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The Center for Digital Inclusion: Transforming Lives and Uplifting Communities by Bridging the Digital Divide

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My passion, my personal mission in life, is to spotlight and share stories of people, organizations and communities that are making their hopes and dreams come true against tremendous obstacles -- while doing good in our world. I call these people DreamMakers. I share these "pockets of hope" wherever and however I can, to inspire us to transform our lives, organizations, institutions, and our communities, to create a better world.

Two and a half years ago at a "Call of the Times" dialogue session in Oxford, England, I met Rodrigo Baggio, a Brazilian social entrepreneur and the founder of the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI). The group had come together from different countries, sectors and communities from around the world to share our stories and learn from one another in light of the chaos and deep change we are all experiencing. Rodrigo shared the CDI story with us and I was captivated. I was fascinated because he wove a beautiful story of people who are passionately committed to making a positive difference in people's lives by bringing technology, entrepreneurship and social action skills to some of the most impoverished and marginalized communities in the world. I decided to go to Brazil to check out CDI because Rodrigo's story was so compelling and because I believe that digital inclusion is not only a powerful vision for the development of all people and communities -- it is also a matter of social justice.

I visited two CDI Centers located in the favelas, surrounding Rio de Janeiro -- Morro dos Macacos and Morro da Providência. These are shantytown communities built by the people in the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro. They are wrought with all the ills abject poverty produces. I was told by almost everyone who knew my plans to go to the favelas that these communities were too dangerous and the people too hostile to visit. I wanted to hear and see firsthand how people were using the CDI methodology and technology to change their lives and develop their communities and I knew the only way to do that was to talk with the people who lived there. The people I met were amazing! They were open, welcoming and seemed to have an insatiable appetite to learn and grow. They also appreciated my wanting to learn and grow from their experiences. I interviewed grass-root community people who had transformed their lives, some from unimaginable poverty and despair, to become remarkable DreamMakers. They also shared a commitment to helping develop and transform their communities and were proud to show what they had collectively created and accomplished; I cried during every interview.

At the CDI Center at Morro dos Macacos and Morro da Providência, I saw people of all ages who were learning computer literacy, and all the latest applications: video technology, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, smartphone and social media applications. I saw an 80-year-old grandmother learning next to her 7-year-old grandchild. When I asked her why she was there, she said, " I have to keep up; I need to know what my granddaughter is doing." I visited the Center's library where a book club meeting was being held with 6- and 7-year-old children from the community. I asked the children what their favorite book was and to my surprise, they proudly shouted, in unison -- THE ALCHEMIST. That blew me away because The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is one of my favorite books.

I visited their micro-enterprise where they were selling IT services and arts and crafts made by community members. I also visited their art center; the children of the community had made a huge, beautiful sculpture from Coca Cola bottle tops. They made a point of explaining to me that they were committed to "reuse and recycle materials to produce art." Now let me remind you that I am talking about children living in spaces with gerrymandered, electricity -- toilets and running water were a premium and yet, their spirits were full of hope and possibility and their creativity soared. Their sense of social and environmental responsibility flourished in spite of their circumstances.

Rodrigo Baggio created The Center for Digital Inclusion in 1993 in response to the poverty, and sense of hopelessness he saw in many of the impoverished communities in Rio de Janeiro. Then an Internet entrepreneur, Rodrigo combined his two loves: computers and social change, to create CDI. CDI's mission is to "Transform lives and strengthen low-income communities, by empowering people with information and communication technology skills." They educate people from impoverished and marginalized communities to use technology to fight poverty, stimulate entrepreneurship, strengthen communities and empower people to transform their realities. The CDI Community Centers seek to help people, help themselves, by empowering them to understand the challenges that face their communities and to work together to solve them. CDI believes that underprivileged communities themselves are better positioned than governments or companies to decide how to solve the problems that affect them locally. For this reason, the CDI model places a premium on shared responsibility and local ownership, entrusting community members to manage and change their own schools -- a unique perspective.

The community centers are social joint ventures that partner with grassroots community-based organizations that have a high degree of credibility within their community. CDI provides the computers, and trains community leaders and young people in the CDI Methodology to become educators -- a train-the trainer method. Their approach is based on the principles of being self-sustainable and self-management so they also teach the local people management skills. CDI's greatest strength may be their highly effective educational methodology. They have a unique approach; they not only teach digital literacy, they also teach civic education, community building, empowerment and entrepreneurial skills. The students work in teams on community challenges including: economic development, human rights, health education, environmental protection and nonviolence.

Their unique pedagogy requires that by the end of each four-month course, students will have used technology as the main tool to engage in a "social advocacy project" aimed at changing a negative aspect of their community's reality. Students collectively identify a common challenge facing their community, research that challenge and prepare an action plan to overcome it. Issues can range from sexual abuse, pollution, violence, crime, and drugs, to the lack of healthcare or schools. Students then use the technical skills they've learned in class to tackle the problem. They mobilize their communities; run awareness campaigns, and work together to solve that specific problem. With these capacity building skills CDI graduates become active, informed citizens capable of organizing their communities, making their voice heard and affecting fundamental change. They use technology to create social action, social change and social inclusion.

As Rodrigo witnessed the proliferation of information technology explode around the world over the last two decades, he realized the critical importance of technology in creating sustainable social impact in peoples lives. He has deepened and expanded his vision and commitment to bridge the digital divide. Today CDI is a global non profit network, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, with operations in 12 countries. CDI has impacted hundreds of thousands people through its network of 803 self-managed and self-sustaining CDI Community Centers throughout Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay Venezuela, Spain, the UK and Jordan.

An recent external impact evaluation showed that CDI's work has resulted in: 78 percent of students improved understanding of their local communities; 75 percent improved their reading and writing skills; 47 percent found a new job; 34 percent increased their income; 23 percent re-enrolled in formal education; and 12 percent opened their own business. Behind these numbers lie countless unique stories of personal and collective transformations; stories that inspire us all to follow our dreams against tremendous obstacles.

Two and a half years after meeting Rodrigo and learning about The Center for Digital inclusion, I am one of CDI's greatest advocates and cheerleaders. The people at CDI are beautiful DreamMakers.