By Hope Hill
Isolation has always fueled the divide between the haves and the have-nots in urban America-and for that matter, around the world. Christon Bacon, a 13-year-old African-American teenager, has spent most of his young life isolated in urban poverty in one of the wealthiest areas in the world: the capital of the United States. He's not terribly different in his segregation by class and color from that of many of his peers around the country. In America's low-resource or no-resource neighborhoods, isolation of the poor from both the middle class and the more affluent is still a stark reality in most American cities.
It has been argued that it is not income alone that accounts for the social and emotional consequences of poverty. It is rather the inequity of access to available resources in the form of job opportunities, quality educational institutions, and socialization opportunities in communities that help reinforce prosocial values.
A Matter of Survival
Christon attends a Washington, D.C. inner-city school, where he rarely has an opportunity to use one of the two or three computers in his classroom. His teachers don't generally teach with the Internet or with cable or with satellite hookups. This is quite different from classrooms just six miles away in suburban Virginia, where many youngsters have computers on their desks. Despite that divide, Christon will be held to the same social and intellectual standards of excellence and will be expected to navigate socially, technologically, and interpersonally if he is going to compete-or perhaps even survive-in a global economy.
Living in one of the most dangerous areas of the city, Christon has to walk a fine line between knowing the streets and not being of the streets. If he is to stay alive to see 40-thus defying the statistics for many of his fellow African-American male peers-he'll have to navigate serious crime, interpersonal violence, high rates of homicide, the lure of gangs, and above all, the fast money that can be gained from drugs in his neighborhood.
Support of a Social Network:
How It Can Make All the Difference
Family support, strong values, and a positive social network have played important roles. Yet, not unexpectedly, Christon's ability to traverse the limits of poverty into the world of seemingly endless resources is made possible by his affinity with the Internet. For on the Net, Christon has access to the same information and free intellectual and social resources as his more affluent peers in the wealthy suburbs of Washington. The divide starts to narrow a bit each time he becomes engrossed in a new skill that he essentially has taught himself.
When recently asked about how he acquired such skill in Web page design, he answered in a matter-of-fact tone: "Oh, I just went online and learned HTML and then set up my own Web page. OK, I thought, I think I'll learn it this evening!"
Like most of his friends, Christon has a need for respect and affirmation from his peers. But instead of looking for those primarily in girls, cars, or money, Christon seems to have developed a real sense of personal pride as he talks about what he can do online. He has become known in his circle as someone who knows his way around the Internet. While his friends are hanging out on the corner, Christon is reading about the latest version of Windows. Neither his mother nor his grandmother, with whom he lives, is a computer whiz. Christon's a self-motivated kid. Intrigued by some computer books his uncle had lying around, he picked up an MS-DOS manual one day and couldn't put it down. His creativity and energy gush forth when he gets into his Internet and computing magazines. Christon is not a computer nerd, though. He has other interests and demands on his time, including helping his partially disabled mother, who is raising three children alone. He is a bright, inquisitive, and disciplined youngster who has become a self-made computer whiz. He's dying to know more and more about the whole world of computing and the Internet.
Surprisingly, Christon's spirit did not really seem diminished as he described how his home Internet service gets turned on and off depending in part on his family's financial resources.
Accessing the Internet for Fun
What's his idea of fun? According to Christon, it's searching for new information, new computer applications, and new programs; visiting cartoon chat rooms; and e-mailing friends he's met online from Texas, California, and Minnesota. Visiting cartoon chat rooms sounds like a typical childhood activity-rare for many of the boys Christon's age who are preoccupied with beefing (fighting with someone or a group of people) and the inevitable retaliation of the streets. Two of Christon's peers were killed by gunfire just the other day while unloading groceries out of a car after a basketball game. This was a normal activity set in the context of some abnormal, devastating behavior.
The Role the Internet Plays
What are the roles that the Internet and computing play for Christon? He will tell you they have helped him stay out of trouble because he often would rather work on his Web page and find new information than hang out. Perhaps he's right when he says he's even been able to avoid some fights and other violence in the street by focusing on the development of his Web page.
What would help Christon flourish? Interest and support from others around the world; the opportunity to get to know children and adults from other countries; and consistent experience with computing and development of skills.
Christon is a youngster who rather than being considered "at risk" is definitely "at promise," and he will tell you that the Internet and his developing skill and expertise are partly responsible. Christon has been able to avoid some of the risks of the community as he has turned toward cyberspace. He's reached out for the skills and information despite some odds.
Recently, Christon told me he's interested in learning more about business. Apparently, he attended a business seminar with his mother. That seemed to have sparked his interest-and we know what can happen when Christon's interest gets piqued.
Christon Bacon is growing up in one of the toughest areas of Washington, D.C. He's had to learn to be street savvy just to survive. He has chosen to be Internet savvy as well, perhaps unknowingly, to survive the divide. What would it take for him to flourish? Who would pass up the chance to build a bridge to a youngster who has already started building his own? He's as close as the Net.
Christon would be thrilled to received e-mail from Internet Society members. His e-mail address is email@example.com, and his Web page is located at http://maxpages.com/tecknopower.
Hope Hill is Associate Professor of Psychology at Howard University, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.