old computers. At the conclusion of camp, each student takes home a computer.
Dave Newport, director of CU’s Environmental Center, tells KUSA that there are 10,000 computers on campus — all of which are regularly replaced. “We can’t give away enough of these,” he says. The program “helps protect the environment. It reduces cost. But the best part is, it empowers students.”
Basheer Mohamed, a sophomore engineering major at CU, can vouch for that. The immigrant from Sudan received a computer from Computers to Youth when he was in high school. Prior to that, his family couldn’t afford one. “Between us and more privileged kids, it was really hard to keep up with them,” he says. When he got his computer, he excelled in school, became interested in engineering and even researched and applied for the scholarships that now are funding his education.
What might he be doing if he never received that rehabbed computer? “If anything, I’d probably be going to a community college if not just working,” Mohamed says. “I don’t want to know where I would’ve been without it.”
Thanks to Computers to Youth, that’s one computer kept out of the landfill, and one mind sparked to great achievement by higher education.
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