December 28, 2015

Joining Hands and Building Community: 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. Mike Byrd shares his recent work as a Fellow in Durham, North Carolina, working for the Kramden Institute.

When I try to picture what it looks like for a present-day community to “join hands,” so to speak, I often have a hard time seeing how it would happen. Not in an apathetic, “no one cares” sort of way, but I would think there is so much going on within the global community that the micro ones seem to just become backdrops for something else.

As someone who has previously worked in and with youth centers, I know firsthand what a neighborhood group that does work in conjunction with its residents should look like. Nevertheless, I could not imagine what cause or program would bring people together. That’s where the Kramden Institute comes into play. Tasked with giving individuals access to exploring, working with, rebuilding, and distributing computers, The Kramden Institute is a place where community begins to listen to the people living and working within it and their needs, then begins to put into action plans that address those needs.

The work that is done at the Kramden Institute has a direct impact on bridging the digital divide. I had only the smallest idea what Kramden was about before I began my journey with the organization. I knew that refurbishing computers was a major component of the work. What I didn’t know, until I was a part of the team, was that Kramden refurbishes over 3,000 computers per year and has over 2,000 volunteers to help with that process. These volunteers come from all walks of life. Some of them with no technical skills whatsoever, but with a desire to contribute to the cause—bridging the digital divide and making use of computers that would otherwise go to e-waste. Our volunteers have contributed over 20,000 hours to help improve the community, to help provide children with access to the technology they need today. The Kramden Institute is a perfect example of what can happen when a community decides to address an issue. In my eyes, this is something important that I am honored to be a part of.

Through this journey to provide technology for those who need it, Kramden has received and distributed hundreds of thank you letters. Kramden receives thanks from those who receive computer awards; and we thank our supporters and school champions who actually nominate students for the computer award. This is because we know that, without someone in the schools championing the program, awards could not happen. Even further, we recognize that the unsung heroes of this project are the teachers, the counselors, and the social workers who take the time to get to know the students and their needs.

The work done at the Kramden Institute is important work, and not just because of what it provides on a physical level. The Institute requires the people within it to become familiar with different types of people who live in the area. It is important work because it is work that involves the community and assists in its advancement, while also allowing people to gain access to technology and familiarize themselves with the evolving world around them. Even more importantly, it is work that allows us to see the direct impact of gifting someone a computer after it has been refurbished. Seeing the excitement on children’s faces on awards day demonstrates the importance of this work beyond doubt, because it is at that moment when we recognize that everything—every hour, every volunteer, every educator’s effort—has paid off. And that is the moment when we realize that every last one of us would do it all again.

The Kramden Institute, on top of being the means for a community to unite itself over an issue, is also a place where the benefit of that work can be seen and witnessed firsthand. Before I worked with the program, I couldn’t have imagined technology bringing a micro-community together, but it does. Not only that, but it succeeds in making the individuals who work there always feel like we’re working towards a new goal. Every goal we reach is rewarding.

Mike Byrd
Mike Byrd earned his Doctorate in Law at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Marshall College of Law as well as his Master of Business Administration degree from Cleveland State University’s Monte Ahuja College of Business Administration. He has over 25 years of business experience in sales, marketing, strategic management, project management, economic development, consumer targeting, interim executive leadership, nonprofit consulting, integration of social media with outreach campaigns, and business development.