Bringing the Rural Poor Into the Digital Economy - Pacific Standard
Dumas, a small town in the heart of the Arkansas Delta—where public computers and open Internet access are hard to come by—is home to an ambitious new program to teach digital literacy skills.

Dumas sits in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, just off of Highway 65 in Desha County. The railroad that once made it a busy town splits Main Street in two, a reminder of how central it was to the cotton trade and the merchants the trade brought in its wake. Today, errant bits of cotton float down the sidewalk. The trains still pass through, but the street is silent. Some windows are boarded, victims of a steady population decline over the last 40 years.

If you’re looking for work in Dumas, your prospects are dim. More than a third of the population is below the federal poverty line. If you’re black, as nearly two-thirds of Dumas’ residents are, your chances of ending up in poverty are about equal to the flip of a coin. Unemployment hovers at around 17 percent, and more than a third of the jobs that remain are the seasonal ones that wax and wane with the agricultural cycles. Even some of those are beyond the reach of Dumas natives. Few, black or white, make it beyond high school—just under 12 percent have a college degree—and many of the remaining field jobs require technical skills. You can’t operate the drones that monitor the fields for signs of pests or be entrusted with a half-million-dollar cotton picker whose controls must be perfectly calibrated if you have trouble reading or doing basic math. Those jobs tend to go to outsiders. The natives who do go to college rarely come back.

David Rainey: The former state representative and state superintendent probably understood—more than anybody else in the community—the potential of technologically equipped public schools and community centers. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

David Rainey: The former state representative and state superintendent probably understood—more than anybody else in the community—the potential of technologically equipped public schools and community centers. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

On February 24, 2007, a tornado hit Dumas, closing down many of the businesses that had held on through mechanization. Eighty percent of local industry was devastated. The hospital was stretched to capacity—and many of those treated had just lost their jobs and health insurance. Much of the town’s remaining infrastructure, public and private, fell apart. “But it was a blessing,” says David Rainey, a former state representative. “We didn’t build it back as it was. We built it to the future. It was how technology first surfaced in Dumas.”

Rainey and I were sampling the chicken, sweet potatoes, and cornbread in Pickens Store Restaurant and Commissary. It sits in the middle of what was once Pickens Plantation, and is, in many ways, the place where the town’s business gets done.

Before the tornado, the schools in Dumas, which Rainey oversaw as superintendent until June of 2014, had few readily available Internet-connected computers. The town library had five. The only other public wireless was in the McDonald’s—but you had to bring your own laptop, and most people didn’t have one.

After the tornado, Rainey advocated for establishing a new, technologically equipped school and a tech center, housed in the old bank, with 24 computers for the townspeople. “We built the facility thinking technology could counteract the lack of industry,” Rainey says. “Maybe it could bring resources to Dumas.” When he heard about a pilot project sponsored by a non-profit called SamaUSA, the American arm of Samasource, an international organization that aims to teach digital skills to people lacking access to traditional employment routes, he thought, “Eureka! This is it. This is what we’ve been looking for.”

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Samasource was founded in 2008 by a 25-year-old entrepreneur just three years out of college named Leila Janah, a first-generation American in a family that had emigrated from Bombay. Her father was an engineer; her mother, who had a degree in English, found work at a Wendy’s. The family moved a lot, eventually settling in Southern California. They weren’t poor, exactly, but they didn’t fit in.

When Leila arrived at her new elementary school, she found she was the only brown girl among the students. She wore Salvation Army or home-sewn clothes; they wore cute Gap and Guess sweater sets. When she got on her bike to go home, they surrounded her in a tight circle, taunting her in a made-up language. But she was eventually admitted to a magnet school that stressed math and science; she graduated early and, before entering Harvard, went to Ghana on a scholarship provided by a tobacco company to teach blind students English.

Samasource was conceived almost as an extension of Janah’s post-high school trip, and was based initially on the concept of microwork. In this case, that meant partnering with businesses that had a need for a particular online job, such as geotagging images, and training workers in the necessary skills. In remote parts of Africa, where few or no jobs exist, bits of microwork could add up to a real income.

