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The Digital Divide and Evolution of the Therapeutic Community

This blog is part of a series which examines the role of entrepreneurship in substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation. A key component of future success is engaging the “Digital Divide” that represents a significant vocational barrier for recovering individuals.

The Digital Divide represents the separation between individuals who know how to use a computer and appreciate the value of computer skills, and those who do not. It highlights who has access to information technology in various geographical regions, communities, and societies. Beyond looking at the connected and unconnected, the Digital Divide exemplifies major economic and social inequalities in the world today. Without access and the ability to use a computer, an individual is greatly restricted in their ability to be competitive in today’s world. This is especially true for criminal justice clients and individuals in recovery whose successful employment prospects are limited.

Over the years, the therapeutic community (TC) has evolved and gained acceptance as an effective substance abuse treatment model in prisons and community-based settings. As the TC continues to mature, some of its limitations for future success have become increasingly apparent. For one, many recovering individuals lack knowledge and ewhile knowledgeable about recovery and interpersonal relations skills, are much are less knowledgeable about technology. With the deepening Digital Divide separating the more educated and moneyed class from blue collar and less educated groups (that many recovery individuals come from) the vocational challenges intensify as many low tech technical jobs disappear.

My “Recovery Through Entrepreneurship” blog in February 2014, outlined an argument for enhancing entrepreneurial skills and opportunities that are less conventional. These are more like the approaches used by poor immigrants to help themselves become economically successful in the United States. Since writing that blog, I’ve been working with TC residents to develop their entrepreneurial skills in a New York City pilot program. There is general lack of computer skills and knowledge among this group, placing them on the “wrong” side of the Digital Divide. Many TC professionals believe that the model needs to address educational and vocational skill development. The pressing need to respond to the Digital Divide is precisely the kind of challenge that can facilitate TC evolution and prepare Spectrum Health Systems and other treatment organizations for achieving successful employment outcomes.

The concept of credible role models is essential to an effective TC but adequate “tech role models are rarely found in the TC world.” A report issued by the Center for Urban Future entitled “Launching Low-Income Entrepreneurs” compares the differential success of poor immigrants and native-born low income Americans and found that immigrants have a significantly higher rate of entrepreneurship and business success.

Based upon extensive data analyses and interviews, the authors found that the poor immigrants who became successful were more likely to have family role models, peer support, apprentice opportunities and some financial backing from family and relatives. In contrast, native born persons had less of these supports while fearing the loss of government funded benefits such as housing, Medicaid and food stamps if they attempted independent work.

The Center for Urban Future report summarized their findings with this quote: “Immigrants have a better support system whether it’s getting financing, mentoring, working in teams – it’s the community supporting you.” These findings suggest a direction for us to consider. Applying the strong TC community dynamics to support entrepreneurship among residents and staff, entrepreneurial training could be quite useful. Building skills and providing resources needed for success within the TC emulate the environment found in successful immigrant communities.

It is clear that there is a powerful need for TCs to continually evolve and begin to effectively engage the vocational challenges of the 21st Century. However, a major obstacle for our clients is their poor education especially in the digital realm. Traditional education is less accessible to our clients since it requires study habits and other student skills usually learned at an early age, making conventional classroom learning less effective for our recovery population.

There is general agreement among educators that project-oriented, practical or pragmatic learning is more effective for individuals who have not been successful in school. It stimulates creativity and curiosity aimed at accomplishing actual projects rather than the mastery of abstract intellectual material through book learning. Entrepreneurial training is focused on identifying problems or unmet needs and coming up with practical solutions that have been tested in the marketplace.

My next blog will further examine Digital Divide challenges and outline essential ingredients for an effective Entrepreneurial Training Center within the TC environment. Comments and questions are sincerely appreciated.

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