Over the last nine months, our amazing group of Digital Inclusion Fellows has been hard at work building digital skills in their communities. From helping a veteran request a replacement of his Purple Heart medal in San Antonio, TX to making sure a busy mom is getting all of the WIC benefits available to her in Bend, OR, the Fellows are transforming the lives of community members by teaching critical digital literacy skills and extending access to the internet.
One of the elements that I believe makes our program unique is the diversity of Fellows, organizations, and communities that we get to work with nationally. Our Fellows this year are an incredibly diverse group working in a variety of contexts. We have a tiny library in rural Williams, OR (population: 1,072), and the San Antonio Public Library, serving over 5 million patrons a year. We have an organization focused on empowering Latinx girls in media and tech in Austin, as well as a major international entity supporting refugees and immigrants around the world. While the missions of these organizations, as well as the communities they serve, differ greatly, they all share a common goal: to be able to harness the power of technology to improve and facilitate the lives of their community members. At NTEN, we believe that digital inclusion is mission-critical for all nonprofits, and are glad to be able to support the Fellows and their organizations in building and expanding their digital inclusion offerings.
Throughout their Fellowship year, Fellows develop and implement projects designed around the communities they’re serving. To be able to respond to local community assets and demands, each project is tailored to best support folks in gaining the skills they need. Each context looks different: it may be teaching individuals experiencing homelessness about job training opportunities online, showing seniors how they can video chat with their grandkids, or even demonstrating to parents how they can use an online portal to communicate with their child’s teacher. Regardless of the specifics of each community, the benefits are almost identical across the board: savings, connection, opportunity, and knowledge, as well as confidence and joy!
We asked our Fellows to share with us some of what they have seen and learned along the way, and while each of them has a unique perspective, it’s easy to see that there’s a common thread: as both Ellie and Samuel point out, this is about opening doors to opportunity. And as Maddie so aptly captures: “Giving people the skills to level the playing field is essential community work,” no matter who you are or what organization you work in.
A’Sarah Green, East Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland, OH
Ellie Avis, Josephine Community Library District, Williams, OR
Emily Flores, San Antonio Public Library, San Antonio, TX
Gabryella Desporte, Latinitas, Austin, TX
Krysti Nellermoe, International Rescue Committee, Salt Lake City, UT
Kyra Gomez, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, Charlotte, NC (former Fellow)
Maddie McKinney, Deschutes County WIC, Bend, OR
Samuel Maldonado, Orange County Literacy Council, Carrboro/Raleigh-Durham, NC
How do you explain what digital inclusion is to someone who has never heard of it?
Access to technology is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity for full participation in economic, educational, and civic life. If you want to apply for a job, check your child’s grades, get counted in the 2020 census, or even contact your doctor, you need to be able to get online.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital inclusion as “the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).” This means people need affordable access to broadband internet and internet-enabled devices, as well as training in digital skills. Different communities face different barriers, whether it is infrastructure, affordability, or appropriate training opportunities. But all these pieces need to be in place for people to be genuinely able to participate in digital life.
People that have been excluded from digital opportunities are most often those who are already disadvantaged in multiple other areas. These are people with lower incomes and less education, as well as older adults who didn’t grow up with the technology. Racial minorities and recent immigrants are also disproportionately left out. As technology changes, the digital divide continues to be a moving target, and many structural barriers contribute to people being left out. Digital inclusion is a constant effort to reduce the size of the digital divide. Technology access may not be a magic bullet for overcoming socioeconomic disparities, but it can open pathways to opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach.
Digital inclusion is access to affordable broadband, digital tools including smartphones and computers, and digital skill training. These are essential to success in the 21st century. Without access to the internet, tools, and instruction, there would be difficulty in meeting one’s basic needs. Healthcare, education, public transit, social connections, and even shopping are just a few areas of daily life that have been transformed by the digital age. The best way to access many of these services is through one’s smartphone or computer. Digital inclusion is an initiative that seeks to not leave anyone behind as the digital world advances. This can include, but not limited to, rural communities, low-income individuals and families, and the elderly that might not have the resources or infrastructure needed to engage in the digital world.
Digital inclusion, for me, is about social justice, allowing everyone to have access and education about the digital world. Creating an easy and affordable internet connection, having devices available to the community, and, most importantly, providing training and guidance on how to access those resources.
Why are you interested in digital inclusion?
I’m not really interested in digital inclusion. I’m interested in social equity. I’m interested in intellectual freedom. I’m interested in expanding economic opportunity and civil liberties. Working on digital inclusion is one very concrete way to address all those things. People with limited ability to use or access the internet are literally shut out of opportunities that so many of us take for granted. I want to open those doors for people.
