One Year Later: Reflections of the Digital Inclusion Fellowship Program

Several weeks ago, my lovely coworkers surprised me at our daily check-in meeting with a card and a chatty hamster to celebrate my one year anniversary at NTEN. I could barely believe that I’d joined the NTEN team a full year ago, but was even more shocked to realize that our Digital Inclusion Fellowship was about to turn a year old! Exactly one year ago, we were heads down, reviewing the dozens of Fellow applications that were coming in on a daily basis. With every incoming application, our excitement grew: it was clear that communities around the country saw the need for this work and believed in the potential of this program to generate fundamental change for digitally divided neighborhoods.

As we barreled down the path to launching this program last year, we had a multitude of goals, ideas, and plans to make the Digital Inclusion Fellowship a groundbreaking and truly transformational experience for Fellows, City Hosts, and their communities. We believed wholeheartedly in the potential of this program to generate tangible and measurable strides in closing the digital divide. And yet, we were also keenly aware that this was a pilot program, meaning that we’d have to be flexible, responsive, and willing to learn. We also knew that success could look very different than what we expected.

While we have learned many lessons along the road—a number of which have shaped year two of our program—I am proud to say that we’ve made more progress over the past ten months than we could have ever anticipated. Meeting our Fellows at Orientation in July of 2015 confirmed that this was going to be an incredible year. Fellows ranged in background from schoolteachers to political organizers, IT professionals to recent graduates. Our first cohort was an incredibly diverse, intelligent, hardworking, and passionate group that would no doubt make a huge impact on the digital divide.

Our Fellows wasted no time in getting to work: within the first few months of the program, a Digital Empowerment Lab was set up in Nashville, seniors started learning basic computer skills in Provo, and Univision hosted programs to promote computer proficiency programs in Austin. The digital inclusion projects sprouting from this program have turned out to be as diverse as the Fellows themselves. In Austin, Daniel Lucio is organizing walks, where volunteers, staff, and civic leaders go door to door to speak with residents about local resources available to them to get online. In Salt Lake City, Alonso Reyna Rivarola is working with community leaders and volunteers to improve access to and use of Powerschool to facilitate communication between parents and schools. And in Raleigh-Durham, Mike Byrd and James Butts have worked tirelessly to launch a Digital Inclusion Task Force to stimulate collaboration around digital inclusion initiatives in the Triangle.

While the numbers can’t possibly capture the nuances of the amazing projects spearheaded by the Fellows across the country, they can provide some insight to the success they’ve achieved. Last month, over 500 individuals participated in digital literacy programming offered by our City Hosts across the country. It was also an amazing month for awareness-building initiatives—outreach carried out by the Fellows reached over 550,000 people (including a powerful TV ad in Kansas City for digital literacy workshops). Over the last two months, City Hosts made available over 3,000 hours of computer lab and workstations to their communities, and more than 100 volunteers were trained on providing support to digital literacy programs.

This data is a great source of pride for everyone involved in making this program happen, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. The true stories of empowerment through digital inclusion are the ones happening in communities across the country, where one lesson, one door, one device at a time, the digital divide is narrowing. We are fortunate enough to have testimonies from all of our Fellows, sharing their visions, experiences, and voices. Want to hear the stories of what’s happening on the ground with our Digital Inclusion Fellowship? Read these guest articles from our Fellows about their work in their communities.

Leana Mayzlina
Leana is passionate about embracing technology to achieve transformative social change. She believes that solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges can be found in grassroots communities from Chile to Kenya, and that technology is the megaphone for their voice and agency. Leana's background is in international development and cooperation, primarily how communities can use technology to make change, both locally and globally. A native of Ukraine, she speaks Russian, English, Spanish, and um pouquinho de português and holds a BA in Spanish and Latin American Studies from Pitzer College, as well as an MA in International Studies from the University of Chile. Outside of office hours, you’re most likely to find Leana hiking with Atlas, her one year old rescue mutt.