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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

November 1, 2000, Wednesday

Metropolitan Desk, Education Page
College Initiates Program to Give Back to Its Neighbors

HARTFORD - Carlos Espinosa remembers when the wrought iron fence that envelops the Trinity College campus was extended across Vernon Street to insulate the liberal arts enclave further from its neighbors. That was in 1994, during a time of drive-by shootings and youth-gang turf wars in a community undergoing a long, steady decline.

Now Mr. Espinosa is a community organizer involved in an effort by the college to reverse course and immerse itself in the neighborhood, in his case by trying to help its neighbors cross the so-called "digital divide." The idea for the experimental program he runs is that the college has much to offer its neighbors in terms of access to and expertise in computing and the Internet. And the community can provide Trinity students with rich experiences, people and viewpoints they might not have encountered before. The question is how far this and similar efforts by Trinity will go in transforming not only the community but the college as well.

It is the prospect of mutual growth that has animated not only the project, known as the Smart Neighborhood Initiative, but the entire multimillion-dollar development of the neighborhood set in motion by Trinity's president, Evan Dobelle.

In 1996 Trinity took the unusual step of dipping into its $208 million endowment to invest in the neighborhood in the form of a $5.5 million, no-strings-attached contribution to a large urban renewal project called the Learning Corridor. That contribution bore fruit this year with the opening of four public schools, including a Montessori school and two high school magnets -- one for math and science and the other for the arts -- across from the college's lush athletic fields. The location had been the site of a city bus depot.

If the goal had been to make money, the college would have done better by investing in more traditional enterprises, like shopping malls in Atlanta, said Dr. Dobelle, but doing something to help the neighborhood, he said, would yield more durable dividends.

When Dr. Dobelle assumed the leadership of Trinity College in 1995 he was acutely aware of the symbolism of the barrier that had just been erected across Vernon Street, in effect making it a road open only to the college community rather than the city thoroughfare it had always been. "It was done for all the wrong reasons," he said. It represented "a circling of the wagons."

He frames the college's new, more welcoming attitude toward the neighborhood in terms of enlightened self-interest. The community is definitely hurting, said Dr. Dobelle, citing statistics like the fact that 92 percent of the families are headed by a single parent. But by investing in the neighborhood rather than trying to shut it out, he said, the college is not only living the kinds of "virtues and ethics" it tries to teach its students, but in the long run it makes the campus safer.

Dr. Dobelle also believes that engagement with the community has begun to enrich academic life. Now that word is getting out that Trinity is trying to mesh its liberal arts mission with a new socially conscious attitude toward its surroundings, enrollment applications as well as the quality of the applicants are up, Dr. Dobelle said. "What was supposed to be our greatest liability has turned into our greatest asset," he said.

In 1998 the W. K. Kellogg Foundation made a five-year, $5.1 million grant to further the integration of the campus and the community. About half the money supports the Smart Neighborhood Initiative. Other components of the grant include endowing a professorship of comparative urban studies and creating a center that provides students and faculty with data on the urban experience, particularly in Hartford.

Mr. Espinosa, the son of Cuban immigrants who moved to Hartford from Florida, grew up in the neighborhood and experienced its steady deterioration, starting in the 1980's with the exodus of many property owners who were replaced by lower-income families. By the time the black wrought iron fence went up across Vernon Street, he was a Trinity College student straddling the worlds of privilege and deprivation.

Since April, Mr. Espinosa has been part of a team that is contacting all the nonprofit organizations and small businesses within a one-mile radius of the campus to offer them free or at-cost connections to the World Wide Web. The team also has stationed more than 50 new and refurbished computers in small labs where community residents can gain access to the Internet. Every residence in a 15-square-block area adjacent to the Trinity campus is eligible for a free connection to the Web.

And recently the Trinfo Cafe, the hub of the Smart Neighborhood Initiative, opened its doors to the public. It is housed in a former ice cream shop, which for a while was turned into an evangelical storefront church, just outside the gated perimeter of the Trinity campus. The cafe offers drop-in access to computers and a 17-unit lab where classes in everything from how to point and click a mouse to maintaining a Web site will be taught.

An apprenticeship program to teach teenagers how to salvage components of obsolete computers will be housed in the basement. Donated machines are already piling up there, waiting to be upgraded for a recycling drive aimed at getting hardware into the hands of people who could otherwise not afford it.

Mr. Espinosa, 26, who holds two degrees, including a master's in public policy from Trinity, wears a carving of a clenched fist around his neck signifying, he said, "power to all the people." He refers to the apprentices who will learn basic technical skills as the "farm team." Unless people in small, meagerly financed organizations are eventually able to repair and upgrade their own equipment, the benefits of the Smart Neighborhood Initiative will be short-lived, he said.

Benjamin Todd, also a Trinity alumnus, is the director of the Trinfo Cafe. He remembers as a student getting concerned calls from his mother after a gangland murder near a women's rugby game he himself was attending. The crime affected the college at all levels, said Mr. Todd, 25, not least that students were afraid to venture off the 100-acre campus.

The "smart neighborhood" idea provides ready opportunities for Trinity students to share their knowledge directly with people in the neighborhood.

Mr. Espinosa, who says he feels blessed to have learned how to think at Trinity College, remembers the "social and academic barriers" he was fighting around the same time that the college was physically separating itself from his neighborhood.

He has become a crusader in the drive to distribute computer technology in the areas where he grew up. Skills such as word processing and knowing how to build a computer are of obvious benefit to job seekers. But crossing the digital divide is also about being able to think more expansively, he said. "The folks who don't have access to technology can't even perceive what it can give them," he said.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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