My background is in High School Education. When I became a Training Officer at the San Antonio Public Library, my role shifted, and I began focusing on Adult Basic Education. I initially focused my efforts on employment readiness (job applications and resumes) and ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction. I quickly realized that I could not overlook the need for digital literacy training. With job applications, for example, digital literacy is the number one obstacle our job seekers face, not whether or not they are qualified. People come in feeling so down on themselves and often apologize for not knowing how to use a computer and “bothering me.” It’s as if our society has beaten the message into their head that if you don’t know how to use a computer, you’re worthless. Completing a digital task successfully gives people such an immediate boost to their self-confidence, especially when it’s related to looking for work. It’s remarkable to see.
I work at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool. Technology plays a significant role in a school, and parents must keep up to be able to support their child’s education. Computer skills and online resources also support economic mobility for families living in poverty. And internet access presents unique opportunities for our Spanish-speaking families by providing global connections, advancing language acquisition, and building a community for this often isolated population.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on border surveillance technology and how it affects trans women coming from Central and South America into the USA. I wanted to work for an organization that shares this passion for digital empowerment and literacy, and I found Latinitas. It’s an organization that incorporates media and technology literacy and access in each lesson we teach, all with a lens for culture, identity, and gender.
I am a millennial and grew up with emerging technologies. In my office, I am often the first phone call people make when they have a minor tech glitch going on. I had never even heard of digital inclusion as a concept or as a focus of work before learning about NTEN’s fellowship program. My supervisor was sent information about the fellowship and thought it would be a good fit for me. It wasn’t until our fellowship orientation that I started seeing how profoundly digital skill deficits can impact full participation in modern society. I am quickly learning about all the ways less tech-literate folks are being left behind in basically all areas. Meanwhile, those fortunate enough to have a background that has afforded them the devices and opportunities to learn to use them get the upper hand. The more I learn about this topic, the more passionate I become in trying to give all people a hand up in learning some of these increasingly mandatory skills.
Today most people think that everybody knows how to work with a computer. Almost everything you need today, you must be able to do it online or using a tech device. Technology advances very fast, and communities need to adapt to the changes. That is challenging if you do not have the resources and the ability to be able to study and learn. There are families and entire communities that have serious struggles or simply cannot obtain access to devices or the internet. They can’t improve their skills because there isn’t a program that helps with this issue.
Why should all nonprofits be engaged in digital inclusion work?
Digital literacy is part of our daily lives. Adult learners who lack reading, language, and digital skills are profoundly left behind. These learners are affected economically and socially. Doors are closed to them. Their job prospects are diminished as well as improving their education.
If you think that everyone should hear your message or care about the work that you do, digital inclusion should be something that you think about and strive toward. If your nonprofit has an online presence, you should also be engaged in digital inclusion work. Otherwise, you are literally leaving people out.
Libraries have always been a point of access to information. In fact, connecting people with information is an essential function of libraries. Now that so much information is only available digitally, libraries must continue to take that function seriously by ensuring they are doing everything they can to provide access to the internet and computers, and proving the training to use those things.
Many nonprofits are in a perfect position to develop digital inclusion programming because they are often already working with populations that are at risk of being left behind. They have a built-in audience and rapport with their community to help get their digital inclusion programs off the ground and become successful. A nonprofit who would like to branch out into more digital equity and inclusion work would benefit greatly from looking into a fellowship with NTEN to get their toe in the water. NTEN’s yearlong fellowship project is excellent for helping identify needs in your agency and strategize methods to meet these needs. The project developed during the fellowship year is just the start. Special grants or even interns could carry out the work post-fellowship in a way that does not disrupt an already stretched budget while trying to bring these essential skills to people who need it most. Finding even small ways to start bridging the digital divide should be doable for even the smallest agency with a minimum of resources. In the nonprofit sector, we all need to share the responsibility of providing programming that focuses on helping our clients build the skills they need to survive and participate in a digital society.
What’s the biggest digital inclusion need that you see in the communities you serve?
The biggest digital inclusion need is access to affordable and quality internet service. Patrons are willing to take the courses and gain the necessary knowledge to use the internet, but they do not have access at home. For the years of 2013-2017 East Cleveland, Ohio Census data reported a population of 17,109. Within that, 46.7% of households have a broadband internet subscription, and 66.0% have a computer in the home.
