In May 2015, NTEN and Google Fiber launched the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, a new national program investing in local communities and nonprofit organizations to address the digital divide. Sixteen Fellows are working this year on projects that include setting up basic computer skills courses, increasing home Internet usage, and volunteer recruitment and training. Sol Katia Jimenez shares her recent work as a Fellow in Salt Lake City, working for the Salt Lake Education Foundation.
The Internet is all about connections, literally. When you pull out your phone or your laptop or your tablet, you automatically expect to connect to wi-fi; you rely on existing networks to help you get connected. Your purpose of connecting may be to access information promptly, communicate with loved ones through social media, send an email to your student’s teacher, turn in a homework assignment, etc. Whatever it may be, the Internet is an essential tool to connect. Moreover, the Internet is a tool with the potential to serve people directly and build up human capital more rapidly.
However, if the Internet is to reach its upmost potential as a tool to for transformative change, there is another type of connectivity that is both more important and necessary, and that is human connections. The fact of the matter is that we cannot foster efforts for positive social change using the Internet without relying on the groundwork of authentic relationship-building. Serving as a Digital Inclusion Fellow has helped me develop human connections and community networks, which play prominently in the efforts of mobilizing people.
Working for the Salt Lake Education Foundation and serving at the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center (CLC) has been full of positive experiences and valuable learning opportunities. Two concepts that I have been formally introduced to are asset-based community work and long-term investments, two concepts critical for the care and advancement of a community. To ensure the success of this Fellowship (and any other work done at the CLC), it is essential to stay true to these concepts at both the organizational and personal level.
Asset-based community work is the approach that focuses on the assets of people—the gifts people have to offer specifically to build community. One of the reasons this model works in our community is because it strays away from the “deficits” people may have and instead focuses on the positive attributes people posses. For example, instead of assuming the community we are serving is “uneducated” and “in desperate need of easily-accessible educational resources,” we focus on the strong-willed consistency of community members as they attend programming, or the relationships that exist among community members that create networks where information about community resources can be shared. It is through this model that the next goals of program expansion for the CLC have been identified.
By centering the community and focusing on the needs its members have identified, this Fellowship can focus on providing the support that will meet such needs. For example, our community has identified the need for more educational opportunities for adults. It is then the co-responsibility of community organizations serving at the CLC to provide the support and resources that will meet this need.
Part of that co-responsibility includes recognizing that there are barriers that prevent community members from accessing resources. We must seek to provide solutions to barriers, such as time constraints and lack of childcare. The beauty of asset-based community work is that the solutions to needs and barriers lie within the community, that it takes a collaborative effort to ensure the well-being and success of each individual community member.
Another necessary element for impactful community work is the commitment to a long-term investment from people and organizations. Here is one cheesy way of illustrating this idea: Let’s say that someone just broke your heart, leaving you sad and disappointed. But then another special person comes into your life who gradually helps you heal. At this point, you cannot imagine this new person ever leaving, especially in the midst of the process. To a certain extent, you may expect this person to feel a commitment, especially if they decided to invest in you. Community work at the CLC is much like relationships—whatever partners come in and decide to make an investment in the work the CLC does, they are expected to stay for an extended period of time and be fully committed to providing, assessing, and improving its investments, obviously with the full support of the CLC.
Something I take very seriously about this fellowship is the emphasis on finding ways of making my work sustainable. It is rather superficial to provide a program or service that only seeks to serve the greatest number of people in a short amount of time. There is no mutual benefit in doing that, greatly defeating the symbiotic nature of the CLC. Also, long-term investments at the CLC go beyond the programming and services it can provide. They are life-long authentic relationships that I have learned to value and appreciate in this work.