‘Smart’ Tech Hub Equalizes Access to 21st-Century Living
Minnesota non-profit bridges digital divide for youth from rural, marginalized communities
When the school bus opened its doors, 20 excited middle school students pushed their way out and began to run toward Smart North—a new youth tech hub in the small community of Deer River, in north central Minnesota.
“I wish I had recorded it,” says Ara Anderson, an assistant principal at Deer River Secondary School, remembering the kids’ glee as they exited the bus that November day the week before Thanksgiving.
They were about to be the first group to visit the new not-for-profit tech space for youth aged 12 to 20.
Once inside, they moved from workstation to workstation in the two-room space, trying out tech tools including VR headsets, a 3D printer, music production equipment, and graphic design and movie-making applications.
“They buzzed around like they couldn’t check out each thing fast enough,” recalls Anderson, one of Smart North’s founders.
After an hour of non-stop action, the kids started looking around for snacks—which staff had at the ready.
Smart North’s Community Tech Hub at the Goodall Resource Center in Deer River will not only be a hub for youth to advance their digital skills. It will also provide food for hunger relief, clothing and personal items, and services such as homework help and mental wellness support. Over time, Smart North will add career and skills development, a mentorship program, and educational workshops.
The Deer River tech hub has a sister space in South Minneapolis, located in the George Floyd Square neighborhood. It was the George Floyd tragedy and aftermath, plus the COVID-19 pandemic, that exposed the urgent need for tech equity in the state, prompting the development of these Smart North tech hubs.
Sabina Saksena, one of Smart North’s founders and board members, says these two momentous events made it “so apparent that tech will underscore all our lives in the future—and that there is a palpable gap in access to technology, especially in rural and marginalized communities.”
Adds Saksena: “The 21st century economy will create a bigger technological divide if this access is not levelled now.”
Further, by developing the skills of youth living in rural Deer River and the nearby Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Smart North is creating a tech talent pipeline for local businesses and industry. It will give youth options to stay near home once they’re done school and work in the technology field with better-paying careers, Saksena explains.
It’s that vision that led local businesses, non-profits, school districts, and municipal governments to work together and donate funds, services, and in-kind support to open the Community Tech Hub in Deer River in less than a year from planning to launch.
Enbridge awarded the initiative a $15,000 Fueling Futures grant to help with start-up costs and develop programs that will expand the potential of youth.
“This community, like most communities, cares a lot about their youth and wants to make sure they have places to go, things to do, and that they're safe,” Anderson says.
He adds: “I think the community knew in their heart that there was a need for this.”