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 shared their work in progress earlier this year. We asked Daniel Lucio to give us an update on his work with Austin Free-Net.
What is an important moment that will stay with you well past your Fellowship year?
We held a Training Summit in early January for volunteers and staff of other organizations working on digital literacy. Putting together and hosting that training re-affirmed some basic things for me about working in the public sector—primarily that work is best done collaboratively, whether it is within the organization or with external partners. Also, our volunteers have a lot more to give than we’ve been able to anticipate. For example, one of the volunteers from the Housing Authority programs let us know that she had taken what she learned at Austin Free-Net and started helping veterans complete job applications online and navigate the web. It was incredible to learn how many of our volunteers wanted more opportunities like this.
Where do you want the digital inclusion conversation in Austin to go in the next 5 years?
We’ve got a long way to go for digital inclusion in the state of Texas. Much of rural Texas is severely under-connected, with only dial-up speeds available—if any internet is available at all. And my home in the Rio Grande Valley has as many as 40 percent of households with no access to the internet, among some of the lowest access rates in the country. The way that Texas cities work with internet providers and public organizations to address these shortfalls will be in large part affected by the examples set here in Austin. In the next 5 years, I hope that stakeholders in Austin are able to find some successful and inclusive models for broadband rollout. I also hope that organizations like Austin Free-Net and the Public Library will be able to make digital inclusion a regular part of the conversation about public services. What that looks like is creating resources, partnership, and programs with organizations that don’t focus on digital inclusion, but whose clients benefit directly from understanding the value of 21st century digital access and skills.
What advice would you have for the next cohort of Fellows?
Work collaboratively and run with it. It’s really easy to get caught up in the minutia of everyday operations when working at a nonprofit. That’s because everyone is usually doing the work of two or three people and they have very little time or resources to devote to new programs. Creating ways for you to work with your colleagues to develop your programs helps to ensure the success and longevity. This means finding creative and smart ways to meet people where they are at—short team meetings, one-on-ones, volunteering to take some of their work, and trainings. Once you have the support from your team that you need to go forward, run with it! You have the ability to create resources and execute programs on your own. If you collaborate and then run with it, there will be very few things you can’t do—and it won’t be for lack of trying.
When you think of what your community has accomplished this year, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of our volunteers and students who have stepped up to support Austin Free-Net. They have shown a level of dedication to the digital divide that I was not anticipating, but is extremely refreshing to see. The students from the University of Texas tackled everything from outreach to building new communication tools for Austin Free-Net, all while getting to know our training programs and clients—not to mention they are all very involved in other school activities. Our volunteer lab leaders stepped up to take more advanced training on how to work with clients and how to report that work, allowing Austin Free-Net to get a better glimpse into the day-to-day interests of clients utilizing our public labs. All of these volunteers also stepped outside their comfort zones and came out on weekends to talk with residents in “under connected” communities about resources available to them to get trained and online.
How can you see yourself applying what you have learned to your future endeavors?
Through the work and relationships built during this fellowship, I have become hyper-aware of barriers that exist to access basic services of any kind, especially those that rely on basic digital skills. I’ve learned that it’s extremely important to not only consider those barriers, but also to hear directly from the people you are serving about how better to accomplish your goals. Their perspective and input will ensure that you’re staying true to your programs and goals. I hope that in my future endeavors I can continue to learn and grow from this lesson.