|Living the Values|
Bringing technology to American Indians
Leslie Smith at the Man of the Year award banquet
In his spare time, Leslie M. Smith brings technology to some of the most remote locations in the United States . . . American Indian reservations. Even in 2007, many American Indians who live on reservations have never laid a hand on a mouse or punched a single button on a keyboard.
“On the way to most of these reservations, there is nothing,” Leslie said. “No gas stations, shopping malls or convenience stores. Some reservations even lack basics like electricity, so it’s no wonder technology doesn’t enter the picture. These really are some of the most remote places in the United States.”
So how did a Business Development Executive from White Plains, New York get involved with American Indians?
Leslie volunteers as the Chairman of the Board for SeniorNet, an organization whose mission is to “provide older adults education for and access to computer technologies to enhance their lives and enable them to share their knowledge and wisdom.”
During Leslie’s tenure as Chairman of SeniorNet, he met Carroll Coccchia, the president of the Native American Chamber of Commerce. “Carroll told me about the plight of the First Americans and I was moved, but it wasn’t until I saw it firsthand that I realized how desperate the situation really was,” Leslie said.
The plight of the American Indians
On the reservations, American Indians have their own schools, grow their own food, and trade for goods and services. Many go their whole lives without ever stepping foot off their reservation.
“Indian Reservations are subsidized by the Federal government, which although helpful, also perpetuates the problem: generation after generation of American Indians are dependent on the government,” Leslie said. “So there is no motivation to learn something new, to branch out and make life different. Rates of alcoholism, smoking and suicide are high among this population.”
After seeing the reservations, meeting some American Indians and learning about their culture, Leslie became determined to make a difference in their lives. He knew that introducing technology on the reservations was the right thing to do. He was so determined to help, in fact, that he became the new Chairman of the Native American Chamber of Commerce.
A plan comes together
Leslie realized he was sitting on a goldmine. If he combined his SeniorNet resources along with those of the Native American Chamber, he could really make some changes. “I had access to more than 240 brick and mortar learning centers through SeniorNet,” Leslie said. “The skills of the trainers we have are second to none. I knew they could help train the American Indians on how to use technology . . . we just had to get the technology.”
Leslie convinced IBM to invest U.S. $250,000 to provide state of the art technology centers on five American Indian Reservations. The first center was installed on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana in September 2006. The next center will open on the Chippewa Reservation at Leech Lake, Minnesota, in the first half of this year.
But Leslie didn’t stop with IBM. To further his cause, he went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. Together with IBM and SeniorNet, the Bureau will help sponsor the cost of travel for SeniorNet’s trainers to go to the reservations and teach the First Americans how to use their new technology.
Let the learning begin
“After we opened the tech center in Blackfoot, the enthusiasm was overwhelming,” Leslie said. “There was a line out the door 24 hours a day. The Blackfoot people were so excited to get their hands on a computer for the first time, to surf the web, to learn about email. They would sit at the computers for hours and not want to leave.”
One of the most touching moments of Leslie’s time at the Blackfoot technology center opening came when he was helping a 70 year old woman. “She asked me what Rome looked like,” Leslie said. “I showed her pictures of the Vatican and the Pope. She had no idea you could see pictures like that on a computer. It was a moving experience for both of us.”
“IBM stepped up to the plate to help a people who really have no voice,” Leslie said. “I am proud that we are a company founded on values and a company who remains committed to values. This is what makes me proud to be an IBMer. We are changing lives and changing futures with technology, and that should make every IBMer feel great.”
For his efforts, Leslie was named “Man of the Year” by the Native American Chamber of Commerce.