Community Tech House helps to bridge the digital divide

BY DEIRDRE O’LEARY, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Like many others, Lynn Harrell-Johnson found herself in a dilemma caused by the pandemic. Last March, she was furloughed from Valpak after 35 years and in May was finally laid off. Harrell-Johnson also owned a hair salon on 18th Avenue South called House of Styles for 14 years, renting booths to independent stylists.  The salon was also forced to close.

She had to find something to do.  Harrell-Johnson was used to helping neighbors with their computer issues, and after some consideration, she decided: “I’m just going to re-arrange things and start the Community Technology House. It was just a matter of moving my base to the shop.”

She took down the salon’s wall mirror and replaced it with a 50-inch television, removed the hairdryers and sinks and installed a classroom.  She has since added five more televisions and 10 laptops.

Lynn Harrell-Johnson, owner of Community Tech House

Community Tech House is now a nonprofit. Harrell-Johnson obtained her 501(c)(3) nonprofit status herself, and is seeking assistance with grant writing to provide a revenue stream and a salary for herself.

Still living mainly from savings, Harrell-Johnson’s goal is to serve the community.  At first, she helped with unemployment applications and writing letters.  She prefers to work virtually when possible but does allow people one at a time in the shop.

Soon Community Tech House drew the attention of the St. Pete Innovation District. Alison Barlow and Veatrice Farrell approached Harrell-Johnson for assistance with a partnership formed with Digital Inclusion St. Pete. The collaboration aims to make St. Petersburg a digitally inclusive city where everyone has knowledge and access to technology.

The program, Gadgets for Good, collects used laptops, phones and other electronic devices, upgrades and refurbishes them, and through Community Tech House distributes the devices and provides technical assistance to people living in south St. Pete.

Harrell-Johnson estimates she has already distributed about half of the 61 refurbished computers. The Gadgets for Good program also provided five of the Community Tech House laptops.

Barlow also worked with the city to create a few Wi-Fi hubs.  Tangerine Plaza parking lot, the Deuces corridor and the parking lot of Gospel Ministries in Childs Park now all have free Wi-Fi. The goal is to provide free Wi-Fi access to communities on the south side of town.

Harrell-Johnson would like Community Tech House to be another such access point.  According to Farrell, the existing hubs cost $10,000, which were provided by sponsors such as IMAX Theatre, St. Petersburg College, Grow Smart St. Pete and Grossmark.

The “digital divide,” first termed by President Clinton, refers to the difference between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who do not. Education and income are factors that prevent access.

It has been well-publicized that residents in rural communities have challenges accessing high-speed internet, but people in low-income urban areas often do not as well.

Harrell-Johnson has noticed a variation in signal quality throughout the day.  “Since we have been streaming, the bandwidth is slow.  I’ve been told that certain times of the day, Spectrum drops our bandwidth, which is not a good thing. Your meeting in 33712 is just as important as in 33711.”

Community Tech House has begun providing Social Hangouts on Zoom for the community, both as a social event and as a training vehicle.  People learn Zoom etiquette and how to conduct a meeting.

Harrell-Johnson’s goal is to offer Community Tech House up as a place where people can come to use a computer as they would at a library.  She also looks forward to offering classes, which she calls “sessions.”

“I just want to know I’m changing the lives of people who don’t have a technical background.  From the Community Tech House, you should be prepared to go to St. Pete College,” she said.  “I want people to know I’m here for them to conquer their technology barriers. If you come here, you are going to walk away with something.”

Follow Digital Inclusion St. Pete on Facebook for Gadgets for Good updates.

To reach Deirdre O’Leary, email do’leary@theweeklychallenger.com

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