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Empowered online

Jeffery Williams sees great potential for African-Americans on the Net. He has created a Tampa Bay area computer club to build a new wired community.

Jeffery Williams. [Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 22, 1999


Once Jeffery Williams got a computer and discovered the Internet, technology became a mission.

Here was a way, Williams thought, for African-Americans to network, socialize and use this powerful medium as a tool to build a community.

Williams, a juvenile probation officer for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, started by sharing what he was learning with friends and neighbors. "People spend $1,500 on a computer and really don't know how to use it," Williams said. "I don't charge or ask for anything . . . I'm just so fascinated by computers and what they can do."

Now, Williams wants to go a step further by creating an African-American computer club in the Tampa Bay area. The idea sprouted over the summer, with eight or nine people initially getting together online, then meeting in person. Now, the group has a Web site (http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/africanamclubtpabay) that offers chat, bulletin boards and calendars. People also can sign up for the club on the site.

African-Americans "are really just getting into computers," said Williams, who lives in St. Petersburg. "And since the World Wide Web is just getting into African-American kinds of issues, I think it's real important that we become knowledgeable about the opportunities and advantages that are out there."

Williams got the idea for the club from a group in Orlando that meets to plan offline activities. Computer clubs for African-Americans are not common, according to Barry Cooper, general manager of the Black Voices Web site (http://www.blackvoices.com).

Yet blacks are one of the fastest-growing online communities, according to Forrester Research, with an increase of 42 percent predicted for this year. That means 40 percent of African-American households will be online. Ekaterina Walsh, a Forrester analyst, said some African-Americans without access at home go online from school, library or work.

In recent months there have been concerted efforts to raise technological awareness in the African-American community nationwide. In September, the White House hosted a gathering to talk about increasing online access for minorities.

Part of the reason more African-Americans are going online, experts say, has been falling prices for computers. That has helped to reduce at least slightly the "digital divide" between the well-off and those of modest means, many of them minorities.

Some African-Americans who are active online say their numbers will grow once there is more content on the Web aimed at the interests of black Americans.

"African-Americans are using it as an entertainment platform and an opportunity to interact with other African-Americans," said Cooper, who lives in Chicago. "Those folks are not necessarily hardware junkies, they're people junkies, and that's how they're using the Internet."

Cooper's Black Voices site, which gets about 500,000 visits a month, offers news, a career center, shopping, chat rooms and links to regional sites, called Chocolate Cities, that include Central Florida and South Florida.

African-Americans should keep in mind that the Internet is becoming a powerful force in commerce, not just an entertainment medium, Cooper said.

"When you're using the Internet for entertainment, sometimes you overlook the fact that it can be a powerful moneymaking tool as well," Cooper said. He said efforts are beginning to encourage more African-American children to consider technical careers.

"Although the Internet attracts a lot of people, it doesn't replace the guidance we're giving young children in the home," he said. "The true role models are the successful African-Americans in the community."

Williams wants to emphasize the social and community aspects with the bay area group, particularly starting out. People initially fear meeting someone in person after chatting online, Williams said, so he has been looking for "neutral" sites where people from both sides of the bay will feel comfortable. One event over the summer was a picnic at Fort De Soto Park.

"Most of us have families and children and we want to involve and engage the kids," said Williams, 40, who has a 13-year-old daughter (whose grades, he said, have improved since he got her a computer).

The group hopes to have another meeting in December, Williams said, possibly to try a community-service effort, such as adopting a family for the holidays.

Once African-Americans connect through technology, Williams shares some of Cooper's vision for its potential: people with expertise in a variety of fields networking, making others aware of community resources and providing opportunities, possibly by raising money for scholarships to encourage African-Americans to get into technology-related careers.

"I'm really beginning to see the value of owning the computer," he said. "People who own one have such an advantage over people who don't."

-- People interested in the African-American computer club can send e-mail to jwilbe@aol.com.

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