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High-tech learning centers open with goal to bridge Portland’s digital divides

3D printer
A 3-D printer

A partnership between an Oregon community organization and a global telecommunications company is bringing high-tech learning centers to three Portland neighborhoods in effort to help people overcome digital barriers as a way to improve their livelihoods. The centers officially opened December 1st.
Verizon has given $4 million to the housing and economic advancement nonprofit Hacienda Community Development Corporation to open the “Community Forward Learning Centers,” which will have free resources available to the public including high-speed internet, 3D printers and laser cutters at North, Northeast and Southeast Portland locations. The North Portland center will also have a professional-level audio recording station.

Hacienda CDC, a Latino-led community development organization, said more than 60% of the families it serves to access the internet only through smartphones. The organization is hopeful the new learning centers will help bridge that gap and provide people with the technology they need to apply for jobs, do school work or manage online businesses.

“The goal of the centers is to bring cutting-edge technology to communities that are historically underserved, and with that provide culturally responsive programming to get people excited and interested in making that leap to learn something that they maybe never learned before,” said Julian Alexander, program manager of Hacienda CDC’s Arrobas — an initiative focused on connecting community members to digital resources.

Hacienda’s partnership with Verizon began roughly four years ago.
The pandemic slowed down the process of opening the learning centers, but Verizon and Hacienda hosted an official opening Thursday in North Portland, at the center on the New Columbia campus of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School.
Portland is one of four cities opening these new spaces.

Alex Leupp, Verizon’s executive director of external and government affairs in Oregon, said Verizon chose to partner with Hacienda CDC because of its commitment to equity and its connection to the communities it serves.

“It’s no secret that the digital divide is real and pervasive, and it’s not just an urban-rural thing. It’s within urban communities as well,” Leupp said. “We’re committed to the democratization of education and technology.”

Verizon started its “Innovative Learning” program about a decade ago, Leupp said, which provides technology and training to middle and high schools across the country, including more than a dozen schools in the Portland region. The new community learning centers grew out of that idea.
“There are needs that are broader than that. There are adults that can use this help and particularly people [for whom] English isn’t their first language,” Leupp said. “They may be immigrants, or they just may not have ever had the opportunity to access this technology. So, we saw a real need there in the community.”

Hacienda is getting support through partnerships with other companies and organizations as well in order to ensure the centers are sustainable in the long-term.

“We also have a grant with Intel and some other sources as well to really make sure that our Verizon dollars go as far as they can and we can serve the community as robustly as possible,” said Jaclyn Sarna, chief operating officer at Hacienda.

Though the centers are just now officially opening to the public, Hacienda has offered some programs aimed at connecting communities to technology over the past few years, including summer camps for high school students.
“This is obviously something that Hacienda has never done before, but we felt especially when the pandemic hit, so grateful to be in this position to have resources that could go toward addressing the digital divide that became so very apparent the moment that the world went virtual,” said Sarna.
Along with the center in North Portland, which hosted the grand opening event, Hacienda will operate a center on the first floor of its headquarters in the Cully neighborhood in Northeast, and at Portland Community College’s Southeast Campus in partnership with the college.
The centers in North and Northeast Portland are fully up and running. The PCC location won’t fully open its doors until the campus returns from winter break.
Sarna said Hacienda was very intentional about where the centers would be.
The organization picked Cully because of its history of operating in that neighborhood. It chose New Columbia — off of North Trenton Street — because of its diverse community. And it chose Portland Community College’s Southeast Campus both from a desire to partner with the college and for its location in the ethnically diverse Jade District on the edge of East Portland.
All three centers are located in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, according to data from the city.

“One of our goals at PCC is to support upward mobility by preparing students to be successful in finding careers in high-demand fields,” James Hill, PCC’s interim senior director of marketing and communications, said in a statement. “So, we know how important digital inclusion is for success and to address equity gaps. We are looking forward to opening the learning center to the community to help people take their next step in STEM.”
Along with the high-tech resources’ obvious connection to technology-based jobs, the centers will also serve the community with more basic knowledge — like how to use the internet, or how to use a computer in general, which could be helpful for any job. The centers will also offer open “internet cafe” hours and allow groups to reserve spaces.

Alexander with Hacienda said the organization is partnering with Portland Parks and Recreation for an event next week at the Cully center to lead community members through job openings, build their resumes and walk them through how to apply. The event will be offered in English and Spanish.

A full list of events at the learning centers will be posted on Hacienda’s website.
“As we transition from more of the youth programming, the adult programming in job development stuff is going to be hugely, hugely important to all of the learning centers,” Alexander said.
Sarna with Hacienda said the centers are also trying to strengthen relationships with local industries and businesses, such as Intel.

“We’re identifying some of those industries and specific corporations and companies right now where we can do sort of a direct warm handoff to potential job opportunities,” Sarna said. “Or even highlight, if I want an entry-level job at Intel, these are the things that I need to do. This is the education that I need to complete in order to be a competitive candidate.”
Alexander said they hope the new centers “energize” people to pursue their dreams.

“It feels like that’s sort of out of touch when you’re worried about ‘How am I going to pay the bills?’ ‘How am I going to get the internet?’” They said. “We can take care of the internet. We’ll help you.”
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The learning center at Hacienda CDC's headquarters in the Cully neighborhood was one of three to officially open to the public Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.
Courtesy of Hacienda CDC /
The learning center at Hacienda CDC's headquarters in the Cully neighborhood was one of three to officially open to the public Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Meerah Powell