The idea was not immediately popular. In 2008, as the financial crisis unfolded, an organization focused on taking jobs abroad rather than creating them inside the United States seemed out of step. When Samasource ran an ad on Hulu about a Kenyan refugee camp, the backlash was swift: What about the people who need help here? “I thought it would be non-controversial to give employment to some of the poorest people in the world,” Janah recalls. “And then I get an email from this guy in Ohio who says, ‘You’re ruining America, taking our jobs overseas.’” How could he object to what she was doing? She’d maxed out her credit cards and gone into debt, living on a friend’s futon for months to keep Samasource afloat. But donors were skeptical. Prompted by the backlash, she began looking at the statistics on domestic poverty, an area that, in her studies, she’d largely ignored. Her critics, she realized, had a point. In some ways, many parts of the U.S. more closely resembled subsistence-farming African villages than the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The Tech Center: After a 2007 tornado wiped out most of the remaining businesses in Dumas, Arkansas, the community tech center was established so that people could have routine access to the Internet and everything it promised. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

The Tech Center: After a 2007 tornado wiped out most of the remaining businesses in Dumas, Arkansas, the community tech center was established so that people could have routine access to the Internet and everything it promised. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

In 2009, Janah applied to a Facebook incubator program, which provided networking opportunities and the assistance of engineers to promising start-ups. Samasource was selected as one of two non-profits. The company finally had the backing it needed. Janah quickly found funders: Google.org, Google’s non-profit arm; the MasterCard Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation. At last, Samasource was on the right radars. Janah soon had programs operating in Africa, India, and Haiti, and had helped raise, according to the organization’s estimates, some 7,000 people out of poverty, increasing their pre-Sama-training income by 370 percent over a three-year period. Helene Gayle, the former CEO of CARE, the international humanitarian organization dedicated to alleviating poverty and spurring development in poorer regions around the world, was impressed enough by Janah’s work that she supported her in becoming the organization’s youngest board member. “She is somebody coming up in a different generation, with a different sense of what’s possible,” Gayle says. “She brings a sense of hope and possibility and incredible passion into the mission of Sama.”

Could a similar program be useful in this country? Janah realized that she would have to refine her model so that it could appeal to domestic businesses as it had to international ones. It wasn’t economically feasible to follow the precise microwork structure of Samasource: The minimum wages required to lift someone out of poverty in Uganda could never accomplish the same in America. So she flipped the equation. Rather than teach specific skills geared at concrete jobs, she would train potential workers in basic computer and digital literacy skills that could then be translated into any number of jobs online.

Janah launched three pilot programs in Northern California and one in Manhattan. In the last year, the programs have resulted in some form of employment for more than 30 percent of students. After six months, the graduates earn an average of $15 an hour. Many of those who’ve been with the program the longest have made virtual work into part-time jobs, with contracts averaging 30 hours a week. And some have taken their skills offline, securing full-time employment via connections made in the virtual marketplace.

Linda Harasim, a learning theorist at Simon Fraser University and online learning pioneer who, in 1986, taught one of the first-ever virtual courses, believes that, while the promise of the virtual world as a leveling field for people of all backgrounds is real, it is, too, vastly overstated—and far more difficult to achieve than people may want to believe. “The apparent benefits of online education are compelling. The reality, though, is that far too many people—especially politicians and entrepreneurs—think it’s a lot easier than it is,” she says. “It’s possible, but it takes a lot of investment of time, effort, and teaching skills—simple pedagogy. Look at the example of the MOOCs”—massive open online courses offered by universities. “There were a lot of illusions and fantasies that you can put the content on, transmit it to the learner, and the learner swallows it. It was a horrible failure.” Few students complete the courses, and adult students from traditionally underprivileged backgrounds, she feels, are especially at risk of failure. “If you have people from poor and underdeveloped areas, without job skills or job opportunities, and who don’t have computer skills, you have a real triple whammy,” she says. “It’s possible to reach them online and help them gain literacy, but it will take a lot of time and money. Or it will fail.”

The education psychologist Mark Tennant, the former dean of education at the University of Technology–Sydney and author of the standard textbook Psychology and Adult Learning, believes that the biggest challenge facing adult learners in the virtual world isn’t a lack of prior education but a lack of digital literacy. “One of the biggest problems is getting older learners to think digitally as opposed to in an analog way, and it’s a different kind of skill. It’s difficult,” he says. “Even basic things like pointing and clicking. Especially if they haven’t had access to digital technology, the idea of thinking in a digital way will be the biggest obstacle to overcome.”

