Digital Inclusion Fellowship in Review: A Q&A with Adam Strizich

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 comprised the first cohort, and they have shared their work with us. We asked Adam Strizich to give us an update on his work with the Martha O’Bryan Center (MOBC).

What advice would you have for the second cohort of Fellows?

Being a Digital Inclusion Fellow is about listening to the stories of everyday people struggling to participate in our technology-reliant society and finding ways to empower these people to amplify their voice. It’s also about unpacking the state of the digital divide and researching the myriad digital inclusion initiatives sweeping across the country right now, to cherry-pick the most fertile program solutions for each unique community.

At times, the responsibility of being a Fellow can be a bit overwhelming. My advice for the second cohort is to focus on building genuine relationships within the community you serve and to be patient. It takes time and authentic commitment to develop the trust that’s necessary to inspire meaningful community engagement. I always try to remind myself that my role as a Fellow is not to be the flame of the digital inclusion movement in Nashville. My role is to spark the flame that represents a collaborative community effort to be a digitally inclusive city.

When you think of what your community has accomplished this year, what are you most proud of?

Successful digital inclusion initiatives require exemplary teamwork. Since the first ConnectHome convening in November of 2015, the people of Nashville have shown a remarkable commitment to working together. Not only have a majority of anchor institutions in Nashville played a role in the delivery of ConnectHome, there has been an outpouring of volunteers from across the city helping to teach ConnectHome computer classes.

Overall, I am most proud of the way in which Cayce Place residents have responded to the effort.  At our big tech fair kickoff for ConnectHome, 15 residents signed up to volunteer to help with ConnectHome, and 12 have committed to being ConnectHome Community Ambassadors.  ConnectHome Community Ambassadors are volunteering their time to help recruit eligible families to be part of the ConnectHome program, teach computer classes, and bring awareness to the services offered by the neighborhood computer lab.

What is something that you have struggled with and overcome/learned from?

Martha O’Bryan Center (MOBC) is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Nashville, with a history of providing a holistic continuum of cradle-to-career services. The challenges facing the community we serve are totally staggering: more than 30% unemployment, food insecurity, daily violence, systemic oppression, and extreme isolation. In my first few months as a Fellow, it was extremely hard for me to advocate for digital inclusion programming because I felt like I was trying to overshadow many of the other well-established programs that have strong reputations of meeting historical needs of the community MOBC serves.

In time, I realized that digital inclusion programming goes hand-in-hand with all of the other services at Martha O’Bryan Center. In fact, every program across MOBC does digital inclusion work in one capacity or another. The problem seems to be that there are no guidelines for how digital inclusion programming should be delivered because the programming itself is relatively uncharted territory for many nonprofits.

Digital inclusion—and more specifically digital literacy—is sewn into the fabric of almost every program of every nonprofit. I believe all nonprofits should be asking themselves: Is our process of integrating digital literacy into programming passive or active?  The reality is that the 21st century has arrived. The future is here. Any community organization seeking to serve to the best of its ability must actively integrate digital inclusion programming into their services because of the power of tech to confer independence.

What were you surprised by in your digital inclusion work?

I grew up as a doctor’s son in Helena, Montana. To say that I was privileged is an understatement. And yet, I never really understood how good I had it until after graduating from Seattle University and participating in a volunteer service program called Jesuit Volunteer Corp.  I spent a year working as a caretaker for individuals with profound developmental disabilities and a year providing support for individuals experiencing homelessness. I became intimately aware of my privilege in short order. I’ve come to realize only this year that my digital know-how is easily the most underrated aspect of my privilege. As a Fellow, I’ve learned that the digital divide doesn’t just extend to people in poverty. It includes successful, well-established professionals ranging from experienced social workers to CEOs. The societal stigma associated with digital ineptitude is intense. The reality is that there just aren’t enough resources out there to provide for the multitude of aging adults that desperately need access to high quality, universally-accepting spaces of digital learning.

How can you see yourself applying what you have learned to your future endeavors?

As a proud social justice advocate, my experience as a Fellow has been nothing short of ideal.  I’ve had the great pleasure of working alongside a cohort of incredibly bright and motivated Fellows. I got the chance to collaborate with a number of anchor institutions throughout Nashville to deliver the first pilot of ConnectHome. I participated in some really unique and valuable educational opportunities. I’ve had the autonomy to develop, implement, and modify programming that best serves the needs of the Cayce Place community with continued input from residents. And most recently, through teaching computer classes, I’ve discovered a genuine passion for the art of teaching.

I’m absolutely thrilled to continue to use my newfound gifts to empower others to realize their human potential.

About the photo: Ray McKay is a lifelong resident of Cayce Place and an emerging leader in the neighborhoods’ digital inclusion efforts. Ray has been a committed and reliable volunteer in Martha O’Bryan Center’s Digital Empowerment Lab (DEL) for the past few months.  DEL strives to provide neighborhood residents with the digital literacy skills necessary for educational success, professional development, and civic participation.  And as a volunteer lab instructor, Ray has helped fellow community members earn computer literacy certificates, apply for jobs, connect with friends and family using social media, and find creative ways to advance their careers!  In addition to being a lab instructor, Ray has been applying his expertise in Photoshop to develop visual artwork for DEL’s community engagement efforts.  Ray is one of many committed Cayce Place residents that have gone out of their way to help other community members realize the life-enhancing potential of digital tools!  Last month Ray had the rare opportunity to share his experience and ideas with HUD Secretary Julian Castro during Sec. Castro’s visit to Nashville to promote HUD’s ConnectHome initiative!

Adam Strizich
Adam Strizich is an energetic community organizer and Music City enthusiast. He returns to the Digital Inclusion Fellowship with a year of experience working on a wide variety of digital inclusion projects geared towards empowering public housing residents through education, employment and fellowship. Adam is a proud alumni of Jesuit Volunteer Corp (JVC) where he spent two years living in solidarity with individuals experiencing poverty while striving to live out the core values of JVC: Community, Spirituality, Simple Living and Social Justice. Adam is a firm believer in self-care. When he is taking a break from the digital realm, you can usually find him playing tennis, sharing a home-cooked meal with friends or exploring the great outdoors.