Grassroots Geek: Glenn Stein

Glenn Stein's Byte Back trains D.C. discards for a high-tech future


| July-August 1999



Seven years ago, Glenn Stein was traveling across the United States, giving lectures on Operation Moses, the 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel he had helped coordinate. But mere talk frustrates Stein, who seems constitutionally compelled to do more. At each stop he sold baskets handwoven by Ethiopian Jewish refugees in Addis Ababa as a way to help them support themselves.

Today, Stein has found a new way to help people support themselves, this time closer to home. A self-taught computer junkie who left the world of Jewish social action to become a full-time programmer, Stein runs Byte Back, a computer training program for low-income adults in Washington, D.C. In the past two years, the organization has helped more than a thousand D.C. residents become more employable in an increasingly wired world.

“In 1995 there was a lot of talk about cutting affirmative action,” recalls Stein. “I started wondering to myself, ‘Why am I so concerned with trying to avoid the creation of a black underclass in Israel, but doing nothing to help address the problems of a black underclass here in the United States?’ ”

Beginning in 1997 with one training site, the program today operates with a half-million-dollar budget and offers 41 courses each semester at six sites across the city. Its five paid employees and dozens of volunteer instructors teach everything from basic computer skills to office applications and network administration. More than 80 percent of the students are African American. And a fifth of them, it just so happens, are from Washington's large Ethiopian immigrant community. Stein, who works a 30-hour week as a freelance programmer, donates more than 40 hours of his “spare time” each week to running the project.

Washington is a long way from Phoenix, where Stein grew up dreaming of becoming a rabbi. The self-described agnostic eventually abandoned that dream but stayed active in his synagogue, becoming a regional youth director for the Reform movement while he was still in college. After graduation, Stein—equal parts idealist and pragmatist—went into commercial real estate. “I figured I'd make $2 million in two years, then retire and spend my time doing social action.” He did well, but not quite as well as he'd envisioned. So he quit.

Taking an 80 percent pay cut, he went to work for the Reform movement's progressive political action arm, the Religious Action Center, in Washington, D.C. Ultimately—after stints working as the RAC's associate director and at other jobs in the Jewish community—Stein was offered the opportunity to work in Ethiopia as field director for the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry, overseeing relief efforts for Jewish refugees prior to the historic airlifts.