Opening a Samasource program in the Delta, Janah knew, would be a challenge of a different order. “It wasn’t just temporary poverty. It was systematic and long-term,” she says. “It remains one of the regions that has most resisted many well-meaning attempts to make things better.” As she began looking for a town or a business that might be a potential partner there, one name came up repeatedly: David Rainey.

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Dumas native Terrence Davenport was Rainey’s top choice to run the pilot program. Davenport knew the Internet and, as one of the few to get out of the Delta—he started his own online-design business after going off to the University of Arkansas—he knew these people.

Terrence Davenport: The Dumas native is a member of a very small club: He was one of the few to get out of the Arkansas Delta and attend a traditional college program and then return home to help others. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Terrence Davenport: The Dumas native is a member of a very small club: He was one of the few to get out of the Arkansas Delta and attend a traditional college program and then return home to help others. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Davenport chose 30 students from more than 70 applicants. But even before the first class, two had dropped out: men who had gotten seasonal jobs in the fields. Two weeks in, the wife of one of the seasonal drop-outs, without a second car or alternative way of getting to class, was forced to quit too. A handful followed the week after that. Some found the classes too demanding. One woman said that she wanted to keep coming but her gasoline bills were just too high. She needed to conserve fuel for picking up her kids.

As the first class met at the tech center, Davenport, who is tall and athletic, with a carefully groomed mustache and beard, and given to wearing jeans and a loose striped button-down, asked the students to type the URL for the class portal into the address bar. His instructions were met with silence: The students didn’t know what a URL was. “There just isn’t much skill over here,” he says. “There aren’t any basics. And if I can’t even change the pipes, I’m not going to be a successful plumber.” Some students couldn’t grasp what it meant to right-click. Email attachments were unknown territory—as was email itself. Typing anything was difficult. The students’ writing scores, on average, were well below the Sama standards. There was little chance they would make it through the entire curriculum in the allotted 10 weeks. “I realized the program just wasn’t catered toward an area where people weren’t technically trained at all,” Davenport says. “It looked like some parts of the program were putting the cart before the horse. How can you talk about professional development if you don’t have any skill foundation?”

Data entry. Virtual assistant. WordPress. Photoshop. The terms were seductive, but the basic skills were foreign: Word processing. How to type a cover letter and put together a work proposal. What a résumé looks like. How to budget and set financial goals. How to accept a job from an employer. How a LinkedIn profile is created, and what kinds of jobs are gaining momentum on platforms like oDesk and Elance—online work portals that have partnered with Sama to help track the students’ progress. (They advertise freelance jobs, both hourly and fixed-rate, to potential workers, and let employers browse profiles of potential hires to offer them work directly.)

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Six weeks in, the class is down to 20 students, and progress through the curriculum is much slower than expected—the students are barely at week four, proving Janah’s assumption that the Delta would offer a new kind of challenge. Robinette Franklin, who has known Davenport for years—his grandma had chopped cotton alongside her grandfather, Daddy Hoover—remains enthusiastic. She is one of the first to arrive, and takes a seat near the front. She quickly checks in with her friend Stacy—they go to church together—about that afternoon’s gospel practice.

Franklin lives with four of her seven children in a Section Eight apartment for low-income residents on the west side of Dumas. She moved in more than a year ago, but the living room walls are bare save for a broken clock, a Chinese take-out menu, and a neat list of the kids’ weekly dinner chores. Angel, who is 13, will make shrimp and rice; Antoinette, who is 15, has signed on for potato casserole.

Franklin refuses to decorate, she tells me, because this isn’t permanent. She’s hoping that Davenport’s virtual-work class will change her life. Thirty-eight, sturdy and compact, with her hair back in a tight, expertly coiffed bun with strands of blond woven in, she sits on the edge of a faded brown couch. She laughs frequently, a guffaw and shake of the head punctuating every recounted phase of her life, as if she’s struck anew by the absurdity of it all. This isn’t her, she says again. She’s not used to this type of living, and, any day now, she’ll get out. Her former home was a trailer; her oldest daughter, Shelicia, lives there now with two children of her own, Nylan and Brooklyn.

