The Harlem Community Computing Center - An Introduction

(Note: This article was written in 1992 for the quartely publication Enhance, published by Quality Computers of St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Thanks are owed to publication editor Jerry Kindall. I first learned of Antonia Stone and the Playing to Win community computing center in the May, 1988, issue of Ms magazine. I include Ms magazine in my reading diet because my brother Ian once told me, "You can learn a lot by reading Ms magazine." And he was right.)

If this is the age of information, shouldn't everyone have access to the basic information tools? Shouldn't computers, video, and telecommunications be available to anyone willing to learn about them, even if she or he is poor or old, unemployed or can't speak English? In 1980 Antonia (Toni) Stone, a former private school math teacher in New York City, decided to devote her life to making computer access a fundamental right. Acting on her convictions, she started an organization named Playing To Win.

By 1983 she had opened an inner-city community computer center in East Harlem where anyone could come to play, learn, and win. It had taken years of fund raising and the help of the local community to get the project off the ground. Community organizers helped find space for the center in the basement of a housing project apartment building on 96th Street. Isaac Ellis, the oldest employee of Playing To Win, remembers these spartan, un-airconditioned facilities and how people showed up "in droves."

That was nine years ago. Today, Playing To Win manages a network of neighborhood technology learning centers across the country and the Harlem Community Computer Center has moved to a new space. Just a block north of Central Park, on 111th Streeet at 5th Avenue, the Center serves up to 600 people a week: kids from nearby public schools who drop in after school, unemployed people who need to update their resumes or learn word processing, groups from rehabilitation programs, families, and senior citizens. All find an unpressured atmosphere where they can explore the technology, play and learn, according to Ellis.

In terms of hardware, the Center has 20 Apple IIe's, connected together on a DigiCard Network. Loaded on the network are the popular creativity programs that are used by the students at the Center: AppleWorks, MultiScribe, Dazzle Draw, and HyperScreen. The DigiCard network also has two neat simulation games. One of the games gets students to make the kinds of life-decisions that average Japanese kids have to make.

There's also an IBM computer lab, some Macintoshes with a laser printer, a couple of Amigas, and a IIGS, in addition to some video technology, scanners, and other peripherals.

The Center's software collection is large, varied, and constantly growing as new software is acquired or donated, mostly from large and small software publishers. In many cases publishers grant Playing To Win a free "site license" for their software, giving the Center the right to use the software on all their computers.

To help learners, the Center has a staff of six teachers and ten or more volunteers. Running the center - - - from scheduling classes, to orienting volunteers, to evaluating software - - - keeps these dedicated people constantly busy.

In addition, each year approximately 45 teenagers from the City Volunteer Corps are given intensive training. In exchange for this training, the teenagers agree to help in teaching the other persons who use the Center. The training these teens given helps sensitize them to the teaching philosophy at Playing To Win: given general guidance, but encourage students to take charge of their own learning.

In other words, teachers should refrain from taking control of the computer keyboard when showing students how to use a particular program. People don't learn by watching: they learn by doing. Fostering self-sufficiency is one of the guiding themes of the computer center.

From the beginning, Playing To Win has been dedicated to catering to all segments of inner-city population. Preschool day care children, school kids, teens, adult literacy students, vocational and rehabilitation groups, and seniors' groups can benefit from the access that Playing To Win offers. But the Center also makes a special effort to reach out to other groups that have traditionally been excluded from the mainstream: youngsters who have been in trouble with the law and people with mental illness or other handicaps.

One favorite project involved students in producing their own 1992 personalized calendars, using Calendar Maker software. Ellis explains that the students were encouraged to type in as many "special event" days as possible, from birthdays of family and friends to school and national holidays. After a productive brainstorming session, one student remarked that the coming year had "a special event almost every week!" Students get to take home their calendars after printing them out and the walls are covered with the color creative work from proud students.

Social progress, they say, tends to lag behind technological progress by about 50 to 100 years. Projects such as Playing To Win are a small step towards pulling social progress in the same direction as technological progress. It's this type of social innovation that empowers ordinary human beings to become active participants and contributors to the Information Age. Technological innovations, on their own, could never bring about the heart-warming social progress taking place at Playing To Win today.

Phil Shapiro

[Shapiro has been working on various local and national computer equity projects since 1989. He can be reached at:

This article was originally written in 1992. Since then, the Harlem Community Computing Center (HCCC) has set up a network of color Macintosh computers. As of October, 1995, the staff at the Harlem Community Computing Center include:

Isaac Ellis/Denise Copper/Rafael Del Rosario
James Solivan, Director
Harlem Community Computing Center
1330 Fifth Ave.
New York City, NY 10026
(212) 369-4077
(212) 369-7046 (fax)

Footnote to this article -- In 2002, when I found out that Antonia Stone was to shortly die of leukemia, I contacted John Schwartz, an outstanding science/technology reporter at the New York Times, to suggest that the New York Times write an obituary about Toni Stone. John Schwartz had previously written about Toni Stone when he worked as a reporter for the Washington Post.

The New York Times editors declined to write an obituary about Toni Stone. In their eyes her work had not risen to a level worth noting.

Return to Phil's web page.