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 Jessica Washington to give us an update on her work with the Urban League of Central Carolinas in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What is an important moment that will stay with you well past your Fellowship year?
At a Kramden Tech Scholars computer distribution event that I hosted with J’Tanya Adams of Everyone On, I heard some of the most powerful statements. Parents were excited, but very skeptical about why they were getting computers and how long they would be able to keep them. After assuring the parents that these computers were theirs to keep, one young girl told us that she was extremely excited to have a computer to use at home. She said that it had been 5 years since her family had a working computer at home and now she could study and do her homework like the rest of her class and friends. It reminded me that there are still so many more students, parents, adults, seniors, and families who are still affected by the digital divide.
There are so many people who are missing out on opportunities and services, just because they don’t have home access to the internet. This event showed me how eager people are to improve their life experience if we only give them the information, the opportunity, and the access.
Where do you want the digital inclusion conversation in Charlotte, North Carolina to go in the next 5 years?
What I would like to see in Charlotte is a large-scale Digital Inclusion Awareness Campaign aimed at seniors, adults, and small businesses and entrepreneurs (especially those in low-income areas) that helps the community understand that digital literacy is a necessity for everyone’s future. I would also like to see job training sites like Goodwill and Urban League incorporate code immersion training into their lists of programs.
I really wish there were resources and trainers willing to provide free or low-cost coding training for adults. The code immersion resources available in Charlotte are excellent, but they are still too costly for the clients we serve in the low-income community. The jobs that require those skills don’t require any advanced degrees—all you need is the experience and the opportunity.
What advice would you have for the next cohort of Fellows?
I would tell them to be aware of the mission of the organization, because that is how you need to tailor your programs. Sometimes, the idea of digital inclusion can be so broad that we get caught up in all of the possibilities and move away from the mission and purpose of the organization. It’s great to do something new, but it’s better to have a full understanding of what your organization does, the clients they serve, and how they want to impact the community with the digital inclusion programs.
When you think of what your community has accomplished this year, what are you most proud of?
When I think of what has happened in Charlotte, I am most proud of the fact that some of the key players in the digital inclusion effort and the steering committee have a better understanding of who all in the city is doing this work. I think that many organizations were working solo and unaware that there were others implementing the same or similar programs right beside them. I’m really happy to see people, groups, and organizations working together with the resources that the Fellows have provided.
How can you see yourself applying what you have learned to your future endeavors?
This is my first time creating and implementing a program that required so many moving parts and program outcomes. I had to find sites in the community that had computer labs, create partnerships, recruit participants for a train-the-trainer program, and develop both a train-the-trainer curriculum and a class curriculum. I have had the opportunity to recruit, manage, and train volunteers, create curriculum, promote programs, do outreach, recruit participants, and create new partnerships for the organization. I believe that my experience and the skills that I have built can be taken to any other job.
Working so deeply in the community and getting to understand the lives and experiences of the clients we serve and the participants of our programs has allowed me to be able to ask deeper questions about how I can serve my target audience better. All of these skills make me a better program manager, a better outreach coordinator, and a better servant and advocate for the community.