Franklin’s first marriage, 12 years and three kids long, broke up in 2009. Her second was to a minister. Twenty-nine days after the ceremony, he took off, leaving her pregnant with Taylor Elise. Seven children. Two husbands. Five fathers. It’s not what she had planned.

Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Franklin hasn’t worked in over a year. After years of braiding hair, she says, she has carpal tunnel in her fingers. For a while, she couldn’t pay her bills. “Some days, I didn’t have gas to get the kids to the school they was going to,” she says. She’d gather them up and send them door to door, selling whatever they could make or salvage: candy, body oils, food and gift baskets Franklin had assembled in her kitchen. She’d always had a thrifty eye and a deft touch. She could turn a combination of knick-knacks—flowers she’d picked herself, bits of cloth she’d woven into colorful ribbons, body oils that had looked worn when she bought them cheap, socks that she’d bought in packs of three for a dollar and then decorated—into beautiful baskets that were more than the sum of their parts. “I woke one day and saw I had nothing,” she says. “I did so much hair, sun up, sun down, over 20 years, and I didn’t have nothing to show for it, but nobody ever told me about retirement.”

Franklin blames cotton. “That’s how my life got off course,” she says. She began when she was 12. By 3:30 a.m. she and Daddy Hoover would be on their way to the field. They worked 12 hours, sometimes more if the going was slow. The summer she turned 14, she met someone in the fields. He was 26, handsome, mysterious. He helped her chop her rows. He smiled at her, told her she was pretty behind her straw hat. “He kept talking to me,” she says, closing her eyes as she remembers. “I was just a kid.” At 16, she found herself pregnant. She wasn’t quite sure how it had happened. “My momma, she just told us not to have babies. But she didn’t have enough time to sit us down and talk to us about stuff like that.”

If it was happening, God must have wanted it. Franklin, like many in Dumas, is an Evangelical Baptist. Daddy Hoover wasn’t just a field worker; he was also a preacher, with his own congregation, and for her whole life, Franklin had spent her Sundays in the Mitchellville church. She believed that everything that happened was for some higher reason. To this day, religion forms the core of her existence. She’s one of her church’s most active volunteers. Her friends are almost entirely from her church. On her television set, a half-torn hand-written sticker cites Nehemiah 8:10. (“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”) At church services, she’s frequently the choir’s soloist or lead vocalist—she has a powerful, expressive voice—and, apart from when she’s with Taylor Elise, these are the moments when she seems to let her guard down completely and be herself.

It was at the church that Franklin first heard that a program at the new Dumas tech center would be offering free computer classes. Davenport stood before the congregation and said that he had an announcement to make.

You might have seen ads in the local paper, he said, and you probably thought they were fake. They weren’t. He would be personally launching an 80-hour program that offered the promise of virtual work, of skill-building that would lead to new jobs, or at least their possibility. If you finished the course successfully, you would get a laptop.

Franklin had been praying for a laptop, and she felt that the program was God’s answer to her prayer.

Davenport starts the day by writing an outline on the board. The goal: Create a short-term skill-development plan. The previous evening, the students were assigned to pick a virtual job that they could plausibly have a chance of getting—not a “reach” job, but something entry-level, requiring few qualifications or prerequisites. Today they will learn how to assess their competition and how to determine which skills are most likely to get them hired. The students pay attention as Davenport illustrates his points on a projector. Following Davenport’s lead, Franklin pulls up the Elance website. A student sitting diagonally from her is confused. Franklin points to the proper page.

In one class, Francisco Fuentes, the head trainer for SamaUSA, remotely plays the role of a prospective employer on Elance. From Sama’s headquarters in San Francisco, he creates a job, accepts the students as potential employees, and waits for their responses. How should someone hoping to work with him reply? The students make some suggestions: A simple “OK” or “Thank you.” Davenport explains that those answers aren’t enough—the response has to set a timeline regarding expectations. Eventually, the class comes up with a template. “Thank you for responding. It’s a pleasure to be working with you. I expect the assignment to be completed shortly and will be in touch once it’s complete.”

