February 23, 2016

Connecting the Underconnected: 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. Maithri Vangala shares her recent work as a Fellow in Atlanta, Georgia, working for TechBridge.

On a recent morning, I woke up and immediately reached for my smartphone. Certain that I had missed the world’s end overnight, I went straight to my email inbox to find an article my mother sent over about how low- and middle-income families in the United States are affected by limited access to the Internet.

What Is Underconnection?

The article cited a recent study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which found that, while 91% of Americans have basic Internet access, many low- and middle-income families are “underconnected,” subsisting on limited access through mobile technology or a single connected computer.

The concept of underconnection is one I’m very familiar with in my work as a Digital Inclusion Fellow with TechBridge here in Atlanta. TechBridge typically serves other nonprofit organizations addressing the causes of poverty in their communities by providing them with affordable technology and business know-how so that they can better carry out their missions.

This year, we launched a pilot to help five nonprofit organizations start digital inclusion programs. These include the following:

(Check out our project adoption page here.)

Last fall, I met with program managers, employment coaches, instructors, principals, and even parent liaisons of over 20 nonprofit organizations to determine which organizations we would support.

Each time I met with an organization, I was provided with anecdotes of the challenges the clients of these organizations faced—being unable to apply for jobs online, enhance their own education or participate in that of their child’s, or even be in good contact with their physician to manage complex health issues.

Many staff members told me how helpless they feel in watching those whom they serve be affected by the digital equity gap, which is what being under-connected ultimately means.

The Income Gap and the Digital Divide

Here in Atlanta, we hear a lot about inequity and inequality. We’ve got a challenging racial history. And we are currently ranked number one for income inequality, with the largest income gap between the top 5% and the bottom 25% of any major city in the country.

In addition to things like access to affordable housing, transportation, and health care, the income gap our city faces also impacts who has unlimited access to broadband Internet and who does not. Twenty percent of households don’t have Internet access in their homes. Forty-two percent of families earning less than $25,000 don’t have computers or Internet access in their homes.

As I’ve met with other community members and talked with peers about digital inclusion, I realize that we still have a great deal of work to do in educating our community about why it is so important to uplift residents who are currently under-connected so that they can become informed participants of the digital economy.

Curiosity as a Privilege

I know our city understands this, too. Last month, the city launched the Atlanta ConnectHome Program at the Center of Hope in the Dunbar Recreation Center in Southwest Atlanta.

Mayor Reed shared his thoughts about the program’s importance: “The Internet is an indispensable tool for accessing educational resources, employment opportunities, health care services, and so much more. Our families and children who now have the opportunity to participate in the ConnectHome program will realize that high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

For a Fellow like me, it is invigorating to hear a city official get it.

Here’s a personal story which helps all of this hit home for me. Last fall, I was speaking with my friend Josh, a high school English teacher in an inner city public school. He was talking about the challenges of teaching his students how to do research online. As we talked about how intuitive it might be for him or me to do a quick Google search to learn about, well, anything we wanted, we realized right in the middle of our conversation that limited access to Internet goes so far as to make curiosity a privilege.

Sure, as an informed participant of the digital economy I rely heavily on my smartphone to carry me through a day. But without unlimited access to the Internet on a larger device, I wouldn’t have been able to write and edit this very piece with the ease and timeframe within which I did, shifting back and forth between studies, reports, press releases, and my own notes.

During Atlanta’s ConnectHome launch, I met with the first participants of the program in the Center’s gym. Excitement rang about getting a device, and I often received evident joy from participants who were first hearing about a GED class or career program offered by some of the nonprofit organizations present at the launch. A GED class might benefit a sister who had previously had a hard time in school or who was forced to drop out to help to support the family. A career program could benefit a husband who has been unemployed for a very long time.

And then a mother with a hearing impairment dropped by to speak with me, bringing her son along to help us communicate. As someone who often needs to text or email to communicate with others, she was so excited about having a device to help her day-to-day operations. “With this device, I can do even more without your help,” she happily explained to her son.

As I heard these stories I couldn’t help but swell with pride at the hard work our organizations are doing this year to make space to incorporate digital literacy and inclusion into their existing programming.

Yes—it is still a privilege to be curious. But we’re onto something here in Atlanta. We’re connecting the underconnected.

Maithri Vangala
Maithri is passionate about ensuring the right to health for all. Maithri served as TechBridge’s 2015-2016 Digital Inclusion Fellow in partnership with NTEN and Google Fiber. She now serves as Community Impact Manager and is part of TechBridge's newest group, Impact.