Abstract: Combating the Urban Crisis, One Computer Technician at a Time: IBM, the Urban League, and the Business of Social Responsibility through Job Training

Andrew Meade McGee


In an example of corporate social responsibility now largely forgotten, from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s IBM and other major computer technology firms partnered with social advocacy groups like the National Urban League to sponsor computer job training programs and technology institutes for low income city-dwellers. This ambitious plan provided complementary but disparate benefits the corporations and the social advocacy groups. The former burnished their credentials as corporations with a social conscience while building up a pool of trained workers suitable to place at client firms previously unable to afford computer expansion due to lack of qualified manpower. The latter saw the partnership as a step to placing minority and urban poor constituencies on a fast track to full partnership in the growing information economy without sacrificing political capital by seeking assistance through channels of elected officials or government agencies. In the paper I examine the political context of the partnership, traces the mid-1960s origins of the program from its initial blueprinting by IBM officials and Urban League president Whitney Young, examine the program's actual operations through a close examination of a representative Chicago chapter in the late 1970s, and discuss why the ambitious, nationwide proposal never quite lived up to its expectations. The partnerships frequently underperformed on an institutional level, becoming enmeshed in political infighting, mission uncertainty, and overly zealous expectations. The paper's argument engages with several intellectual discussions, including the broad literature of corporate social responsibility, discussion of government/activist group/corporate collaboration on ambitious social goals during the 1960s and 1970s, and a corpus of works on the relationship between under-represented minority groups and the information technology sector from the 1960s to the 1980s.