Robinette Franklin: Franklin, an Evangelical Baptist, had been praying for a laptop when Terrence Davenport announced a new pilot program that would end with each successful student receiving a new computer. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Robinette Franklin: Franklin, an Evangelical Baptist, had been praying for a laptop when Terrence Davenport announced a new pilot program that would end with each successful student receiving a new computer. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

It’s past six, and the students have three hours of class ahead. The smell of cigarettes mingles with the tang of candies from a Piggly Wiggly down the street. Phones rest on the tables—some are flip phones; many have shattered screens that obscure anything except the occasional call. (Most students can’t afford data plans.) Some phones aren’t even working tonight—their minutes are up.

Arlesha Hilson takes notes in a pink-edged notebook. Damaris Talavera wants to improve her writing skills in Spanish so that she can do translation. Felicia and Shakita Green, sisters, want to start a non-profit to help others find work. They’re among the few who have jobs already. Shakita works as a home health aide. Felicia juggles three jobs, as a manager at a local grocery store ($7.25 an hour), as a home health aide (between $7 and $9 an hour), and substitute teaching ($60 a day, when she can get it). Juseca wants to become a writer. Linda, a journalist. Darrius wants to learn Photoshop and video editing. Senior year of high school, he recorded his prom and the days before graduation with a camcorder, hoping to make a documentary. Now maybe he can work with cameras online.

Franklin fills up loose sheets with possible jobs. One asks for “sexy cleavage.”

“Not my thing.”

Another is based in Australia, but she doesn’t trust foreigners. A third comes from a firm that has only signed up with Elance two days earlier. That means it’s likely to be a scam, Davenport has warned them.

“Pull up your statements,” Davenport tells the class.

“Oh my God, I didn’t save mine!” Franklin says. “I can’t believe it.”

“Let me see.” Davenport walks over to her terminal. “It should automatically save,” he says. He walks her, step by step, through Google Drive—how to access the link he sent her, how to navigate the files until she comes up to her own folder. There it is. Franklin’s plan: to learn French. She’s listed the best options: Rosetta Stone and Babbel.

“You going with Rosetta?” Davenport asks.

“I’m gonna try both of them, oh yeah.” Then she whoops. “You gotta pay for that one?” Another laugh. “I’m just gonna do the free part.”

For the next 10 minutes, Davenport helps Franklin tailor her plan to available jobs that don’t require French. Then she concentrates on a new search. The right job is out there, she says. She just needs to be patient. And learn to scroll and click a bit more quickly. She interrupts herself to ask Davenport about a missing student. Why hasn’t she shown up yet? Franklin likes to check in, make sure the class is going well. She seems to see each missing student, especially the ones from her church, as her responsibility. She turns back to the screen. A few minutes later, she glances surreptitiously at the time. She has an algebra test tomorrow at the community college an hour away and hopes to get some studying in. On the drive back to her house, she directs her focus to a stack of handwritten flashcards.

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Only 16 of the center’s 24 computers work on a regular basis. When those of us who are observing—I’d come with two representatives from the Sama organization—try to connect to the wireless on our laptops, we break the network. This is the best access in town, and even here the speeds are just about average for federal broadband standards for “medium” service.

When it comes to high-speed Internet, Arkansas lags behind the rest of the country, typically coming in last or next-to-last in surveys of availability and access. If you’re lucky enough to have an Internet connection, chances are the speed will be comparable to what a typical resident of, say, Manhattan last experienced in the dial-up days of Aol. As Susan Harriman, the policy and special projects director of the Arkansas Department of Education, explains, “You don’t have to drive far into the Delta for your phone to die.” In the center of Dumas, I often had no signal, and my phone had to be re-charged several times a day. Phone Internet access, a preferred way to connect in many poor regions throughout the world, is simply too expensive here. Just over 10 percent of Desha County residents can afford it. Janah chimes in: “Gulu, Uganda, probably has better Internet than Dumas.” “And it’s cheaper, too,” Harriman adds.

Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

In 2011, under pressure from the Internet-providers lobby—a collection of private companies led by AT&T, Ritter, and others, who have branded themselves as the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids—the state legislature passed a bill to amend the Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 1997. Under the new provisions, the state government is barred from providing any form of telecommunication services. Arkansas had recently completed work on a new fiber-optic network that would, in theory, replace the three aging copper-wire networks that had been servicing local schools since the ’90s. But when the lobbyists’ bill passed, the network was rendered essentially useless. Only institutions of higher education, hospitals, and emergency services were allowed to use the new network capacity—not the public school systems, serving some half a million children. They would still have to buy their broadband from AT&T and the other private firms.

Recently, President Obama spoke out against restrictions like the one in Arkansas, and urged the Federal Communications Commission to overturn such anti-competitive legislation. Local municipalities, he said, are often better able to serve remote communities, like those of the Delta, than bigger providers who neither know the areas nor have much of a stake in their success.

According to the Brookings Institution, every one-percent increase in broadband saturation increases employment opportunities between 0.2 and 0.3 percent each year. Every job that’s lost to the Internet, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, is replaced by 2.6 new ones that hadn’t previously existed. The problem is that the private broadband providers don’t often want to go to the Dumases of the Delta, because there isn’t enough revenue there. Average connection speeds remain below national standards in over half the districts. And many homes, including Franklin’s, are zoned out of any high-speed options.

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One morning, Janah visits Davenport’s class. A few students shift in their seats; they’ve all dressed up for the occasion. For the next few days, as visitors from SamaUSA stream in and out to observe, many will wear the same outfit several times over. A few bring their kids.

Lithe and dynamic, with angled jawbones, dark almond eyes, and skin the color of toasted wheat, Janah is a presence both commanding and glamorous. She paces in front of the students and tells them about the Sama mission, from her first class in Ghana to the expansion into other African countries to the opportunities for the Delta. “In places like Ghana and Rwanda, I spent a lot of time working with really bright people in whom the world had never really had much faith—people the world has looked at as charity cases,” she says. She paces as she talks, emphasizing each point with her hands. “But my students in Ghana were so bright. They’d listen to world radio, were up to date on current events, in the middle of this country where most people make two dollars a day. I thought, there’s something wrong with this picture: We’re not seeing these people as productive members of the global economy.” That realization, she continues, has been the heart of Samasource ever since. At its core, she says, it’s about equality. Sama is the Sanskrit root word for “equal.” She raises her wrist to show the class a Sanskrit tattoo. “The founding principle of our organization is the idea that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity,” she says. “Just because you’re born into less fortunate circumstances doesn’t mean you deserve any less from your life. That’s really what we’re trying to do. This method of online work that you’re learning is a means to an end ... to enable people to achieve their full human potential.” The students are quiet. They seem to drink her in. Online work, she continues, is a tool for “empowerment.” It’s the way that they will gain a voice and achieve their potential as humans.

The class is silent. “You’re very pretty,” one of the students remarks.

When, after we leave the classroom, I ask Tess Posner, the managing director of SamaUSA, who oversaw the pilot, to react to the class’s slow progress, she acknowledges that the Sama programs still have a lot to learn. “We try to be transparent when we say it’s not for everyone and we can’t solve everything,” she says. “And we already knew going in that the students’ computer literacy levels were lower than we’d ever seen before, across the board.” So, she says, they’ll need to re-adjust. “Our ultimate goal is to get people jobs. If we can’t do it in 10 weeks, we will have to build in something new that will make them successful. We can see it’s moving at a slower pace, that there’s a slower aptitude for computers and technology.” By the final weeks of class, she says, they usually expect about half of the students to be interviewing for jobs. That isn’t happening here. “The class isn’t there yet. They’re just not at the same point.”

On November 10, the 20 remaining students graduated anyway; Davenport had made the decision to omit the more ambitious parts of the curriculum, like professional development, and focus instead on the raw job skills, helping his students wrap up their job proposals as best they could. In suits and their church best, they made their way to the ceremony, receiving their diplomas and, if they wanted, giving a few remarks to their classmates and the family members who had gathered to support them. When it was Franklin’s turn, she just laughed and shook her head. She wasn’t in the mood for speeches. At the end of the evening, each student was handed the promised laptop.

