The High-Tech Nun

San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine | July 20, 2004

By Leslie Guttman

The dot-com era is so far behind us that both its lexicon and the memories sound quaint, tiresome and irritating. No one wants to hear about dot-bombs or what Dr. Koop is up to or ponder yet again why in God’s name we were possessed to invest in Gazoontite.com.


You also don’t hear hardly anything anymore about the era’s socioeconomic digital divide: computers in households above the poverty line, but not in those below it (more often than not households of color). And yet, that broadband chasm remains, and Sister Patsy Harney, a San Francisco nun with the Sisters of Mercy and a proud tech-savvy mama of all things bandwidth, is fighting the battle every day to bring the poorest among us — especially children — the computer skills necessary to find jobs and an easier life.

I met Harney, 60, in the heart of the Tenderloin last year on a trash-strewn street haunted by junkies and prostitutes, inside a computer lab she was running for that neighborhood’s poorest residents. She was one stop on a tour by Mercy Housing, a $10 million nonprofit that builds low-income housing throughout the city and state. Harney darted from monitor to monitor, helping kids, keeping the network running and in general being a holy sys admin. Although her formal title at Mercy is a mouthful — associate director of community and resident initiatives — in truth, she is simply known to most as the High-Tech Nun of the Tenderloin. She’s the one to call when your e-mail crashes, your screen is frozen or you want to learn PowerPoint, Quark or Microsoft Office.

Harney wears glasses, comfortable shoes and a lot of brown. She carries a presence of kindness and authority, as well as an irreverence that has her doing things like buying figurines of nuns playing poker for her boss. You can exclaim "Damn!" around Harney and she doesn’t flinch. She may not look as cool as the people she reads about in Wired, but she is, if cool means a combination of individuality, tech-savviness and the ability to fix your own DSL.

"Sister Patsy is all over it," says Mike Moran, a 24-year-old coordinator of one of Mercy’s after-school programs. "She’s the first person I call for computer help. She’s always on top of it. The nun thing is off the wall. I know nothing about tech compared to her."

Harney’s transformation from regular nun to gearhead nun was, unsurprisingly, tied to the Internet boom. In 1999, Mercy received a half-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education to set up computer labs in the Bay Area and one in Bakersfield. Harney had written the grant and had to jump on the learning curve in order to implement it. She found she was fascinated by the smallest details of the digital world, despite her analog upbringing.

"I got a big charge out of it, to tell you the truth," she says. "I was reading Wired and Fast Company every month just to keep up. I was going to meetings with the people doing the wiring, and I’d sit there and be very circumspect. Then I’d go home and gradually figure out what they were talking about."

Yet when the money vanished as the era imploded, the computers stayed, and so did the hunger for knowledge by their users. Harney learned how to fix things herself and how to do a lot with a little, which these days keeps seven computer labs running in San Francisco and one in Daly City, serving at least a couple thousand residents in Mercy housing and several hundred more in the area who come and use them. There are several other labs scattered throughout the Bay Area, and one that remains in Bakersfield.

Harney says countless Mercy residents don’t have computers. A Pew study, "Internet and the American Life," released last year found that a household income of $50,000 or above is one key predictor of Internet use. Comprehensive statistics on the digital divide from the Department of Education for 2001, the most recent year available, showed that 77 percent of whites use a computer at home, compared to 41 percent of blacks and Hispanics.

Peter Grunwald of Grunwald Associates, a national research outfit based in San Mateo that focuses on technology use and kids, says that while his organization’s research shows the digital divide is narrowing for children, the kids who are left behind are in even deeper trouble than those in previous years. Their lack of knowledge is almost akin to not knowing how to use the telephone.

"Their peers are absolutely surrounded by digital media. It’s one of the basic ways in which kids communicate and find out about the outside world, form community and engage in social relationships," Grunwald says. "A lot of the basic elements of growing up are now entwined in digital media."

At Mercy’s main office South of Market, an airy building with bleached-white walls and high ceilings, Harney recently held her weekly meeting with Shashi Assisi, her project manager. Her brightly lit cubicle is the nonprofit’s technological nerve center. Donated computers and printers were strewn about on the green carpet. Scattered on the desktops were countless manuals, CD-ROMS, pecan-brownie snacks and cacti in pots.

