"On my last day of eighth grade I got jumped by eight or nine guys. I blacked out. Just when I realized that I could not live like that anymore, Youth LINKS came my way," says Leroy Walden. Like Walden, many inner-city youths consider Alicia R. Jones’ Detroit-based facility, Youth LINKS USA (Youth Learning Innovation and Networking for Knowledge and Success), a tech haven.
Jones sees it not just as a refuge for young people, the working poor, and senior citizens but as a base for what she calls a "war on technical illiteracy in urban communities." Youth LINKS (www.YouthLinksUSA.org) offers training in software programs such as UNIX, Java Script/Programming, Macromedia Flash and Dreamweaver, Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Office, as well as A+ certification for computer repair up to the MCFC track for Microsoft Certified Engineer Training.
Part of Jones’ curriculum integration and after-school program is called the First Lego League, which trains elementary school students, ages 9 — 12, how to build anatomic robots using Legos. The instructors install computers in the toys using sensory modules; this helps them teach students how to write computer programs to train the robots to turn and walk. The students then program the robots to go on computer-based missions to, say, save scientists stranded on an iceberg. In the process of learning hard-core computer programming, the students also receive a lesson in global warming and ecology. Jones calls it an "edutainment" curriculum.
Jones worked as an international consultant for AT&T before founding Youth LINKS, but left because she felt she’d "hit the glass ceiling." She started Youth LINKS to get her nephew, Walden, interested in technology. "He was at risk for total school failure. I felt that if I could motivate him toward my career, then I could help. He became the alpha student of the program."
After completing the program, Walden worked as a trainer for IKON and the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Southfield, Michigan, teaching other young people. Adds Jones, "In order to delete the digital divide, we need to saturate our community with resources to eradicate technical illiteracy. Everyone has a part to play, even if it is just babysitting for a mother while she is in training."