Yesler CTC faces special challenges
Yesler Terrace has quite a history. It was the first racially integrated public housing development in the US, approved in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Washington Governor Gary Locke spent his first six years as a resident there.
Yesler CTC is located in an area once called Profanity Hill, nicknamed for the complaints of early loggers struggling up the steep slopes of Seattle's old Skid Road. The lab serves more than 1500 residents, mostly recent immigrants.
The lab provides free basic computer and Internet training and access to both adults and young people. Gaining these critical skills can change lives. Successful students improve their chances to trade menial jobs, or no job at all, for meaningful employment and higher education.
Lab coordinator Asfaha Lemlem is an Ethiopian immigrant himself. His accent is colorful. If he has his way, Yesler CTC also has quite a future.
Asfaha struggles to accommodate speakers of more than 23 languages.
They've come from places like Ethiopia and Mali in Africa, or from Southeast Asia. The residents are very low-income, highly culturally diverse, and have limited English speaking skills. Very few whites, African Americans, and Polynesians live there.
Young residents are eager to fill the lab. Special times must be reserved for them so that adults, who may be working during the day, can be accommodated in the evenings. Kids do online research and develop computer skills using programs like Youth Tutoring and Kids Place.
According to Asfaha, "Kids donít have any problem. They know. Most of our users are school age children."
Most adult lab users are women under the age of 40. Asfaha observes that immigrant adult men seem to be resistant to learning new technology.
"Men say they canít. No thank you! And they leave! Or, once they are over 40, they say, ĎNo, I donít want.í That kind of mentality. Most of them are East African or Vietnamese. Women want to learn. Even older women, they say, 'What do you do here? Can I learn it?' But (men) think, 'Can I do it? Maybe itís hard.'"
Serving the diverse adult population presents some real difficulties.
"It's those adults who are recently immigrated to this country four or five years ago that are really underserved,Ē said Asfaha. "Because even though we have different skills classes for them, they donít speak English at all. Or they donít have any education. Very little or not at all. So, thatís the hardest part. To work with them. Itís just in the planning mode, but we are trying to come up with a program that helps them to learn English by using the computers."
Seattle Central Community College offers such a program. Funded by WorkFirst, it integrates ESL and computer skills, and is taught at various locations throughout the city. Asfaha tried to bring it to the Yesler CTC. However, because the Yesler population fails to meet certain qualifications required under the funding agreement, the program won't be coming to his lab. The few who qualify for the course must travel across town to evening classes at the community college. Since the qualifying Yesler residents work and have children to care for, it is unlikely that they'll be enrolling.
"Most of our residents do not qualify," according to Asfaha. "The requirements are that the people must be working. They must be parents. They must have a certain income level, and their English level must be English Level Four or Five capability."
That leaves Asfaha to try to meet the needs of the non-English speaking majority on his own.
"So I am the one," he said. "And I am thinking that this lab must have a program that speaks to the main population. We need an ESL program here. We need staff.
"In an hour, the lab will be full. We have different programs. We have (programs) for seniors, for school age children, for adults. So, I could happily say we are doing good. But I never say that, because I am sure there are a hundred people that want to use, but they are not using. Some of them with little knowledge, little language skills. And some of them on welfare. Single mothers. They want to work, but they donít have that capability. Because we are not doing the right thing to serve them."
Equipment and program
In the lab, most of the computers are running Windows 2000 Professional. Some are older, and are still running Windows 98. According to Asfaha, "Ten of them have really good memory: 128, Celeron 500 processor. But some of them are very slow and old. But I am thinking of upgrading them soon."
Lab users with sufficient English speaking skills can take advantage of classes in basic computing, the Windows operating system, Word and Excel. Seniors at Yesler are mostly interested in learning to use the Internet. On a quarterly basis, a variety of programs, like computer repair, are offered.
"Most of the seniors start with basics or Word, but they donít want to go into detail. They like to read about health related issues, or email or to check news," said Asfaha. "We show how to use the Internet, how to create an email account, how to use it. I try to make sure they get what they want. I change my programs quarterly."
According to Asfaha, Yesler should receive funding to increase staff and create better program.
"The population here is really underserved, and we are more specialized with (the) disadvantaged because they donít speak English. So we need new service if we are going to help those residents. Unless they get the service here, they are not going to get it anywhere.
"I can say we are specializing in some areas. This location is really important. I see now from some (other) areas, they come because I speak a couple languages. Even, they come from Northgate. Some of them come from south Rainier. And we try to accommodate them. Most of them are East Africans.
"We (want) to develop programs not only for East Africans, but we are going to do this for Southeast Asians. In that regard, we are up in the front.Ē
Asfaha hopes to see the Yesler CTC evolve into more than just a computer lab. He'd like to see other classes integrated with the basic skills already being taught. He'd like to bring the classes to the Yesler community, so that students don't have to search out programs and travel to attend classes.
"So, instead of going far, asking, paying, we can do it for very less money here. Realistically, I am seeing, in the near future, to change from just a lab. I want to get other services here and help those people. It could be citizenship classes, because they are foreigners. They want to be citizens. So they have to take the test. So we can put on the computers, and we can integrate the program in our services.
"In conjunction with employment agencies, government agencies, we can train those people. They are most of them young, 35, 20, 28, but they are on welfare or minimum wage jobs. So if we train them, if we help them to find, if we put the lab in order, the services, the information here, we will help them. We can work with the agencies to find a job for those people. Give them language skills. So this is realistically what we are planning to do in the near future."
The Yesler CTC is a result of collaboration between the Seattle Housing Authority, the City of Seattle Department of Information Technology, and the Seattle Community Technology Alliance.