The Somerville Community Computing Center: A Day in the Life
What happens at a community computing center? A lot. If the
Somerville Community Computing Center (SCCC) is any example, you'd
think a place like this never rests. From the first burst of
9 year olds at 8:30 am to the last public access user shutting down
a Mac at 8:30 pm, these three labs see over 150 people a day,
stand up to thousands of typing lessons, word processing documents,
desktop publishing efforts, and mouse tutorials. But what is
it really like to be a tool for change all day, every day in a
community lab? Come visit the SCCC on a typical day and see...
Adult education teachers and human service workers file into the
large brick building in this city of 76,000. The adjacent elementary
school has been underway for half an hour, enough time to line
up for the walk to the Apple II lab. In minutes it will fill
with 20 jostling 4th graders, their teacher, Florienne, and a
parent aide, both of whom speak to this bilingual class in English
and Haitian Creole. Many of the students have just arrived from
Haiti. Today they are writing stories about the wide world of
8:55 The IBM and Mac rooms begin to fill up. 17 adults
from 14 different countries are seated around the edges of the
room, intent on the screens of Mac SE30s and LCIIIs. This class
of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is learning
to use Kid Pix, drawing pictures to illustrate stories they're
writing. Quietly intent on the machine in the corner, an AmeriCorps*VISTA
volunteer checks her email. Earlier, the building administrator
sat in the same seat to look up her son's new World Wide Web site
for his flower shop. In the PC room a group of mostly middleaged
women who are part of the welfareand unemployment officefunded
Office 2000 program are confidently working on Lotus 123 spreadsheets.
The Apple II lab empties of 4th graders and refills with a jumble
of Headstart 4 and 5yearolds . Climbing up on chairs twice their
height, they are soon rapt at the dancing bird and electronic
jingle of Picadilly Pair, as comfortable with these keyboards
as they are with crayons. Teachers and aides circulate, adjusting
screens, suggesting keys to hit, enjoying the change of pace.
are excited voices in the hallway and it's clear another ESOL
class is on its way to the PC lab. They only come to the computers
once a week and are even more eager than the elementary school
students to use computers. They come with handwritten stories
they are going to print out for a book the class is working on.
The adults are just finishing up in the Mac and PC labs, though
a few stay on to finish assignments. John, AmeriCorps* VISTA
volunteer, takes this chance to check on Opus, an SE that's been
flaky lately. Another VISTA is working on a Pagemaker sign asking
people to limit their Internet time to 15 minutes if others are
waiting. A volunteer writer and desktop publisher, who also happens
to be homeless, edits the new SCCC brochure during this momentary
1:20 Public Access is beginning to settle down after the
opening rush. Most people have signed in nd are working away
on individual projects. A French woman is translating something
officiallooking. A young Lithuanian couple are revising a desktop
publishing project. An older man squints at a tutorial on the
Mac. One homeless regular is weaving his way through Quicken
for the first time; he may have a temp job tomorrow if he can
master the basics today. Another checks the page numbering of
his novelinprogress. A longtime participant prints out a letter
to one more state representative about the legislation she's been
trying to change. The printer churns out resumés from
all corners of the room.
Suddenly the quiet, energized air of
concentration is broken by the swish of athletic jackets whipping
around the corner and into the Mac Lab. Four seventh graders
stop long enough to sign in, wave "hi" and charge for
the open computers. There's a moment's tension¾are the adults
about to be put out by the rambunctious founders of the highly
popular afterschool program, Dyno Klub? Not to worry, the four
of them are immediately ensconced at screens, dictionaries poised
at the tops of the keyboards, homework assignments unfolded.
They've actually outgrown Dyno Klub, a dropin program they started
last spring by simply showing up when the labs were free. Last
April, when their numbers grew to 15 the official Dyno Klub was
born and VISTA volunteers have kept it going since, adding another
two hours of afterschool access on Mondays. These four are actually
in their third stage of using the SCCC: they first came with
their teacher from the elementary school next door.
3:15 A straggling
resumé writer prints, saves and closes the last draft 15
minutes after Public Access has ended, while an adult ed student
walks into the Mac lab hoping to finish some homework. She's
warned she'll only have 15 minutes before the Mac Monday crowd
4:10 Mac Monday is in full swing. Muse, Mohammed, and
their sister Zainab are working on Mac Monday Pagemaker newsletters.
Zach is trying to get people to move into his Sim City. Joel,
a local high school student volunteer, is helping Sumit make the
helicopter in his drawing hover in the correct place over the
house. John, the VISTA leader of this pack, is explaining to
Cory how to make "Detroit Lions" bold.
Across the hall
a group of Adult Basic Education students are getting an introduction
to technology with "The Friendly Computer" disks on
the Apple IIs. Next door to them another ESOL class is learning
WordPerfect, adding not only to their English skills but also
increasing the potential for finding jobs.
5:15 For a moment the
three labs are quiet. One of the adult ed counselors who has
just been laid off is working on her resumé at the same
computer she was writing reports on last week. An evening volunteer
has been here all afternoon trying to reinstall the system files
on an aging but sturdy 286. The VISTAs are sneaking in some work
time on the Macs. The door bursts open and suddenly another evening
volunteer appears, hidden behind a huge box of software. A customer
of his has some copies of Photoshop and Aldus Illustrator to give
away. Do we want them?
By 5:45, eager faces are peering through
the window and knocking: Is Public Access open yet?
Access is open and there is a crush of winter coats, hats, mittens
and backpacks in the narrow hallway near the signin sheet and
donation box. One volunteer is explaining the signin process
to a middleaged woman who hasn't been here before. Another is
pulling the Wordperfect 6.0 tutorial book from the drawer. The
regulars head straight for their favorite computers.
evening's settling into its usual oscillation between mild chaos
and studious concentration. A mouse isn't working. Somebody's
trying to open a PC disk in the Macintosh. Somebody needs to
know how to start up the Lotus 123 tutorial. How do you spell
check? Can you help me put this in a table? Do you know what
I press to make the window bigger? How come I can't see what
I just did? A volunteer is kneeling beside a new user, reaching
across to point at someone else's screen, getting paper for the
pinter. Things get quiet for a moment and the two young tech
volunteers are designing a cheap way to network the lab for Internet
access. Somebody wants to know what kind of computer to buy.
The last public access participant has left and the volunteers
are doing the final shutdown. Chairs pushed in, machines off,
lights off, alarm set, door locked. It's time to give these machines
a rest. Less than 12 hours later, they'll be on the job again.
course, the Somerville Community Computing Center doesn't ever
have a single typical day. There are the days where the Community
Schools program fills two labs with eager writers and artists
and publishers. There are the ones when the afternoon is spent
in a staff training session on the Internet or some other topic.
There are those Thursdays when a crew of volunteers undertakes
an inventory or attends an applications training. Some mornings
find eightyearolds finishing class and handing over their seats
to eightyyearolds. Or parents being led by their children to
a new game. Or the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers from all of New
England being trained in desktop publishing.
What's typical is
the constant flow of new computer users, the diversity of ages,
languages and cultures, the predominance of lowincome participants,
and the abiding curiosity about these machines. What's typical
is the beginner's fear of the mouse, the learners' need to explore,
the excitement of discovering a new skill. What's typical is
people who wouldn't otherwise have access to technology finding
themselves not only with access but with teachers, volunteers,
VISTAs, and peers who make it easy to learn.
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