By Ashley Alt 

Smart Chicago, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology, is pushing people to understand that the digital world doesn’t just symbolize opportunity, but is a representation of equity and justice. And above all else, the organization believes in the transformative power of the Internet to change lives and build a strong economy.

Called a “funding collaborative,” as the association is funded by the municipal government and Chicago community, the organization works to increase Internet access for everyone, with various programs under its wing developing products and enhancing the lives of those served.

One of the powerful programs of Smart Chicago is Youth-Led Tech, a technology mentoring program for youth currently serving three at-risk Chicago neighborhoods of Austin, North Lawndale and Roseland. The conceptual model for the program is self-explanatory, teaching technology in the context of the needs and priorities of young people.

About Youth-Led Tech

Executive Director Kyla Williams and Project Coordinator Leslie Durr explained that Youth-Led Tech is designed to benefit the most at-risk youth in the Chicago area, and that their initiative is much more than a technology camp.

“Our program files under the tech title, but it is revolved around the quality of the students’ lives,” Durr said. “We really feel like we are helping these young people be better humans,” she continued. “Being able to effectively source jobs as an entrepreneurial opportunity is becoming stronger as it is paired with the technology sector.”

During the six-week intensive program, currently in its pilot stage of operating, youth learn how to use free and inexpensive web tools to create their own websites, use social media effectively and responsibly and get jobs in the growing tech industry.

In addition to the core basics of the program, Youth-Led Tech leaders dedicate three intensive days of tech training in which workforce development career professionals teach students how to communicate effectively and develop sophisticated tech skills in the professional world.

Parents are welcome to come and recognize the progress of the students during “Display Day,” an event designed to show off their unique websites and learn about the technology behind them. At the end of the program, students’ accomplishments are celebrated with a full-blown graduation ceremony in which they are presented with new laptops to take home.

An Unexpected Household Paradigm Shift

Williams explained that students improve not only their digital skills as a result of participating in the program, but also their overall behavior.

“So many students have [shifted] their behavior from the exposure,” Williams said. “We have multiple parents contacting us saying that having access to a laptop turned their kids’ attitudes around completely.”

While the program was developed largely to improve the technical skills of underserved youth, team members didn’t foresee a somewhat simple tech concept to turn into an inspiration for the entire family.

“This is about adding that piece of hardware to their household,” Durr said, referring to the free laptops students receive. “In most cases, this is the only piece of equipment in the house. So it opens up the world to the whole family where household members are now able to source jobs, not to mention keeping positive attention spans of kids from breaking curfew or misbehaving.”

Bridging The Digital Divide

After digging deeper into the results of Youth-Led Tech, Williams and Durr found that a lot of the kids accepted into the program were also facing various social disadvantages.

Instead of running the third Youth-Led Tech program this summer, researchers are redirecting their focus on fine-tuning the educational and technical aspects of the program, figuring out the best model for implementation for the next school year.

This summer will be spent restructuring the program and touching base with students and instructors to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Durr and Williams would like to see the program take place during the school year instead of the summer, in order to unleash and reach the maximum potential of students’ learning capabilities.

“Our program is co-created [to enrich] the technical aptitude of our kids and young adults,” Durr said. “Has their exposure to our program made positive changes as a result? If so, we still need to keep reinventing the model.”

In partnership with Get In Chicago, which invests in anti-violence programs for youth, Youth-Led Tech has specific eligibility requirements for students to be enrolled, with the most at-risk kids getting priority. This is dependent on a set GPA and any previous school suspensions or interactions with law enforcement.

By exposing these students to careers in the technology space that they might not otherwise have access to, the program creates an incentive for parents to engage with their kids. In most cases, they end up learning right along with them.