The Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Since Konrad Zuse introduced the electromechanical “Z machine,” computers have become faster, more efficient and omnipresent. Whether you own one or not, they are everywhere. On campus, students dash between computer labs in the Science Center, Wilder, Mudd and Peters. In town, residents visit the Bridge.
The idea of the Bridge originated at a dinner party in winter 1999. Oberlin residents from all parts of the community gathered for what became a discussion of the town’s racial and social divides. According to a 2000 census, about one fifth of Oberlin’s town population lives below the poverty line.
A group of black Oberlin youth said they felt uncomfortable coming onto campus to use the College’s computers. In sum, the meeting’s initiative was to address this digital divide.
The Bridge received a grant from the Nord Family foundation. Less than a year later, 82 S. Main St. (next door to the Mandarin) plugged in six computers for public access.
Today the Bridge is home to 26 computers. With this surge in resources, the Bridge has gained recognition. In 2000, the American Library Association granted it the title of “Information Technology Library of the Year” — an award often won by large college libraries. Readers’ Digest also named it the “best library link” in its 2006 “100 Best” issue.
Stephanie Jones, the director and one of three full-time Bridge employees, was born and raised in Oberlin. Like many native Obies, she experienced the mid-adolescence “must-get-out-of-Oberlin” itch. She headed east to Hampton University in Virginia, where she earned a degree in Mass Media Arts and Communication. Then Jones got the itch to come home.
Jones moved back to Oberlin 11 years ago and has worked for the Bridge since its July 2000 opening. Before her post at the Bridge she worked for four years as a middle and high school substitute teacher and also as coordinator for the In-School-Restriction program, which is an alternative program that offers one-on-one homework help to kids who are at risk of being suspended.
Jones recognizes a correlation between the two professional paths in which she has dabbled while in Oberlin.
“There’s still the educational part of it,” she said, referring to the education of both kids and adults.
The Bridge does, in fact, encourage education. Soon after its founding, the Bridge introduced a basic skills camp to disadvantaged youth who did not have computers at home. Today there are technology summer camps for kids. Adults can also take numerous regular and specialized classes, from “Intro to Computers” to “Microsoft Publisher.”
Jones expresses her genuine care for all of the kids who visit the Bridge, whether she knows them through one of her four teenagers or not. With this concern in mind, Jones coordinates her technology classes around student interests.
“They like the music,” Jones said. As a response, this summer the Bridge will offer a digital music program with a keyboard, mic and mixing board donated from the College. Jones says that the Bridge hopes to do even more with media this next summer.
Donations have been essential for the Bridge’s sustainability: The College has donated a number of computers over the years and the Cable Co-op provides free internet access. Though it now receives a part of the public library’s budget, the Bridge still seeks monetary donors.
Jones’ efforts to accommodate Oberlin youth have been well received. Of its 4340 members, almost 700 are between the ages of 13 and 18.
Weekdays after school, middle- and high-school-aged youth funnel into what is designated as “Teen Space.” While the Bridge’s main room has a strict numbered set of rules — no cell phones, no food or drink, talk only at a low volume — the kids who enter are great in number and excitement.
Jones admits that many of the teens use the Bridge’s internet access for entertainment purposes.
“Most [kids] come in just to instant message each other,” she said.
Still, the Bridge’s mission is to “raise awareness about, and eventually eliminate the digital divide in Oberlin.” Jones can recount many success stories. One woman who was vision-impaired used the Bridge’s computers; another woman thanked Jones for teaching her how to use Excel — an additional skill that allowed her to improve herself in the workforce.
Gary Kornblith, an Oberlin professor of history and town resident who was a member of the ad-hoc committee that founded the Bridge, commends the grassroots nature of the Bridge’s founding.
“This is one of the few truly integrated efforts in Oberlin,” he said. “[It is a place to which] people from different economic and racial backgrounds feel comfortable going. I just think it’s amazing.”