It cost La Plazita almost nothing to engineer a computer lab in the South Valley. Donated machines, elbow grease from volunteers and open source software built the lab, which opened its doors earlier this month.
Founded in 2004 by activist Albino Garcia, La Plazita Institute works with previously incarcerated or gang-involved youth. The organization runs two talking circles, Sisters Making a Change (S-MAC) and Thugs Making a Change (T-MAC). Members, some of them from opposing gangs, meet to talk about their highs and lows of the week. La Plazita is neutral ground, says Garcia, whose longtime mission has been to serve young people directly involved in violence and conflict. He does it, he adds, because he's been there. "I tell people right from the get-go: I've got a story that's similar to the kids we're trying to serve."
The programs are multifaceted. The institute oversees La Plazita Gardens, a 12-acre community farm. Garcia also conducts sweat ceremonies for young people and war veterans in and outside of lockup. It's part of his method of "culture cures," healing processes based in tradition.
And even as the institute moves into high-tech arenas, basic principles remain intact, says Katrina Coker, the volunteer who oversaw the effort to set up the computer lab. Open source software is a big part of that ethic, she says. " Open source" is a term for code and programs generated collaboratively by software designers that are put online for everyone to use without a fee.
An open source lab is unique, says Coker, "and is in keeping with the feel of La Plazita, as far as independence from outside forces; independence from controls and reliance on self." Plus, she adds, you don't have to worry about licensing or getting a specialized person in for tech support.
About 30 computers along with keyboards, flatscreens, mouses and printers were donated by the Public Defender's Office. Another dozen or so computers were donated by T-Mobile. Coker began coming in on the weekends to sort through the machines. Some were in good shape, she says. Others were not functioning and not worth fighting with. Volunteers from Intel labored over the equipment and provided some monitors. They also taught La Plazita's youth how to network the computers one evening. "That was important," says Coker, "because kids need to have buy-in, they need to have ownership." The work was part of a celebration that included a ceremony, a meal and a blessing.
“That exacerbates the divide. Poor kids aren't using computers at school and not at home.”
The Intel engineers also spent time talking to the teen groups, says S-MAC leader Susan Reyes. "The kids were just like sponges, absorbing all the information they were giving them. At the end, the engineers asked, How would you like to be an engineer? The kids said they'd never thought of that." It was also really powerful, adds Coker, for the young women to meet single mothers from the South Valley who are engineers. "It's easy to get bogged down when you're a teen and you're broke and you live in such a wealthy country," she says. "You see all these things on TV you can't possess. But when you see someone who worked hard and rose above all that, it gives hope."
The Intel folks will be coming back to help La Plazita youth Frankenstein together parts of the remaining broken, donated computers and troubleshoot until they're up and running. After helping build computers from scraps, the kids will get to take them home.
Coker, a graduate student and instructor at UNM in Organizational Learning and Instructional Technologies, cites a report that came out in the ’90s about what's called the "digital divide." Middle class, suburban kids often have computers in their rooms, she explains, while inner city or rural families can't afford such luxuries. "Studies have shown that even though there's been penetration of technology in these communities, it's still limited," she says.
At poorer, smaller schools where most of the kids eat free or reduced-price lunches, there are fewer computers, she adds. "Most of these kids, if they have a computer, they don't have high-speed access, and they don't have new computers." And they aren't being used or integrated into the curriculum. "That exacerbates the divide," she says. "Poor kids aren't using computers at school and not at home."
For now, La Plazita's lab has irregular hours and serves mostly as a spot to do homework or surf the net. And that's important, Coker insists, because the space should be a low-pressure environment for getting comfortable with everyday actions like e-mailing, gaming or social networking.
Santana Mora, 17, is using the lab to look for GED information. She's a three-year veteran of Sisters Making a Change. "I live down the road from La Plazita, so I can walk here and have access to the net any time of day," she says. "It's awesome."
Reyes says the lab will also provide job training for high-risk teens. Some of the young men are part of the Youth Reporting Center ankle-bracelet program at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center and are escorted to La Plazita. "They can come here and use tutoring that's available online," Reyes says. "They can do job searches and fill out applications online."
Garcia, Plazita's founder, makes a point of saying the lab is open to anyone in Albuquerque—not just young people—free of charge. Some, he says, have already discovered the economic benefit of using free Internet calling services like Skype to contact relatives in Mexico.
Next, La Plazita will conduct a survey to find out what kinds of courses should be offered at the lab, Coker says. "We're very much in the process of growing and building, and things happen pretty quickly. We really want to make it fit in with the philosophy of the center, which is a spiritual and cultural heart of the community."