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 Mike Byrd to give us an update on his work with the Kramden Institute.
Where do you want the digital inclusion conversation in Durham, NC to go in the next 5 years?
Over the next five years, I would like to see a comprehensive strategic plan developed for the Triangle region that would include a thorough assessment of the current environment, a strategy to equip all school children in the Triangle that do not have a computer at home with a computer, as well as increased opportunities for adults to participate in digital literacy classes that include a computer award. This strategic plan should develop into an action plan with objectives, responsibilities for the collaborating partners, timelines as well as a budget. Additionally, I would like to see the collaborating partners fund the 5-year project.
For the challenge of digital inclusion to be addressed effectively at the local level, a large collective effort must be made. Any region-wide collaboration will need a backbone organization to manage the day to day work that will be performed.
What advice would you have for the next cohort of Fellows?
Stay in touch with your fellow cohort members; you may find opportunities for collaboration with members from other areas. Networking with Fellows in Charlotte, Atlanta, and even Tennessee has resulted in a better experience for everyone. Also, build good relationships with the team members of your host organization. The support you receive from the host organization can make the difference between a positive experience or a mediocre one. Also, I would advise the next cohort of Fellows to be prepared to sit in an odd place in the organization. As a Fellow, you are not a regular staff member. You will find yourself in many situations where people both inside and outside of the organization will not know how to respond to you. Therefore, it will be important for the Fellow to be well grounded in their own sense of self.
When you think of what your community has accomplished this year, what are you most proud of?
This local community has come together to begin to discuss what can be done to eliminate the digital divide. In that regard, I am most proud of being a part of the Triangle Digital Inclusion Task
Force, an effort that brought together leaders from three different counties in North Carolina to begin discussing strategies to address the problem. From this, I hope to see a real strategy developed to continue the work that we have started around digital inclusion. Another accomplishment is the building of a community of digital literacy instructors. We have organized two lunch and learn events were we invited digital literacy instructors from around the Triangle to come together and share best practices.
What were you surprised by in your digital inclusion work?
I was most surprised by the amount of effort our public housing partners in Durham and Chapel Hill were willing to put forth in community outreach to residents around this issue. Both public housing partners have been very proactive in outreach efforts to their residents. I was also surprised by the number of community leaders willing to spend time on the issue of digital inclusion and bridging the digital divide. My belief at the outset was that it would take more convincing to bring together leaders from around the area; however, community leaders were responsive to our effort to organize a digital inclusion task force.
Another thing that I found surprising is how difficult it is to actually teach digital literacy. I have had the good fortune of spending time with full time digital literacy instructor and I have witnessed firsthand the amount of detail they put into their work.
How can you see yourself applying what you have learned to your future endeavors?
I believe I will apply the skills of working collaboratively in future projects. During this Fellowship, I have worked with several stakeholders in several different organizations. There was a need to keep the stakeholders up to date on various aspects of the pilot program. Additionally, I have discovered many community resources that are in place to help the underserved. In the future, I may be able to use this knowledge to help others move forward in life. Something else to be applied in the future will be the knowledge of the tech community here in the Triangle in general. Since I did not work in the tech field, I was unaware of the vibrant entrepreneurial the community that is developing in the Research Triangle Park. I have had the opportunity to meet several people involved in entrepreneurship, technology education and a fascinating workspace that we have here called the American Underground that houses over 200 startup companies, many in the technology field. Overall, exposure to others in the field of digital inclusion as well as exposure to other professionals in the nonprofit field who spend their time working to alleviate social issues will be an experience that not only professionally but personally as well.
In the photo: Jimmy was a participant in our first Digital Literacy/Job Readiness program in a public housing community in Durham. Jimmy stated that he had never used a computer before. After the first week of classes Jimmy had enough confidence to go online and apply for a job and he received a job offer before we started the third week of class.