Eric Addison, managing editor, US Black Engineer Information Technology
The Sally family can't even remember life without a computer.
They have three in their West Baltimore home, and at some point of the day one of them is running.
Maybe it's one of the four kids -- Big Ed, Eddie, Tameka or Catrina -- researching a paper, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Or maybe Mom is chatting online. Everyone in the family has at least one e-mail account.
"You've got to have a computer," said Dad, Edward Jr. "It would be like not having a telephone, an answering machine or even a fax machine." The family also knows it's far from technologically savvy. After all, what's innovative today is ancient tomorrow.
To keep up with the changes, the Sally family will take part in a weekend of technology seminars aimed at black families. The sessions are part of the 15th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference, which begins today at the Baltimore Convention Center.
Baltimore-based Career Communications Group, publisher of US Black Engineer Information Technology magazine, is host to both affairs to highlight black successes in the science and information technology fields. The group added the family technology weekend after mounting evidence began to show that blacks lagged far behind whites in computer and Internet usage.
While computer ownership among black families increased by 12 percent between 1998 and 2000, that's still far behind the rate in white households. About 56 percent of white families owned computers last year as compared to 32.6 percent of black families, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Various speakers at the empowerment weekend will teach more experienced computer users, such as the Sally family, about everything from paying bills online to the latest technology gizmos. Other seminars will focus on topics as basic as turning on the computer.
But organizers say it's not enough anymore just to have a computer if it's used only to browse the Internet. Blacks also need to learn the computer skills to compete in a job market that is increasingly high-tech.
"The digital divide is very real, but it's important to define it correctly," said Eric Addison, managing editor of US Black Engineer Information Technology magazine. "You have to look at whether African-Americans are being empowered by technology. The gap there is wide."
A number of factors -- including economics, education and upbringing -- contribute to the gap, experts say. Community groups, the federal government and churches have all tried to expose African-American communities to technology in recent years. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, for instance, has an information technology minister and computer training program.
Organizers of the empowerment weekend and engineers conference, which runs through Saturday, hope to reach a large number of people at once.
About 9,000 students and professionals are expected to attend the three days of events, which also include an awards ceremony honoring blacks in the fields of engineering and information technology.
Edward Sally hopes that by attending he will expose his kids to those types of careers.
"I try to explain to them how important it is," Sally said. "It's the tune of the future."