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This “digital divide” is starkly evident in the city of Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico state, which hugs the hem of Mexico City. It’s also a place where solutions are being created. A nonprofit organization called Proacceso is working to provide access to computers and the Internet to people who historically have had neither. Proacceso runs 70 “Network for Learning and Innovation” centers in 34 municipalities in the state of Mexico, including nine in Nezahualcoyotl. The centers are equipped with dozens of computers connected to high-speed Internet and staffed with instructors who teach subsidized basic courses on getting to know computers, the Internet and Microsoft Office.
The idea that drives Proacceso, said Aleph Molinari, the organization’s 30-year-old founder and president, is twofold: to bridge the “massive” digital divide in the country and to “democratize access to education” through technology.
Diana Carmona serves as a Proacceso instructor at a Learning and Innovation center in a Nezahualcoyotl neighborhood called Esperanza, or Hope. The center, which sits on a corner in front of a neglected park, is built of modular, recycled materials and outfitted with 46 computers. Wall-sized windows let in natural light. Between the rush of students – primary, secondary and high school kids, as well as their mothers and fathers and older adults – to the center’s different courses, Carmona spoke about the neighborhood’s needs and the many motivations that bring people through the door.
“There are mothers who come and say, ‘I want to help my children with their homework,’ ” Carmona said. “There are seniors who come and say, ‘My grandchildren are in Chicago, and I’ve never met them.’ We help them connect.”
Proacceso also helps people learn to look for jobs online, do the bookkeeping for their formal or informal business and find the information available on the Web for whatever their needs are. The economic needs are many, and their digital knowledge is often severely limited: The average user of a Proacceso learning center comes from a household of four with an average monthly income of 3,600 pesos, or about $260. Sixty-eight percent of users have never touched a computer.
“There are so many people without access,” Carmona said. “People come feeling ashamed. But they start breaking barriers after coming to the center.”
Molinari founded Proacceso in 2008. Growing up, the Mexico City native traveled the country with surfing buddies to far-flung beach communities and rural pueblos and got a firsthand look at the country’s vast inequality. Later, he studied economics and critical theory abroad and returned home with the idea of doing something to narrow the country’s socioeconomic divisions.
Over time, he said, “I became sharply aware that education is the only thing that is going to break the poverty chain. It’s the only thing that is going to bring real opportunities, that’s going to change things. It will take awhile but that’s where we should be investing.”
Proacceso started with 10 learning centers through a partnership with Mexico state. The project beat its user targets the first year, attracting 63,000 users—13,000 more than planned. That success drew attention and more funding. Microsoft donated $1.7 million in software licenses; Google donated its Labs, AdWords and educational programs; Dell donated the equipment to outfit two learning centers.
Molinari wants to see the program grow beyond the 180,000 current users—48,000 of whom have graduated from Proacceso’s courses—to reach more people countrywide and grow “the radius of impact.” He expects to expand coverage into marginalized areas and other Mexican states in the coming year.
Molinari’s vision goes beyond building a bridge across the digital divide. He envisions an age in which businesses and organizations move past social responsibility departments or the environmental initiatives, which amount to add-ons. Rather, he sees Proacceso as emblematic of a movement to ingrain social and environmental consciousness into the very core of the organization.
“The important thing is we need to create projects that assimilate the natural metabolism of the world in terms of having a positive impact,” he said.
In Molinari’s estimation, that’s where the world should be headed.
About the author:
Lauren Villagran is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.
The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.
The Mercado serves a neighborhood that has been through hard times. The Chamizal, as the neighborhood is known, never recovered from the shift of the clothing factories to Mexico (and later China) with the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Many of the women who worked in the industry lost their jobs and families are still struggling.
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