Over the last 5 years, I’ve had the immense honor of working with over 60 fellows across the United States, each unique in their passions, ideas, and goals. And despite having worked with so many fellows, each cohort still surprises me. The 2019 cohort of fellows was no exception. It was our first in several ways:
- The first time we’ve had fellows in rural settings
- The first fellow working at the intersection of health and digital inclusion
- The first time we’ve worked with an organization focusing exclusively on supporting immigrants and refugees
- The first fellows to earn our Digital Equity Certificate
This cohort also excelled in setting and surpassing some ambitious goals around impacting their communities.
- Our nine fellows set a cumulative goal of reaching 2,180 community members over the year. Not only did they meet that goal, but they more than doubled it, teaching digital skills to nearly 6,000 people.
- They provided over 11,000 instructional hours (more than double their goal) and trained over 200 volunteers.
- Digital literacy instruction was offered in more than five languages and to incredibly diverse communities, from predominantly Black senior citizens in Cleveland to Spanish speaking parents of preschoolers in Charlotte.
- The local context also varied considerably for the fellows, from rural Williams, OR (population: 1,072) to the sprawling urban hub of San Antonio (population: 1.5 million).
While each community faces unique challenges like limited low-cost internet plans or no service providers at all, there have also been some consistent through-lines in the fellows’ work, such as the importance of providing culturally competent programs, community-driven solutions, and the power of access and skills to drastically transform lives.
And while the numbers show the scale of impact, they don’t tell the whole story. Over the year, we heard inspiring stories from fellows and program participants about how digital inclusion impacted their lives.
- Maddie McKinney from Deschutes County WIC in Bend, Oregon, worked diligently to allow English and Spanish speaking WIC participants to complete program requirements online, saving families time and money that would otherwise need to be spent on coming into the WIC office.
- Krysti Nellermoe of Salt Lake City supported Afghani refugee women in developing digital skills to become entrepreneurs.
- Samuel Maldonado designed a program for immigrants in Orange County, NC to learn digital literacy through their citizenship classes.
- Shenee King in Cleveland helped senior citizens and families facing housing challenges feel more confident navigating digital tools.
Individual stories of impact multiplied throughout the year, including this highlight from a Digital Inclusion Certification program participant in San Antonio. “This program helped me get a desk job after more than 30 years working in a factory. It gave me the skills I needed to be a better job candidate.”
More information about the programs our fellows designed and implemented can be found in Building Connections to Change Lives, our Cohort 5 fact sheets.
Cohort 5 Fellows also took their knowledge on the road. They presented at myriad events, including the Net Inclusion conference in Charlotte, NC; the UN 68th Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City, UT; a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization ceremony, and the “Wholehearted Libraries” Online Conference. They also presented their work at national staff meetings, digital inclusion coalition events locally, and many webinars.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing for me is the personal and professional transformation I saw in this group. Fellows went from individuals interested in digital inclusion to professionals committed to bringing a digital inclusion lens to all their future work, making sure that communities are not left behind due to lack of digital access and skills. Emily Flores, a fellow at the San Antonio Public Library, shared, “Doing this fellowship convinced me that the library is the place I want to be. This January I began my Masters in Library and Information Science, which was a big leap for me. I love doing digital inclusion work in a library setting because of the diversity of needs and the rapidly changing pace of the work. Helping someone with a resume or assisting someone in completing a job application provides such an immediate boost to their self-confidence and that is rewarding to see.”
And from Gabryella Desporte of Latinitas in Austin, “I truly could not be more thankful for the opportunity to learn alongside the other cohort members. Although Latinitas has focused on digital inclusion efforts from its very beginnings, there are always ways to improve systems and processes that include everyone else in the conversation. How can we continue to include as many members of the community as possible to make sure their voices are being heard? I have learned a lot about the imperative need to think about all sides of a situation, learned how to adapt to different situations quickly, and been able to train staff and volunteers to adapt our curriculum. I feel that this fellowship has helped me become a better communicator and a more effective leader as our programming has shifted and grown to fit in our programming roster. I am excited to see a stronger foothold in our general parent outreach efforts and am thrilled to see that we now have been able to adopt parent-specific programming as a result of this fellowship.”