February 9, 2016

Atlanta, Georgia: A City on the Brink: Digital Inclusion Fellowship Voices

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. Aneta Thomas Lee shares her recent work as a Fellow in Atlanta, Georgia, working for the Department of Parks & Recreation in Atlanta.

When I realized I was chosen to be a Digital Inclusion Fellow, I was excited; I was honored; I was shocked. I knew I was embarking upon a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I arrived in San Jose to begin orientation, I was mesmerized—by California, by the weather, by Google headquarters. When I began to better understand the digital divide and what this Fellowship was all about, I was enthralled—by the importance, by the need, by the depth. And when I returned home to delve into this pressing social issue, I was taken aback—by the lack of knowledge, by the lack of acknowledgement, by the lack of funding.

Atlanta: An International City

Atlanta is an international city. It has the busiest airport in the world—recently celebrating its 100,000,000 th  visitor within a calendar year. It is the host of even more people through sporting events, conferences, concerts, and major art events. It holds a history of transformative United States events—from the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War and the iconic movie that was spawned, to the birthplace of one this country’s most influential leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is home to renowned higher institutions of education. Georgia Tech is a world-renowned engineering institution. Georgia State University has transformed from a commuter college to one of the highest research institutions in the country. Pioneer HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and University) call Atlanta home. Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University have produced phenomenal leaders in business, medicine, and human services.

With all of the history, knowledge, intelligence, and power—including industry juggernauts, like Coca-Cola, SunTrust Banks, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, and UPS— embedded in the Atlanta landscape, imagine my surprise when there was nothing established as a citywide strategic approach to the digital divide and/or digital inclusion.

The Digital Divide Is a Social Injustice

While there are multiple organizations in Atlanta working on bridging the divide with the three-legged stool model—affordable broadband access, low-cost hardware, and digital literacy—there remains great need for additional cross-sector collaboration and investment.

The digital divide is not only an education issue anymore. It is a social service issue. It is a workforce development issue. It is an economic issue. It is a social injustice that is intertwined with all larger social injustices—poverty, homelessness, health, civic engagement, and, yes, education.

Centers of Hope

My goal in this Fellowship is to establish ongoing computer literacy programming with the City’s Recreation Department. Currently, there are 33 Recreation Centers, 10 of which are considered “flagship” centers called the Centers of Hope. Most of the Centers have computer labs; however they are severely under-utilized and have not had consistent programming in many years.

I am looking forward to reaching out to various communities about this new offering in their neighborhood recreation centers and to bringing community leadership onboard to help promote it. And while my programming only offers ‘one-leg’ of the three-legged stool of digital inclusion, with the assistance of my fellow Fellows in Atlanta, we have established partnerships with our City Hosts that may eventually bring all three digital inclusion components together.

The City of Atlanta is a city on the brink of becoming a leader in initiatives that address the concerns surrounding the digital divide. With the coming of Google Fiber and the great work done by Atlanta’s Community Impact Manager, Fabiola Charles Stokes, more and more communities and institutions are beginning to understand this issue.

With President Obama and the Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome Initiative making its debut in Atlanta in 2016, more low-income communities will begin to see the relevance of being connected and hopefully seek out more training. The Digital Inclusion Fellowship—led by NTEN in partnership with Google Fiber—will, in my hope, serve as a catalyst to push Atlanta over the brink and into the deep of this most important issue.

Aneta Lee
Aneta Thomas Lee is an altruistic forward-thinker with a passion for under-served neighborhoods. She has worked in nonprofit management—either by volunteer or active employment—for over 20 years. She enjoys serving others by giving them the education they need to empower themselves. Aneta served as a Digital Inclusion Fellow in the 2015-2016 and the 2016-2017 Cohorts. She is currently serving as a Digital Inclusion Specialist for the Connected Churches Initiative. A program sponsored by Google and the RainbowPUSH Coalition dedicated to assisting churches with creating "Technology Ministries". "We are committed to providing resources to churches so they can become a place of opportunity - in their community, in education and in digital inclusion." - ATL