Grassroots Geek: Glenn Stein

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.

Two years later, Stein was on the move again, launching his own computer programming firm, which gave him the flexibility and focus to embark on an entirely new approach to social change. An intense 41-year-old with a teddy-bear appearance and an alternately somber and quixotic demeanor, Stein designed Byte Back to extend a hand beyond purely palliative measures and to avoid the hands-off approach of well-intentioned policy wonks and affluent activists (his personal pet peeve). “I want volunteers who are actually interested in working with the people in need,” he says.

What distinguishes his computer-skills program from others targeted to the un- and underemployed, he says, is industry-standard testing. “Most of the programs out there don’t test their students to see if they’ve learned what they need to learn,” he explains. “If they don’t test, then funders won’t know if they’ve failed. So they keep getting funded, whether they’re really successful or not.”

Byte Back has had more than its share of measurable successes. In its first year, the program put four men and one woman through an advanced, intensive internship training program. Within one month of graduation, all five–one of whom had formerly been homeless and one who had recently been released from prison–had jobs in the computer industry making an average of more than $30,000 a year.

Craig Walker, a 35-year-old former intern who now works for Stein, was by his own account “wandering aimlessly, holding odd jobs” when he happened upon the Byte Back training site at the Gospel Rescue Mission in downtown D.C. “I’d never used a computer before. Figured if I touched it, it might break.” But he dived in, and within a week he’d learned all the basic applications. “This guy kept showing up,” he says, pointing to Stein–who, at the moment, is at a nearby terminal helping debug the code of another intern at the headquarters’ training site–“so I asked him what I could do to learn this stuff faster. He gave me two days to prepare for the entrance exams for the internship program, I passed, and the rest . . . well, here I am.”

Walker now manages Byte Back’s internship program, which has grown from 11 interns in the program’s first year to 33 today. “This is, by far, the most successful aspect of the program,” he says.

Staring intently at the computer screen, Stein discovers the one thing that has gone wrong with the student-intern’s code. “This needed to be an equal sign,” he tells Petros, who has been anxiously standing by. “But otherwise it looks good.” The classroom breaks into applause. Petros, a cab driver and Ethiopian immigrant, looks relieved. He’s been working hard, he says, but it’s worth it. Pretty soon, thanks to Stein and Byte Back, he’ll be able to say good-bye to hacking as a cabbie–to become a new, and better paid, kind of hacker.

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