“Hold Fast to Dreams:” Digital Inclusion Fellowship Voices

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. Adam Strizich shares his recent work as a Fellow in Nashville, Tennessee working for the Martha O’Bryan Center.

Marilyn Greer is a model community leader. When I met Marilyn for the first time and was introduced as “the computer guy,” she told me, “I’m fixing to get with you because I need those computer skills, Adam!” She pulled me in for a big hug and a kiss on the cheek as if we had known each other for years. No one in the neighborhood is more involved or connected than Marilyn. If you want to promote a program, she will introduce you to everyone. Stomping the neighborhood with her is a community-wide stamp of approval. As someone who believes that digital literacy is essential to full participation in a 21st century society, I was blown away by Marilyn’s ability to be a community leader without possessing basic computer skills.

Marilyn is a resident of Cayce Place, the largest and poorest public housing property in Middle Tennessee. Ninety percent of the neighborhood’s population is African American; single mothers head 90% of households; 59% of residents are under the age of 18; the average annual income is under $8,000; and 30% of adults are unemployed. Plus, Cayce Place is in the middle of a food desert, with the only semblance of a grocery store near the property being a Dollar General that just opened a year ago. Generations of children have been trapped in a cycle of poverty that started the day they were born.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

As staff members at Martha O’Bryan Center (MOBC), our mission is to help break the cycle of poverty by empowering neighborhood residents to transform their lives via education, employment, and fellowship. We take pride in our duty to “break the line” of poverty between the wealthy surrounding neighborhoods and Cayce Place. I am privileged to work alongside an incredibly determined and devoted team that provides a suite of cradle-to-career services. MOBC has a food security program; family support services; counseling and pastoral care; an early learning center; K-8 youth development programs; charter schools; college prep programs; workforce development; post-secondary success initiatives; parent coaching; and adult education services. After spending a few months getting to know each program, I found that they all shared a common thread that every program emphasizes the formation of strong, personal relationships with program participants.

With so many daily challenges facing Cayce Place residents, learning to use a computer is rarely on the top of the priority list. However, accessing social services, excelling in the workplace, succeeding in school, and contributing to the well-being of the community are always at the top of the list. And so, in October, MOBC’s College and Career Services Department opened a drop-in computer lab with 1:1 support to help participants accomplish their goals using technology. The Digital Empowerment Lab (DEL) in its most ideal form is a space for community members to realize their dreams by using the life-enhancing potential of technology. Much like your average coffee shop, DEL strives to be a relaxing escape from the day-to-day grind while providing a comfortable learning atmosphere and a fertile environment for developing meaningful relationships. DEL also provides space for children to create artwork while mom and dad work on the computer. The inspiration for DEL comes from a Langston Hughes’ poem, which is posted in our Adult Education classroom:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow

The Adult Education Team at MOBC is the type of brilliant, innovative team you might expect to find in a Google office in Mountain View, California. This team of education entrepreneurs developed their very own flipped-classroom model whereby participants receive a personalized learning pathway via Google Drive. Participants in the program learn digital literacy skills alongside normal High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) preparation coursework, receiving 1:1 support along the way. No program at MOBC is better at empowering community members than MOBC’s Adult Education Program. I have the honor of working with the Adult Education team to develop and implement our newly-minted Northstar Digital Literacy Program. The program is nationally recognized for teaching and testing the foundational computer skills that are essential to being a digital citizen. But more importantly, the program inspires hope that one day participants will have the tools to be agents of their own change by possessing the technological know-how necessary for socioeconomic success.

A Visit from Secretary Castro

In President Obama’s final State of the Union speech, he asked the question, “How do we give everyone a fair shot and security and opportunity in this new economy?” The answer came to Nashville a day later. On January 13, HUD Secretary Julian Castro visited Nashville to speak with city leaders about the ConnectHome Initiative – HUD’s plan to create a more digitally inclusive America. During his visit, Secretary Castro paid a visit to the Digital Empowerment Lab where he made time to speak with some of our community members to learn about how the Digital Empowerment Lab had impacted their lives. I was proud to see Secretary Castro affirm my belief that meaningful human connections are the key to bridging the digital divide.

Marilyn’s primary reason for wanting to learn computer skills is to enhance her Positive Attitudes Program. Positive Attitudes provides education and mentorship for young ladies in Cayce place. Thanks to the unique collaboration between the private sector and some stellar nonprofits, Marilyn now has the opportunity to participate in a digital literacy program in her neighborhood, which will enable her to significantly enhance the types of opportunities for young ladies in her Positive Attitudes Program. And she will also have the computer skills to email Secretary Castro, detailing how his visit to Cayce Place positively impacted the neighborhood.

I am mindful of the reality that I am a guest in the Cayce Place community. From day one, I have tried to work alongside community members to develop programming that makes valuable use of our participants’ time and is sustainable beyond the one-year fellowship. But the reality is that I am merely a facilitator of resources. The future of the Digital Empowerment Program ultimately depends on the continued generosity of volunteer instructors and the continued development of genuine relationships where mutual trust enables a community to clasp hands and venture over to the other side of the digital divide. I’m holding fast to my dream, that since the Secretary of HUD sees the value in taking the time to share his gifts and talents with the people of Cayce Place, maybe some the more fortunate members of the Nashville community will “break the line” and do the same.

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.