Lance Lucas sees tech as a way out of poverty for inner-city kids
Published: February 5, 2014
For a guy who paid himself $7,200 for a year’s work (and for a 55-hour work week), Lance Lucas is extremely enthusiastic.
“Look at these jobs up here: Protective Threat Analyst,” Lance Lucas tells a group of kids on a recent Saturday. “Bethlehem Steel used to be the largest employer in Maryland. Now the largest employer in Maryland is the NSA.”
Lucas is a co-founder of Digit All Systems, a nonprofit test-administration provider based downtown. On Saturdays Lucas offers free computer and career classes to all comers—mainly neighborhood kids. This particular class is in the Downtown Cultural Center, a high-ceilinged former bank office on Howard Street. He’s got a few friends who are going to give a drone-hacking demonstration.
Lucas has for more than 15 years been teaching Baltimore youth how to troubleshoot computers and computer networks, helping, he says, 39 earn CompTIA A+ certification as computer technologists just this year. He says that certificate alone is good for a job earning between $15 and $25 an hour.
“You start with A+ Certification and then move up to Network+ and then Security+, which is required to work for the DoD [for] starting salaries of $70,000 and $80,000 a year,” Lucas says.
By Lucas’ lights, poor inner-city kids can learn enough computer skills in a couple of months to make a living. Employers want and need these skills, so Baltimore City is a natural untapped market. He can’t fathom why city schools are not already doing what he does in high volume.
That he is, according to his nonprofit tax forms, making only a tiny fraction of that $15 to $25 an hour teaching it is an irony, Lucas admits.
“I can go and make $100,000 anywhere,” says Lucas.
It’s not by accident that Lucas comes across like a salesman. Three months from graduation from Woodlawn High School, he says he got busted for counterfeiting tickets to a fashion show. “I worked in the print shop where they were made,” he says.
Counterfeiting tickets had been a nice business for quite a while by then, and Lucas says he had $300 in his pocket the morning he got busted and that he had to pay $1,500 later. “I had to pay restitution,” he says. “The cop that arrested me says, ‘You’re smart kid, just in the wrong way.’”
The son of a city schoolteacher and a steelworker who had split when he was much younger, Lucas’ run-in with the law roiled his family and got him expelled. So he took his punishment, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work on his high school diploma. From there, a stint in the Army Reserve and then home, though his mother had moved and there was no place for him.
“I was homeless for a time,” Lucas says.
Smart and entrepreneurial, Lucas’ hustle could have led him to many dark places in Baltimore. Instead, he moved in with an aunt who had worked for IBM. The aunt had a computer with a color monitor and Lucas snuck it off to Coppin State, where he was then enrolled. Soon he landed at Staples, the office-supply chain, where he talked his way into the computer-repair and sales department.
And that might have been the end of the story. But Lucas wanted to do more for the kids coming up behind him. He was approached by the computer lab manager at Coppin State, who let him teach a class there on what he was learning in school and on the job. He recruited his sister.
“My sister was my first student. She was like my only student for a month,” Lucas says.
Helena Lucas says she brought a couple of friends to her brother’s new class. “I feel it started me on the career I’m on today,” she says. “I’m a business analyst for an IT company.”
Soon there was a nonprofit corporation. There was also a club, called Mega Man, which Lucas formed with some fellow Coppin State students after being inspired at the Million Man March. One day they rented a truck to clean up a particular alley and on the way there “Staples said, ‘Come in or you lose your job,’” Lucas says. So his fellow club members went on alone. “When they got there, the junkies started helping clean,” Lucas says. “The corner boys did too. These were west side guys on the east side. And when they took that U-Haul to the dump, someone called the cops.”
Fox 45 News made one of the Mega Men, Benjamin Hall, a “Champion of Courage.” Lucas thought his organization was on its way.
It wasn’t. By 1999 he was down to one student—his sister. He bounced back and kept at it though, co-founding Digit All in 2002 as a nonprofit test administrator specializing in the GED.
Today, Digit All provides testing services for corporations and the state, as well as the GED service (see “General Equivalence,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 22 ). But Lucas continues the Saturday computer classes, all free of charge.
On Jan. 18, more than a dozen students listen as a Google intern and a couple who created a drone company talk about the technology. George Heron, manager of LifeJourney, a new motivational platform, tries to impress upon the teenagers how wide open the new technology sphere is. “There’s 10 careers on this,” Heron says, holding up a four-rotor drone. “There are engineers. There’s a tiny computer, and since there’s a computer, there’s a computer scientist. There’s physics guys. I could go on. And everyone of those jobs I mentioned is in the range of $50 to $100 thousand.”
The kids listen attentively in front of laptops supplied by Lucas. (He’s given, by his estimate, some 3,000 computers to the city school system and established computer labs in city housing projects.)
This, Lucas says, is an opportunity for his charges to escape the economic depression that grips Baltimore’s African-American neighborhoods.
But, though he is well-known in City Hall, Lucas has not yet found the key to the city’s philanthropic vault. He admits his efforts at promotion—a guns-for-laptops trade last summer, for instance—haven’t rung the right bells.
“If I had it all to do again,” he says, “I’d spend a lot more time going to dinner parties and telling people ‘I’m your adopted son.’ But I could not walk by those corners and leave kids there.”
Lance Lucas may be a salesman, but he’s that rare breed who sincerely believes his pitch. “If everyone had a degree from BCCC, there’d be no killings,” he says. “Everybody knows that.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.