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. Susan Reaves shares her recent work as a Fellow in Nashville, working for Nashville Public Library.
She came up to the Tablet station with a purpose. “I want to try out the iPad,” she said. She sat in the chair next to the table and prepared to wait her turn. Her hands were slender, blue-veined, and darkened with age spots. Her hair was neatly styled in a white French knot. She sat quietly as she waited.
There were two other ladies seated at the station’s table. One was showing the other how to access Amazon and how easy it was to shop online. They both hovered over the tablet, making occasional stabbing gestures as they viewed different book titles that were available on the site. I asked them how they were doing, and they responded, “Great!” They were having such a good time that they forgot they were at an Adoption & Awareness Technology Fair in the dining room of the HUD Housing Community, where they lived. When they started asking me how to enter their credit card information so they could make online purchases, I took advantage of the opportunity to talk about Internet security practices. Understanding and laughing at the same time, they agreed that it would be safer for them to make their purchases on a mutual friend’s PC. They thanked me and told me that they enjoyed using the technology, and that it was the first time on a mobile device for one of them. As they moved on together to the Facebook station, the lady who had been waiting moved to take her spot with the tablet.
She was a nurse in her professional life, before she retired and had become unable to live on her own. She told me that she wanted help looking up her email and social media accounts. She hadn’t used them in a while. Together, we explored how to turn on the iPad, search the Internet, and find her email and social media accounts. I let her work on it by herself for a while, until others came by who patiently waited to try the device. She liked the idea of the tablet because it was something she could easily take to her apartment and use. When she left, she told me, “I think I am going to get one of those. I felt comfortable using it. And now I know how to get back into my email and Facebook.”
As she left, a young woman in a wheelchair approached me. I started announcing door prizes, and she held up her winning ticket. She chose a can of pink-colored hairspray and told me that she had won the best prize so far. She asked me if she could have some of the balloons and crepe paper that festooned the room. As we dismantled the Fair, she loaded her lap with the decorations. We could barely see the top of her head as she headed towards the elevator, a big smile on her face.
Those interactions are some that have inspired me with my work in digital inclusion here in Nashville, TN. They occurred at Trevecca Towers, a Section 8 housing community here in Nashville for seniors and persons with disabilities. I saw residents who had never before used technology venture into this Tech Fair—the first ever held by the Nashville Public Library. The event was held in the dining room of the retirement community, where it was physically easy for residents to attend. I saw curiosity and amazement on their faces as they learned how to search the Internet. They visited stations, like Google Search/Youtube, Email, Facebook, Basic Skills, and Digital Entertainment, all staffed by volunteers. It was a great opportunity to tell residents about the free Basic Computer Skills Classes and Public Technology that are offered by the Nashville Public Library (NPL). The residents really loved the attention of the volunteers and festive atmosphere. The popcorn machine helped, too. Presenting technology in a comfortable environment to a demographic who is typically fearful to use it was an awesome experience, but seeing them want to learn more made me realize how great this digital inclusion initiative is.
In Nashville, over 30% of Metro residents lack home broadband access*. The cost of network access, difficulty in finding affordable devices, and failure to understand the relevancy of the Internet are barriers to digital inclusion in our community.
As the hub of digital education and public access to technology, the Nashville Public Library offers free computer skills classes and provides digital skills support for job search assistance with its Jobs Labs. As a Digital Inclusion Fellow, I help develop community outreach projects that create awareness for Nashville Public Library’s digital initiatives, provide enhanced curriculum for digital literacy classes, and assist in developing new training programs.
Outreach is a huge part of this movement—not only to teach adults why it’s exciting to use the Internet, but also how it can improve their lives.
I’m so fortunate to have this fellowship and to be part of the digital inclusion movement with the Nashville Public Library. As I help to plan more community events, I look forward to gathering more stories, more interactions, and continuing to be inspired by people who really want to learn. Hearing people’s stories is what drives me in this work and makes it relevant. The popcorn doesn’t hurt, either.
*2013 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimate