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?
“[This area is] plagued by poverty, governmental neglect, high rates of mental illness, lead poisoning, drug abuse and joblessness.” The New York Times
To the kids of Englewood, a technology professional is someone who sells burner phones. According to Clydene Stangvik, Corporate Social Responsibility manager with Cisco, until students can visualize themselves in a role, they won’t believe they can do it. “We have to make them aware that a professional career in IT is indeed within their grasp by showing relatable successes.”
IT Connect - First Stop Chicago is an unusually broad ecosystem of partners, drawing on schools and teachers, parents and community leaders, nonprofits and government agencies, startup incubators, and corporations like Cisco. It is dynamic and fast-growing, increasing impact as new threads knit together.
Cisco Networking Academy provides much of the IT curriculum, supported by local academy instructors who volunteer their time, after-school programs like Chicago Youth Centers, and entrepreneurial programs by The Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation (GECDC).
“We help them see themselves as creators of technology—teaching them about apps, location services, wearables, and crowd sourcing,” Stangvik said. “With the emergence of the Internet of Things, an IT education can take them from industry to industry, transferring their skills in ways that weren’t possible before.”
Glen Fulton of the GECDC is a former Cisco employee who was born and raised in Englewood. After he left Cisco, he opted to bring his IT enthusiasm to his old neighborhood and help youth discover a future in IT. Three of his students, who completed the IT Connect web-based curriculum, recently launched their own startup with the help of The Englewood Accelerator, a business incubator created by the GECDC.
Jerry Rocco, a member of Cisco’s regional Sales team, is also playing a key role. He inspired the Chicago mayor’s office to fund four IT Connect student internships at the Museum of Science and Industry, where they programmed a robot to give live video exhibit tours to remote students. Jerry also connected the City of Chicago CIO with the GECDC to engage IT Connect students for setting up and maintaining the city’s equipment with the skills they’d gained through the NetAcad curriculum. “We’ve also reached out to retail franchises like Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Chipotle.” Whole Foods quickly became a partner.
Skills competitions are great opportunities for IT Connect to provide students with hands-on experience and chances to showcase their abilities. The national Cyberpatriot challenge, an annual cybersecurity competition for middle school students, high school students, and service members, now has 16 teams from seven different IT Connect organizations representing Illinois this year.
Working collaboratively, IT Connect, Cisco, Microsoft, and Get In Chicago came up with the Technology for Peace competition, in which Englewood students pitch 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. Over time, we hope to see the Technology for Peace competition expanded nationally.”
IT Connect is spreading the word that IT education expands opportunity. “When you want to make a change in the economic prosperity in a community, take this message to regional businesses, policymakers and other stakeholders—how are you investing in the dreams of our young people?” Glen said.
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