Over the next two months, the follow-up results of the Dumas pilot were not encouraging. Only one student—not a Dumas native—had managed to get a job. Soon, many of the graduates stopped applying for openings: They felt intimidated, Davenport suspects, worried they weren’t as qualified as the competition he’d had them assess weeks earlier. Eighty-five percent of oDesk users have a bachelor’s degree. None of the Dumas students came close to earning one. But a few remained committed to the program. Franklin applied persistently through December. She got a few interviews, but no one offered her a job.

(Photo: Aaron Turner)

(Photo: Aaron Turner)

The SamaUSA team met to re-assess their approach: They had funding in Arkansas through 2017, and they wanted to make sure that next time they were closer to the mark. Davenport proposed that they lengthen the program—10 weeks isn’t enough time for a group of this level, he said—and start with a few solid weeks of basic skills training.

In early March, the second cohort began the program—still 10 weeks long. But other than length, few things remained as reminders of the first attempt. The name, for one, had been changed, from SamaUSA to SamaSchool, to emphasize, Posner says, that this was a real training ground, with global digital reach—something that, like other types of school, could open doors that hadn’t even been visible before. The curriculum changes reflected the shift in emphasis. Now, the class was almost entirely based on an employable-skills model, to “give students more realistic feel of what it’s like to be a freelancer,” Davenport says; tangible jobs in place of lofty ideals. Each class would involve hands-on simulations in which the different components of a job were systematically analyzed and the tools required for it systematically taught. At first, the students were skeptical. “For the first few weeks, they had trouble coming to class on time,” Davenport says. But soon, as they realized that what they were doing was real—learning real skills they could really apply—the mood shifted. “Now, I have trouble with them coming early. They get there before I do.”

But part of the excitement may have come from a different source: the students who had come before them, for whom the prospects had, only months earlier, seemed so bleak. Davenport hadn’t abandoned his first cohort. Instead, he had begun hosting a weekly afternoon session for alumni, where they could discuss the curriculum skills they’d never gotten around to learning and brainstorm new opportunities. After an unsuccessful month or two, many became discouraged and left. But a few persisted. And then, as March wore on, the jobs started coming. First it was Shakita, discovering that her training in home health had given her important skills to be a virtual assistant. Davenport had encouraged her to think laterally, translating what she knew how to do in the real world to a virtual setting, and here she was. By mid-April, egged on by Davenport’s “rants,” as he called them, six Sama graduates, roughly 30 percent of the class, had found part-time work, making between $8 and $10 an hour, for over 20 hours a week. Among them: Franklin.

Stacy had gotten the offer first, as a virtual customer service representative for Comcast. She had successfully gone through training and had mentioned to her recruiter that others might be interested. She connected the recruiter with Davenport. Comcast needed more able bodies, the recruiter told him. Customer service had a high turnover rate. “In the Delta, there’s no such thing as turnover,” Davenport replied. There was nowhere to turn over to. “We’ll hire as many qualified people as you have,” the recruiter answered. Stacy had done well, and, buoyed by her success, Franklin applied. She passed the initial assessment and got ready to take her first online job.

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Franklin stands in front of her old trailer. There’s a full trash bin by the door. A rusted air-conditioning unit balances on the window, the paint peeling around the edges. The trailer stands on the edge of a field. Across the way: a cluster of abandoned buildings with no windows or doors, with sheet metal, wood planks, and pieces of furniture littering the ground. The house next door is missing its door and some planks from its walls. Somebody probably looted them for firewood, Franklin suggests. The smell of wood smoke fills the air.

Most of her life is in these few blocks of land. Down the street is the yellow house where she grew up with her eight siblings. Behind the trailers, just visible behind the red and yellow autumn trees that dot the yard, is the home of her grandmother, Esther Simpkins. She’s well into her eighties now, but can still tell me about the generations of Simpkinses that came before, all living on the west side, all working the fields. That’s how Franklin’s parents met: Their backyards abutted. Franklin wants to move on, but this is her world.

In just a few days, Franklin will begin her training for Comcast. She brims with excitement. Thirty hours a week. Eight dollars an hour. There’s a lot you can buy with that kind of cash, places you can move, things you can do. Franklin imagines the possibilities. Who knows what could happen in a few weeks’ time? After all, two weeks ago, the unthinkable had come true: Her apartment finally received an Internet connection of its very own.

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Lead Photo: Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

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