Harney and Assisi viewed the trailer for the 30-minute documentary "Bus 24: The Diversity Bus," in which young filmmakers explored the range of people who ride Muni’s 24 Divisadero bus line, which trundles from Hunters Point to Pacific Heights. It was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival last month. Harney helped encourage the making of the work, the idea for which came from filmmaker Aron Ranen and Julie Trell of the philanthropic arm of Salesforce.com, an online software company. Kids ages 10 to 16 were not only taught how to use video cameras and exposed to a professional editing system, with critical help from Mercy Arts Integrator Gwen Yaeger, but also learned how to interview people, sometimes knocking nervously on doors in Pacific Heights to contact their subjects.

Over the years, children have excelled with the skills Harney has helped teach them. In 1998, an Indian American boy named Shahid Minipara designed a flashlight for exploring bugs — the Light Hand — that was picked up by Wild Planet toys. He was 11 years old, and the subsequent payment and royalties helped him get to college.

Harney and her team also train the kids within Mercy housing how to be high-tech ambassadors, called "digital connectors," who then teach adults how to use computers. On a recent field trip to Yahoo with them, Harney says, a young woman named Tramael Burch didn’t see any people of color sitting at the cubicles, so she asked the human resources person giving the tour, "Is there any place for us here?" She was offered an internship, and while she couldn’t take it then because of college plans, she certainly learned that when you ask, you often receive. Harney said another Mercy housing resident — a man who didn’t know how to use e-mail or possess any other tech skills until they taught him – just landed a $40,000-a-year job as a loan officer.

Back in the office at the weekly Mercy meeting, Harney and Assisi were joined by Francisco Mora, program director of One Economy, a nonprofit whose mission includes working to provide digital access to affordable housing. The three discussed some issues on the forefront of tech right now, such as how to craft housing agreements with tenants on limiting individual bandwidth — curbing downloading hogs — as well as working on changing state policies to provide developers with tax incentives for building housing with Internet access.

Then Harney, Assisi and I headed over to an after-school program Mercy runs South of Market in collaboration with another nonprofit housing provider. On the way, Harney mused a bit about the ’90s. "The only reason the digital divide caught everyone’s attention is because big corporations thought they could use it to sell people more products," she says.

We pulled into the center near Folsom and Sixth streets just as an 11-year-old boy with dirty blonde hair named Joseph Crowell was standing in the driveway getting ready to punch another kid. He stopped when he saw Harney.

"They messing with me," he snapped at Harney as she gave him a stare from the car window.

"This will give you a chance to walk away," she replied.

The after-school program is held on the first floor of a Mercy building. Of the 55 families who live there, just five have computers at home, which is why keeping the nearby computer center running is so crucial. Kevin Armin, an 11-year-old resident, says the computer skills he has learned "made me smarter and gave me more knowledge."

Inspired by "Bus 24," he’s working on a film of his own called "The Life in My ‘Hood," that explores the ups and downs of the blocks in which he lives. The ups: "The kids here are great, and there’s no killing here," he says matter-of-factly. "The downside — the neighborhood is in bad shape," and there’s not enough places for him and friends to play.

After assisting a group of boys in designing some aerodynamically correct paper airplanes, Harney walked to the computer lab with Rachel Smart, one of the coordinators of the after-school program. She asked if any of the kids had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Smart said none had been diagnosed, but in her opinion, it was tough to tell since some of the kids had parents working three minimum-wage jobs to survive. "What’s the difference between a kid that wants attention and a kid that has ADHD?" Smart asked Harney.

Inside the computer center, Harney tried to work with Crowell, but he was still a bit sullen over the driveway altercation and was trying to sneak looks at a Beyonce Web site. The rest of the kids played games and clicked around a "digital quilt" Web project they created that combines art and photos with prose and poetry. Its purpose was to teach them tech skills and have them speak their minds about their lives.

A photo of a little boy is juxtaposed next to one of homeless person slumped against a wall on the Web page belonging to Crowell’s older sister, Cierra, 12. She writes: "… People call SOMA a bad place to live, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it."

Armin’s page has "Don’t get killed" written in red across the top and then describes the dangers of Sixth Street, where his cousins live: "Be afraid of 666th street in San Francisco. Drug dealers own da streets."

As the digital world touches every part of our lives, it’s not surprising that would include the lives of people dedicated to the sacred, and Harney sees God’s hand in a fast-clicking mouse. Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it’s near magic to see kids who did not even know what the word scroll meant last year who are now digital diarists.

Harney’s order is celebrating 150 years of work in California this year. "When we were founded in Dublin, Ireland, we were called the walking nuns," she says. "Our founders didn’t want us to be in a monastery but wanted us to be out on the streets. I feel like my work really mirrors that, being on the streets, working in housing, going out to the alleys, providing places for neighborhood kids to have access. … I guess all of Creation is of God, and men and women created technology."