Along with that data, 83.15% have high school diplomas and 11.9% with college degrees. East Cleveland had, for a long time, their very own internet service provider, which in recent years has been bought out by a new company. Patrons all over the city are inquiring about what to do with their internet, if they will have access to the internet, and many other questions surrounding the issue of the company closing then being bought by a new company and reopening. If this community had access to affordable and quality internet, patrons would be able to work from home, and children will have the means to further their education and do class assignments. A family of 10 would benefit from having affordable and quality internet service just as a family of 2. Some families have reported the struggle of paying off old internet bills in order to obtain a new service; however, since they can not pay off the old bill, they are unable to obtain the new service.
Living in a rural area, I see a need for all aspects of digital inclusion work. This county has a high percentage of people without home broadband access, and those who are online are often paying far too much for intermittent service and speeds. Many people can’t even get cell service at home. It wasn’t until I started working at the library that I really became aware of how many people also lack the skills to make good use of computers and the internet. There are very few training resources for people, especially in the rural parts of the county, and people are often embarrassed or frustrated by their lack of skills.
Of course, equipment and reliable internet connections are necessary. But the number one need in my community is training. Specifically, they need practical, hands-on instruction that is delivered in an equitable and culturally competent way to empower the individual and help them pick and choose which tools they will deploy to succeed. Our patrons need training in both English and Spanish that is not just focused on an end goal (such as submitting a job application), but scaffolded, giving them an opportunity to advance their knowledge. Additionally, while most individuals come in when they have a specific task that they need to complete, exploring and “playing around” on the computer are great ways to become more comfortable with technology. Whether it’s helping an individual look at their childhood home on Google Maps or find a YouTube video of their favorite musician, I view learning in broad terms. Times flies when you’re having fun!
The International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City (IRC SLC) assists newly arrived refugees from a diversity of countries to resettle in Salt Lake County each year, providing the support they need to establish a new life in the community that has offered them safety and a new beginning. This includes adapting to an often unfamiliar digital landscape and learning to leverage technology to access essential resources related to education, health, and economic wellbeing. Culturally and linguistically accessible instruction is a necessary component of this process as refugees’ starting point, and understanding of digital resources is, for the most part, farther away than their American-born neighbors. Beyond ensuring refugees have digital tools, including a smartphone, home internet, and access to a computer, refugees also require hands-on instruction on using technology for basic needs, including navigating public transit, communicating through email, and accessing online resources for healthcare and job searches.
Financial resources to have a wired internet connection or home computer are some of the biggest barriers I see. I work in a program where our clients have to income-qualify for services. This means that there often is not much money left over after paying bills, rent, childcare, and buying food. Cell phones are fairly ubiquitous, but sometimes they won’t have data or minutes left on their phone until they can pay their bill or until the next month starts. Availability of internet services is not an issue in the more densely populated areas I serve, but in the rural communities, it can be prohibitively expensive or not even possible to have home internet service. Many people rely on free WiFi offered at grocery stores, libraries, and public buildings to get online for their various internet needs: bill paying, appointment setting, checking report cards, banking, and other essential services that are more and more often moving to an online-only platform. An additional barrier I see frequently is with our lower-income Spanish speaking communities. This population often experiences lower literacy in general, which makes digital inclusion education even more challenging. This population is likely to have a smartphone, but often limited skillsets with which to take advantage of the potential provided by their smartphones. Helping this population increase their comfort level with using technology has been a particular focus for me during my fellowship project.
Many people do not have access to computers, the internet, or either. Some people can only access the web with their cell phones, but they cannot afford unlimited data. Some of them are scared to use them because they never learned how. It makes their lives more difficult. Applying for jobs, learning English, communicating with others requires using the computer. Our students need computers in their homes to make them more comfortable with them.
What’s been the most successful element or initiative of your project?
The most successful element of my project has been working with PCs for People. I was able to give free computers to at least 11 families that have taken my digital inclusion passport program. I’ve also had many seniors tell me how they fixed the CD player in their car or stopped a leaking faucet in the bathroom from watching YouTube videos that I showed them how to access. Some seniors have reported being more comfortable paying bills online. For the ones that are not quite comfortable, I hold paying sessions the first week of every month so that I can walk through it with them. Many seniors just want something to do, but once they see what’s fully available to them through the internet, they become more involved.
