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NetAcad and Chicago's Underserved Youth

Chicago’s Underserved Communities

Englewood has been called one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago.  The problems seem overwhelming, and resources from local and state agencies are in scarce supply. How do you create optimism and opportunities for hundreds of disenfranchised kids?


“It’s like a tale of two cities. In downtown Chicago, business is flourishing and IT skills are in high demand. Just a few miles away, the youth of Englewood live in survival mode in a high-crime neighborhood. For these kids, the job opportunities might as well be on another planet.” -Glen Fulton, Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation


“[This area is] plagued by poverty, governmental neglect, high rates of mental illness, lead poisoning, drug abuse and joblessness.”  The New York Times


Archimedes said that with a long enough lever and a fulcrum on which to place it, you can move the world. Clydene Stangvik and Sara Shreve, part of Cisco’s Corporate Social Responsibility team, believe that an IT education is the lever that can move some of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


But to the kids of Englewood, becoming an IT professional seems as likely as flying to the moon. The professionals they’re most likely to encounter in their daily lives are police and firefighters. To them, technology is a cell phone that keeps them connected within the boundaries of their neighborhood. Ask them what a technology professional is, and they’ll probably point to the retail storeowner who sells burner phones.


“We have to make them aware that a professional career in IT is within their grasp,” says Clydene. “We need to show successes everywhere and anywhere we can, to reach as many kids as possible.” That’s the inspiration for a non-governmental organization (NGO) partnership called IT Connect. First Stop: Chicago.


A Diverse and Determined Ecosystem

IT Connect is about building as expansive an ecosystem as possible, drawing on every corner of the community, to involve as many types of stakeholders as possible:  parents, teachers, community leaders, government agencies, schools, for-profits businesses, and nonprofits.


The ecosystem is dynamic and has vast, unknowable potential. As more people and organizations participate, they make new connections. The ecosystem becomes stronger and more effective as more threads knit together.


The Cisco Networking Academy Connection

The educational portion of IT Connect draws heavily on the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum, and is also supported by local academy instructors who volunteer their time. “We’re taking our IT courses and bringing them to after-school programs through partners like Chicago Youth Centers and entrepreneurial programs offered by The Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation (GECDC),” says Clydene.


New courses are being created to excite the imagination of kids. “Some kids are interested in the world of apps,” says Clydene. “We’ve developed courses that help them see themselves as creators of technology—teaching them about location services, crowd sources, and wearables. Especially in the emerging era of the Internet of Everything, an IT education can take these kids anywhere. They can move from industry to industry, transferring skills in ways that weren’t possible before.”


The Entrepreneurial Connection

Glen Fulton is the executive director for the GECDC. He saw the tremendous potential for becoming part of the IT Connect ecosystem. Glen is a former Cisco employee who was born and raised in Englewood. After he left Cisco, he opted to return home and bring his enthusiasm for IT to his old neighborhood. Glen’s goal is to help all of the youths who come through his doors to either get hired or get on the path to a career in IT.


“We already have a lot of things going against us, given that we’re black. But along with our age, people won’t really take us seriously. Our goal is to make this a successful business." Chris Berry, 16-year old co-founder, VIP Productions


One student venture that showcases what’s been possible through IT Connect is a student startup called VIP Productions. The founders are three 16-year old students who have gone through the web-based curriculum, putting them on the track for becoming certified in five different areas. They launched their startup with the help of The Englewood Accelerator, a business incubator created by the GECDC.


The Intern Connection

The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) is the largest science museum in the western hemisphere. Imagine giving kids around the world the ability to tour the MSI virtually—no plane ticket required!


“…with a spark of inspiration and hard work, the future of our world can be changed, and the seemingly impossible can become possible.” The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry


Jerry Rocco, from Cisco’s Sales team, is part of the IT Connect ecosystem. Cisco had procured an iRobot to which Cisco engineers had attached a “videoconferencing head” based on Cisco TelePresence technology. Jerry inspired the Chicago mayor’s office to pay for summer internships for four students from Michele Clark high school (part of IT Connect, helping to program the robot to give live video tours of the MSI to students in remote locations around the world. “The interns did a phenomenal job,’ says Jerry. “Their work gave us the basis for developing other business applications for the videoconferencing robot.”


Recently, Jerry attended a CIO conference for state, county and city governments. Many are existing Cisco customers. But it was Jerry’s IT Connect relationships that the CIO for the City of Chicago wanted to discuss. “She asked me if we could schedule a meeting with the GECDC, Cisco, and her staff to discuss having the GECDC’s students train City of Chicago staff on how to set up and maintain Cisco equipment.


“We’ve also been able to reach out to big retail franchises like Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Chipotle, all of whom are moving into Chicago neighborhoods. Our involvement with IT Connect allows us to expand the conversations and relationships we have with these companies.” Whole Foods is already a participant in the IT Connect ecosystem.


The Competition Connection

Jerry is also a mentor for one of the first Chicago teams participating in the CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. The IT Connect ecosystem has been a driving force behind getting Chicago teams qualified for the CyberPatriot program—16 teams from seven different organizations in the IT Connect ecosystem will represent Illinois. National finalists compete in Washington DC. All participating students earn a prestigious event for their resumes.


The Peace Connection

When Perspectives Charter Schools in Chicago created an ‘I Am for Peace’ movement (a ‘Peace-a-thon’) among students, Glen reached out to the program’s CEO to join IT Connect. “Reclaiming their neighborhood from violence is an integral part of empowering kids to believe that they can take control of their destinies,” says Glen.


Working collaboratively, IT Connect ecosystem participants, including the GECDC, Cisco, Microsoft, and Get In Chicago, came up with a proposal for a Technology for Peace competition. Students from any Englewood school can pitch their ideas on how technology can be used to reduce violence. “We want Englewood and Chicago to be on the leading edge of youth-led change for peace and a more prosperous future,” says Glen. “Over time, we hope to see the Technology for Peace competition expanded nationally.”


“Perspectives Schools showed me how to save the streets.” Student from I Am for Peace Documentary


Connections for the Future

IT Connect reaches out to every organization and individual in a community who wants prosperity, opportunity, and freedom from violence. Through its dynamic and evolving ecosystem, IT Connect is rapidly becoming a major force in spreading the word that an IT education is a way to expand a young person’s view of the world and his or her place in it.


“When you want to make a change in the economic prosperity in any community, you have to find your way of contributing to those big goals. As an ecosystem, we need to speak with one voice to take this message to businesses, policymakers and other stakeholders—how are you investing in the dreams of these young people?”


-Glen Fulton, Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation