Bridging the digital divide … and more
by Mary Howard
“Trinfo.Café is a place of encounter,” says its director, Carlos Espinosa ’96, M’98. Yes, it’s a cyber café, where Trinity’s Hartford neighbors can go online and enjoy a cup of coffee. It’s also an academic center that fosters research opportunities between Trinity faculty and students and the Greater Hartford community. But at its essence, Trinfo.Café is a bridge, connecting the city of Hartford and Trinity College to the benefit of each.
The mission of Trinfo.Café, located on Broad Street, across the street from the Learning Corridor and the Vernon Street entrance to the College, is to close the digital divide between Trinity and the surrounding neighborhood. Only 6 percent of the College’s immediate neighbors have Internet access at home. Trinfo.Café offers free Internet, e-mail, and Web hosting and provides classes in basic computer literacy and Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Twice yearly, the café gives away computers to Hartford residents who cannot afford their own. “We’re investing in the infrastructure of the community,” says Espinosa.
QuestBridge Scholar Richelle Benjamin ’15, an education studies major who teaches at the café, notes that so much in life is based in technology. “Our courses can help patrons get a better job, or get a job period.”
Walk into the café, and you are likely to see a diverse group of people engaged in a wide array of tasks. Young adults check their Facebook pages or e-mail friends. A single mother–her school-aged children in tow–prints copies of her résumé for a job interview. Titus Thompson, a 50-something Army veteran from East Hartford, comes to the café for the social aspect and to go on eBay. “I collect Agatha Christie novels,” he says.
Some patrons visit the café every day, like Abdul Tall, who came to the United States from Senegal. An elementary school teacher in his native country, he now works as a clerk in a Hartford law firm and uses the café to stay in touch with his wife and three children back home. “For me, the café is a godsend,” he says. “I’ve been coming here for 12 years. Even the public library doesn’t offer the same accommodations.”
Tall, who hopes to become a U.S. citizen, had limited computer experience when he first walked through the café’s doors. But with help from Espinosa and fellow patrons, he’s much more technology savvy. “Now I can’t do anything without a computer,” he says.
With only two staff members–Espinosa and graduate assistant Isabella Elizalde ’12–student workers such as Benjamin are integral to Trinfo’s success. They supervise the café in the evenings and on weekends, revise existing programs, and develop new ones for patrons. They also teach courses, both on-site and off, including an after-school program at the café. And they get a lot back in return.
Benjamin says working at the café gives her perspective on her own life. “It’s easy to think that the problems of college students are the only problems out there, but some of our patrons have seen real challenges.”
For the past two summers, Benjamin has taught a summer program for OPMAD (Organized Parents Make a Difference), a nonprofit founded by Hartford parents who want better after-school programming, at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker. Last year, it was a course in urban gardening at the school. This year, the topic was Australia and Japan. Using Microsoft PowerPoint, students ages five to 12 made travel brochures. “We challenged the students to find interesting facts about the two countries based on four categories: culture, history, food, and animals,” says Benjamin.
Posse Scholar Pauline Lake ’13, a computer science and education studies major, is passionate about getting young people interested in computer science. As a Trinfo student worker, she developed a six-week, 18-session after-school program, “I’ll Write that App for You,” where high school students developed their own applications for Android phones using the computer program App Inventor. “Playing on the ‘cool’ factor of working with smartphones, the program increased student interest in technology,” she says. Her students’ final projects included applications that helped with math skills and note taking.
Now Lake works as a teaching consultant, training Hartford-area teachers to run the same program she developed at the café. “This is an example of how Trinfo not only helps its patrons but also provides wonderful experiences and skill-building opportunities for its student workers,” she says.
In conjunction with Trinity’s Community Learning Initiative, Trinfo.Café sponsors a fellowship program for students returning from study abroad who wish to engage in community work in Hartford. The fellowship includes an academic component, where students write a comparative essay on their experiences in the United States and abroad. Last year’s Trinfo.Café Community Fellow was Raymond and Elizabeth Oosting Scholar Sarah Kacevich ’13, a public policy and law and Hispanic studies major, who researched how liberation theology was employed in Buenos Aires. She continued her research in Hartford at Jubilee House, a community organization run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
Fostering research opportunities such as Kacevich’s is an important part of Trinfo.Café’s work. “For years, we were this multilane highway going out into the community and only a dusty dirt road leading back to the campus. Today under the direction of the Center for Urban and Global Studies, we’ve successfully paved that dirt road into a multilane highway back to the campus,” says Espinosa. Student and faculty research within the city not only benefits Hartford but also contributes to the core mission of Trinity, he says.
Launched in 2000 with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, the café was part of the Smart Neighborhood Initiative (SNI). “Initially, we focused on getting out to small businesses and nonprofits, helping to pull them into the 21st century,” says Espinosa, who joined Trinity in 1999 as the café’s outreach coordinator.
Espinosa is the spirit of Trinfo. An education studies and sociology major, he considered a career as a third-grade teacher before earning his master’s in public policy from Trinity in 1998. Before coming to Trinfo, he worked in Washington, D.C., as a policy analyst for the Center for Community Change, lobbying on Capitol Hill and working with local community organizing groups.
In the early years, Trinfo.Café provided computers and training and built Web sites for 165 community organizations. One of those organizations was OPMAD. “Trinfo provided our first computers, trained our staff, and offered technical support,” says Kathy Evans, one of the founders and OPMAD’s program development director. “No matter how unusual our ideas, Carlos is always there to help,” she says.
Looking forward, Espinosa hopes to continue developing Trinfo into a broader community space–not only for Hartford residents but also for Trinity students. One example of this work is the community garden started last summer in a lot adjacent to the Trinfo building. “Trinity students conceived of the idea, and partnering with the café, a dozen neighborhood families are now learning about urban farming and the importance of good nutrition and eating habits by growing their own food,” says Espinosa. Students have plans to build a hydroponics system in the basement and are developing an after-school program that connects to students at the Learning Corridor schools.
Tom Harrington, associate professor of language and culture studies, regularly partners with Trinfo and Espinosa. “Carlos is an administrator with the mind of an academic,” he says. In Harrington’s “Hispanic Hartford” class, students examine perceptions of Latino identity through interviews with residents on Park Street, the epicenter of Latino life in Frog Hollow. For their final projects, they created podcasts from the interviews with the help of Trinfo.Café.
“To have a democratic society, we need places where people from different social, political, and ethnic backgrounds can meet,” says Harrington. “Trinfo is such a place.”
Elizalde, an Elizabeth and G. Keith Funston Scholar, came to Trinfo when she was working on a photo project during her senior year. A political science and studio arts major, she needed help developing contacts for a photo essay on Latino businesses on Park Street. She now works at the café while pursuing a master’s in American studies, with a concentration in museum studies, at the College.
“Working at Trinfo has not just made me more in touch with the Hartford community, it’s made me a part of the community,” says Elizalde.