Her LEVEL best
Alexa Martin, AB’04, raises money to combat the Internet access disparity in the city of Chicago.
Last summer Alexa Martin, AB’04, got a glimpse of life without a computer. Studying for graduate school in her local public library, Martin realized that she had forgotten her laptop at home. She needed to use a computer for about four hours, but the librarian told her that there was a two-hour limit, per person, per day—and all the computers in the library already were scheduled through the rest of the day. Later, she thought about the difficulty someone without a computer would face filling out a job application or taking an online exam. “There was this access disparity that I was never aware of,” Martin says, “and didn’t think about until that point.”
Martin, who was a human development major, says an example from her UChicago research methods course helped her adjust her perspective. “If you lived in rural America near horses, you would feel like there are more horses in the world than there actually would be. ... I’m able to use that when people say, ‛Doesn’t everyone have a computer in their house? Doesn’t everyone have Internet access?’ I say, ‘Step outside your experience a little bit. What evidence do you have?’”
Martin asked herself the same question and, after research and a course on entrepreneurship, she formed her current project, LEVEL. Martin, who works full time in health care management, is collaborating with her sister Mghon Martin and IT specialist Jeremiah Faust to fund an Internet café in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Different from the typical Internet café, LEVEL would provide not just wireless access and outlets but computers too.
Because there is no tested business model for these computer cafés, Martin’s vision is adaptable. “If we have to evolve the idea in some way, then I’m prepared to move forward," she says. "I’m more flexible about what we need to do and what the evolution of LEVEL could be.” Right now the plan is either to open a new café with vending machines (“to keep the operational costs really low”) or to put computers inside an existing coffee shop.
Initially planned for the Hyde Park and Bronzeville areas, the project shifted when Roger Sosa, a member of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, reached out to Martin, suggesting that she look at some properties in his neighborhood. Martin immediately identified with the area, finding the personality and demographic similar to her home in suburban Waukegan. Because of the high immigrant population in Back of the Yards, Martin calls the area “the back door to Chicago,” and explains that, without Internet access, many struggle to maintain contact with their families back home.
Sosa helped her find a partnership with Seed Chicago, one of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s initiatives to help local businesses. Seed Chicago promotes projects through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, where LEVEL is currently raising money. To date the project has raised $7,498 toward its $10,000 goal. The deadline to keep the money and fulfill Martin’s goal is July 10 at 9:54 p.m. (Kickstarter’s policy requires all money raised to be returned to donors if an organization does not meet its fundraising objective.)
With $10,000, Martin says, the project could provide about 15 computers and make Internet access in the Back of the Yards just a little bit more LEVEL.