Plugging the Gap

July/August 1997

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Plugging the Gap

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Bart Decrem turns away from his computer screen. Nodding rhythmically to funky Latin jazz, he pushes aside an HTML manual and leans his chair back against the grey fuzzy wall of his cubicle. In his baggy shorts, T-shirt and blue wire-rim glasses, he could be another programmer at any Silicon Valley start-up. But this is no typical start-up, located in some gleaming industrial park. This is Plugged In, a community computer center housed on the same ragged block as several liquor stores and a drug and alcohol recovery program in East Palo Alto.

Decrem's goals are different from the average entrepre-neur's, too. Plugged In aims to bring computer technology to the residents and businesses of East Palo Alto. Now five years old, it offers more than 30 classes in computers, software programs and the Internet, and has developed websites for 18 local businesses and nonprofits. The center has doubled in size each year, and private memberships and corporate donations have increased its annual budget from $70,000 to $1 million.

Originally from Belgium, the 30-year-old Decrem says he was slightly bored in law school at Stanford and started volunteering in East Palo Alto at the Boys and Girls Club, where he organized a computer center. He later moved into the community and, after graduation, started Plugged In with seed money from a foundation fellowship. Most of the center's 68 computers have been donated by Intel, Hewlett-Packard or Apple, and Bay Networks donated the systems network.

John Mireles is one of the many young people who have benefited from the center. A self-proclaimed graffiti artist before coming to Plugged In with a friend two years ago, he started taking classes and taught himself computer design. Now at 16, Mireles works at Plugged In Enterprises, a business run by teenagers that is housed in Plugged In's offices. Among other things, they do web design and produce Plug In, an online teen forum featured on America Online. With 25 teens on the payroll, it's the largest employer of teenagers in East Palo Alto. (The whole center has 45 part- and full-time employees, seven of whom are Stanford graduates). "Before, I was doing nothing with my art. Plugged In has helped me find another medium," Mireles says. "Now I can design brochures and T-shirts."

Decrem hopes that the location of the center on the downtown street, behind a welcoming bright yellow door, will lure other young people into the digital age. "When you walk past the door and see 15-year-olds on the computer, that's a really important image that people don't usually see in our community," Decrem says. "We're making the computer a part of what's happening in East Palo Alto."


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