It’s hard to say what has been the most successful. It depends on how you measure success. A lot of our programs are still pretty new, so it’s hard to gauge the real outcomes in terms of how they affect peoples’ lives. One-on-one tech help reaches a lot of people. Library volunteers are helping people with tech questions every day. It’s important work, and it certainly helps people accomplish their goals, but sometimes it’s hard to tell how much people are really gaining skills through that process. I’ve been working on training volunteers so they see the importance of those daily interactions and have the tools to help people learn, but it’s hard to measure the real outcome of that. It’s still a slow process. The Welcome to Computers class, a five-week computer basics series, in which participants receive their own laptop at the end, has the potential to be more transformational, but the number of people we can reach through that program is limited. If we can find a way to sustain it, long term, I think that the program has potential.
I would say the most successful component of my project has been ensuring individuals can exercise their autonomy and “have a say” in their training. By giving patrons the option to choose between four different tracks, they can pursue training that, while consistent, is more individualized and better suited to their ultimate goal, whether that be personal enrichment, a promotion at work, a new job, etc. I’ve heard it said that “people don’t know what they don’t know,” and this is certainly true with technology. By providing patrons with a clear path to the goal of their choosing, I feel like they have a voice in the process. When I have patrons who come in and say that they want to learn “everything” about computers (which happens all the time), I take the time to sit down with them and have a conversation about what their goals are. Often, individuals haven’t thought about it in terms of a concrete goal, and just say that they want to be able to keep up with their grandkids. Using that information, I can get them started on the social media track or, if they possess little or no experience using a computer, the computer basics track. The element of choice has also been successful in terms of getting individuals to come back for more. Several of our patrons, upon completion of the computer basics track, made the leap to the administrative professional track, and it’s great to keep them around for more learning!
To help refugees attain and benefit from digital tools and access IRC SLC’s Digital Inclusion team provides an “Internet Essentials” package for all newly arrived refugees that includes smartphone and affordable home broadband access, hands-on workshops, including some specific to refugee women, and a Technology Mentorship (Tech Mentor) program that matches refugees with a mentor who offers guidance on using modern technology. The Tech Mentor program has been highly successful in providing the coaching and support many clients need to take full advantage of digital tools. This program offers newly arrived refugees a refurbished computer for their homes and matches them with a trained IRC SLC volunteer who provides 4-6 weeks of in-home instruction using modules on computer literacy. The program is mutually beneficial to the client as well as the volunteer. Both parties are able to learn from each other, and the in-home instruction creates a way for the client to welcome the volunteer into their world.
What have you learned about your community through this work?
I have learned that the primary community that we serve is very word-of-mouth based. One of the biggest ways our audience communicates with each other in Austin is through radio, television, and of course, through other people. As a member of the Latinx community, I see that we take a lot of our social practices of talking with others, especially loved ones, to spread the word about something we like as a common practice. Upon learning this, we are able to get the most reach when we advertise through our Spanish-speaking radio and television stations, and we are able to talk to parents and students at tabling events, helping put a name to a face for our organization and also especially having a more personal interaction with interested people over cold-calling and sending emails.
Over the past two and a half years, I have worked to implement digital inclusion programming in the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City (IRC SLC) for newly arrived refugee clients. It’s been a steep learning curve as I began to see the many digital literacy needs of the community and researching best practices and resources that exist to address those needs. I started this work full of assumptions about refugees’ understanding of digital tools and what I thought they needed in terms of instruction and skill-building. What I came to learn is that there is not a template for needs. Refugees come from a variety of places in the world with a variety of backgrounds, including advanced education and in some cases, no formal education. The inequities many of the refugees we serve face have contributed to some individuals having a lack of any digital knowledge or interaction with digital tools. Still, other individuals have had careers in tech fields. They just need the connections to start those careers in the U.S. I have learned that every person has something to teach as well as something to learn. None of the clients we serve have the same story, and instruction needs to start with the student expressing what they want to learn. In all the digital inclusion initiatives at the IRC SLC, we strive to be asset-focused, believing the clients are capable of learning new skills. They are building off of their own personal experiences and strengths that will contribute to their success and self-sufficiency.
What do you wish other people knew about the community/communities you work with?
So many things! I wish that there were a greater awareness that many individuals don’t have access to an internet-connected computer or up-to-date and working software. So many services in our area have eliminated the paper option and instruct people to fill out forms or register online, without any awareness of the difficulties of doing so. Even services that are specifically directed to a senior population. I wish employers and the broader community understood that someone’s ability to use a computer is not an indication of the quality of work they are capable of. I understand that many employers want to get a sense of a job seeker’s problem-solving skills. While that is valid, it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t feel as if it’s just setting people up for failure. I wish people in HR could use an equity lens to better inform their practices.
