Guest post by Tomas Ramos
candidate for Congress, NY-15
July 2016, that was the first time that I entered Bronx River Community Center-- while I was excited about the prospects of being a community educator and organizer, little did I realize that this moment would alter the rest of my life. As I toured the center, I was in awe of this beautiful space that was located in the middle of one of the largest public housing developments in the Bronx. I had an immediate vision, to combine my interest and love of technology to transform the center itself. I envisioned a technological hub that would inspire the many families and youth that I provided services to. Just as I was once inspired by technology, this was to be the impetus of how I would give back, through technology itself.
Bronx River Houses is home to over 5,000 residents, it is a small representation that is the melting pot of the Bronx, a large and complex community with various ethnicities-- Puerto Rican, Dominican, African-American, central American and a multitude of others. While the residents’ cultures may separate them, there is one thing that they have in common, they bear the brunt of poverty. My goal to combat this poverty is to use technology as a tool that would become the great equalizer for this culturally rich and diverse community.
My initial thoughts were “it is possible for us to create sustainable programming to help break the cycle of poverty through innovative educational structures.” When I expressed this vision to DYCD (the city agency that funded my program), they thought I was insane. I spoke in depth about retrofitting Bronx River with high end technology and designing a community center where young people would have the opportunity to learn coding (for video games and web design), create applications, learn about software and engineering, just to name a few. This was going to be the space where ‘Google meets Apple’, more importantly though this was going to be the place where people of color (from the housing projects, nonetheless) were going to get the necessary training skills they needed to succeed in the corporate tech world.
All children, regardless of their socio-economic status deserve equal access to resources. In NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) communities though, the overwhelming majority of our youth are marginalized, they do not have the same access points to resources in order to appropriately navigate the world. That is why I made it my goal to create the infrastructure and implement the much needed technology that would make it possible for the next generation of Elon Musk’s and Bill Gates’s to come out from the Bronx River projects.
My vision, often times was far-fetched and incomprehensible to all of the governing agencies whether it be DYCD, NYCHA, DOE (Department of Education), etc. But it seemed to be out of reach to the resident stakeholders as well. My battle was twofold, I found myself being discouraged by the varying levels of city, state and federal bureaucracy to implement my ideas, however, I often found myself trying to convince the community at large (as well) that this vision would be actualized.
Rather than being discouraged I fomented a coalition of dedicated stakeholders who would help me achieve my vision. Through this collaboration, two other Directors (from the Sotomayor and Soundview NYCHA Community Centers) and I began to lay the framework for using our centers as alternative spaces for educational learning as it pertains to technology. Specifically, each Director had a very specific niche, which we reasoned could be leveraged across all three centers - Sotomayor would specialize on multimedia/video editing; Soundview would focus on computer programming/coding. And, Bronx River since it was one of the birthplaces of hip hop, was going to focus on music production. We were then going to create a peer to peer system across all three sites where classes would be taught electronically and where folks would be able to access the record for any class that was conducted.
Our conclusion was simple, rather than relying solely on the DOE to create opportunities we would use our community centers to fill the stop gaps in education. However, we would also be able to attract the most marginalized youth, those who did not see education as a real means of upward mobility. We would be able to create opportunities for them to re-enter the educational system in a non-conventional space, our NYCHA Community Centers.
We began to use our extended networks to attempt to locate additional funds that would provide the needed capital to purchase the equipment. Finally, there was an opportunity with the Bronx Borough President’s office that would provide a one-time grant that was in line with our vision of technology.
However, I understood that in order to truly eradicate poverty my approach has to be a multi-pronged strategy. We partnered with a professor from Lehman College who had written a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to pioneer an innovative effort-- college professors would teach college level courses at Bronx River Community Center. Again, the center was at the precipice of piloting a much larger initiative. The NSF grant would provide college level courses at the community center which would fit in line with the idea of educating in non-conventional spaces. The pilot program would allow students to enroll in a three credit course on music production. This would allow the marginalized youth an access point to possibly seeking higher education which could create a pipeline for full time college enrollment.
We also focused on diversifying the classes by offering courses such as: architectural design and graphic design, SAT prep, GED prep, software development and engineering were among the many others. The final part of the strategy was to establish partnerships with tech companies to create a pipeline of skilled workers for high paying jobs.
We submitted the proposal and received our award letters toward the latter end of Spring 2017. The monies was released to NYCHA on July 1, 2017. Our expectation was that we would receive the monies in the of Fall of 2017-- just in time for after-school programming. In the meantime, my coalition and I incorporated a nonprofit organization. Our plan was to create, implement and sustain technology (and its infrastructure) and programming to the NYCHA centers in the Bronx and then slowly expand, citywide. We were going to rely on our pilot sites as examples of our success. That was not the case.
After a year, NYCHA was incapable of releasing the funds, the bureaucratic foundation of the agency was devoid of providing any solution to the problem. During the Summer of 2018 the coalition and I started a petition and acquired over 1,000 signatures. It gained enough traction which some politicians wanted to endorse, a press conference was held. However, the politicians were unable to apply the needed pressure to NYCHA, in short there was no viable solution.
After another year and a half of petitions and working the levers of bureaucracy we were able to hold another press conference which was the final nail in the coffin as we were granted the funds to purchase our technology. A few of the items include: iMacs, 3D Printers, 4K Video Cameras, Apple and Smart TV’s, which are all connected by wireless connectivity.
The entire Community Center is Wi-Fi capable and connected to a single network. The flat smart TV’s allow parents and youth to view upcoming programming content, as well as pictures and videos from past events. The computer lab has 20 iMac computers with a maker space to create 3D printing objects. The classrooms are fully equipped with an iMac with a smart TV and apple TV attached to it. Our make-shift recording studio is now complete with state of the art engineering software and a fully soundproof booth. Parts of my vision have been realized, while we can live stream workshops, and residents can watch it from the comfort of their homes.
While Bronx River is fully automated, it is somewhat perplexing to think that in 2020 this is the first NYCHA Community Center in New York City with this type of technology and programming. This just goes to show the enormous challenges that marginalized communities are faced with.
Automation is the wave of the future, with each passing day, jobs are being phased out in favor of speed and efficiency. Because the workplace now requires highly skilled individuals with a vast array of skill sets. More often than not lower income communities of color are unable to access the same resources as their wealthier white counterparts. Without basic access to technology, such as broadband and internet access, our communities will be further marginalized. Coupled with harsh living conditions and with the lack of opportunity for upward mobility it makes the cycle of generational poverty inevitable and that much more difficult to eradicate.
As I begin my quest to the House of Representatives one of my key advocacy points will focus on technology and the infrastructure for it to be installed in as many community centers in my district, as well as the rest of New York City and beyond.
We live in the capital of the world, and in the wealthiest country in the world, our families deserve better, the time is now!