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I recently returned from spending several days in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, accompanying our CEO, Jean Case, who serves as a co-chair of the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership, a public-private partnership working to spark economic and educational development in the West Bank in support of a two-state solution for peace. The highlight of the visit was attending the grand opening of a youth center in Beita, which is supported by the Partnership.
In the middle of this small village of 9,000 people, the four-story youth center is the largest building amidst the humble homes, abandoned cars and never-ending brown stone and sand. On the day of the opening, surrounded by flashing cameras, television news media, singing girl scouts in uniform and little drummer boys, hundreds of community members, local politicians and international dignitaries crowded into and around the at-capacity building to see the new floors, new furniture, new pool tables, and the highlight-- the new technology center.
Thanks to generous donations from USAID, Cisco and Intel, the Beita Youth Center has a gleaming modern computer lab, boasting the best curriculum the world has to offer. Young girls in hijabs (the head covering worn by many Muslim women) and anxious teenage boys were thrilled to show off their new technology skills by showcasing a video-chat with youth in East Jerusalem-- transcending political and security boundaries with just a click of a mouse. As I was sitting in this packed room listening to familiar lengthy speeches from dignitaries and watching the nervous youth panelists, I was reminded how similar this scene was to the scores of technology center openings I had attended in the US many years before.
In Beita, Palestine just like Boston, Mass., a computer with an internet connection and a passionate teacher has the power to breakdown boundaries of geography, policy, race and religion. In the West Bank just like the West Coast, teaching youth marketable skills and providing them with a link to the world can awake within a child a doctor, politician, global traveler or teacher. The food may be different, the gangs may have different names, the reason and extent of the weak economy is different, but at the end of the day, we find the same issue from continent to continent, from decade to decade… children with too much free time on their hands, untapped potential, limiting socio-economic barriers, and an unquenchable thirst to hone that innate desire to explore and succeed.
Seven years ago I had the privilege to be part of an extraordinary initiative launched by the Case Foundation to bring the power of technology and the information age to underserved communities and youth in nearly 1,000 communities across the United States. PowerUP: Bridging the Digital Divide, Inc. was a collaborative effort between some of the nation’s most prominent technology companies designed to ensure that all youth could acquire the skills, experiences, and resources they needed to succeed in the digital age.
PowerUP launched in 1999, a time when most Americans accessed the internet through dial-up connectivity, only 44% were online (compared to 72% now), adults were actually still teaching kids how to use the internet, and the latest craze was instant messaging and chat. The average 12-year-old PowerUP center member, who was likely using a computer (Pentium II processor) for the first time and could not dream of having one at home, is now 20 years old and undoubtedly technology savvy and immersed. Technology to them is as much an ingredient to life and sustainability as water.
There are still many young people in communities across the United States who do not have adequate access to technology or access to quality teaching that demonstrates technology’s ability to be more than a gaming system, music player or social network. However, this problem pales in comparison to what is seen in the developing world in places like Beita.
Our work with the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership to bring the power of technology and the internet to Palestinian youth in the West Bank has been eye-opening, and shockingly similar to my experiences traveling across rural Louisiana and Mississippi and inner-city Boston and Miami. Only 33% of Palestinians own a computer, 15% of homes have access to the internet, and only about 20% use it on a regular basis. Compare this to the fact that 66% of Palestinian are under 24, 40% live under the poverty line and Palestinian children are the among most educated in the region, you have the makings for incredible opportunity or incredible concern.
USAID has invested $12.5 mm to build, staff and program four youth centers; Cisco is investing $2mm into social programs; Intel is supporting technology equipment, internet connection and teacher training; and Boys & Girls Clubs of America is creating sister-clubs and training leaders. Once again a coalition of the caring and the willing are making a profound difference in the lives of children. With a small investment they are unleashing the potential in children, building bridges of understanding and peace and breaking down stifling borders. And, once again, seven years later, I find myself inspired and motivated by youth (albeit with different accents, locations and last names) who are leveraging technology to innovate, create connections, challenge their limitations and blaze new trails that the rest of the world will soon follow.
It’s easy to forget that a digital divide still exists in some parts of our nation and in large parts of the developing world, especially when cell phones, BlackBerrys, and internet cafés saturate and define many of our lives. Don’t forget. I will do my part by reporting back via our blog to update you on the progress in Palestine and share with you stories of success and challenges as West Bank communities work to make the promise of technology and the internet, and all that comes with it, a reality. Visit the Get Involved page on the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership website to learn more about how you can help this incredible effort. And, please reply to this story with your experiences in bridging the digital divide in the U.S. and abroad.