I hope to stress the need for bilingual technology literacy topics, and the accessibility of these opportunities to other people with the communities you serve. We created the Digital Parents Program with the intention of being able to provide free, bilingual classes that help participants learn how to use a computer, from pressing the start button, to Google apps, to career searching, and learning to be safe online. There were very few resources that were accessible to the community we serve that are available to them in terms of cost and native language instruction. We wanted to offer something that addressed the language gap within our community. By providing programming that is available in a participant’s native language, they can talk about this opportunity to their friends, family, and peers to participate. That’s how Latinitas grows a strong community network. By having programming that is language-accessible within your organization, you can extend your reach to folks who might be seeking what you are offering.
My community is full of energy and has a lot of dreams. They left their families and countries behind to offer a better future to their children, they face many obstacles every day, and that makes them stronger. Sometimes they don’t have access to all of a community’s resources because they have to provide for their families, and they don’t want to be exposed or share their personal information to stay safe.
When an organization makes them feel comfortable and safe, they start engaging and bringing their ideas and abilities. When you invest your time and care about them, you can start feeling a sense of community, and in the end, you learn from each other.
I want other people to know that our adult students are incredibly diverse. Not only do they come from a wide range of educational, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, but they also have very different educational goals and current life circumstances.
This diversity also sometimes creates challenges when designing programs, including those around digital inclusion. Many of our students have low literacy skills, which makes using many functions of digital technology very difficult. Other students are well educated and comfortable with digital technology, but they need help with specific applications of technology such as improving their employment, helping their kids with schoolwork, or preparing for the GED.
How has digital inclusion changed/enhanced your views of social justice and community work?
My views have changed tremendously since working in the digital inclusion field. I never knew there could be whole communities without internet access, and to be working in one has become delightful in the ways that I can help. Social Justice and community work is not an easy task. When doing the work, everyone, including the community and state at times, has to be involved.
I had not viewed the issue of digital inclusion as a question of basic human rights until I began this fellowship. The first turning point occurred in 2018 when there was an internet outage on my library branch’s block. Patron after patron came in and, upon hearing that there was no internet, walked out of the library. I kept mentioning, half-jokingly, that we still had books available. I finally stopped when I realized that no one was paying attention to me! It was a stark visual representation to me of why people were using our library. While I had certainly considered this before, I had never had it presented to me in such an obvious way. Since we don’t measure what the people are coming to the library to do, I wasn’t 100% aware of this. It was just a huge wake-up call to me to see what a need there was for internet-connected computers. The documentary “Dividing Lines” was also a key turning point for me, especially the scene where the young woman talks about being unable to complete her schoolwork. When I began working at this library, I was confused as to why the parking lot was full in the morning, an hour before opening. I remember thinking that individuals just really wanted to be the first in line to use our services. When I figured out that they were using the library’s WiFi connection, it was a huge “aha!” moment for me.
Not too long ago in our collective histories, literacy was the marker for being able to be a productive and participating member of society. That battleground is now centered on tech skills. For so long, technological resources have been seen as a luxury item or a time saver for busy people. This is changing rapidly, and basic electronic skills are becoming more and more a requirement for full participation in society. Most young English speaking families who grew up and went to school in the U.S. and other more developed societies have a certain comfort level with using technology that puts them at a significant advantage over people for whom English is not the primary language. Many of those at a disadvantage may have not had formal education or basic literacy training, or maybe have a mobile device but only know how to use it to make a phone call. Using digital resources is a significant part of modern life. A parent needs to know how to log in to their child’s school’s online portal to find grades, homework, or even update their contact information. A student whose parent doesn’t have the skills to be able to access this information is at a disadvantage. A person who has a chronic illness or is under medical care needs to be able to access their electronic medical chart for instructions about medications and the physician’s directions for managing their illness. A patient who lacks the training to get to this information could be in real danger. Banking, shopping, coupons at the grocery store, balance and account information for public assistance programs … there are apps for all of those things, and our communities are moving increasingly to an online-only society. Recognizing where the gaps are for specific communities who are at risk for falling behind in the digital divide is social justice work at its core. Giving people the skills to level the playing field is essential community work.
I knew that access to digital technology and the internet is necessary for people to have the best jobs and healthcare and for their children to do well in school, but now I get to see every day how many ways people struggle when they do not have access to these things. Society needs to find a way to make computers and internet access available to everyone, no matter where they come from or how much money they have.
It’s important to recognize that people work in digital inclusion around the world, not only in the U.S. Their work and efforts need to be in various fields like economic, political, educational, and technological. All the aspects that build a society.