December 15, 2015

Seeing What We’re Missing: 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. The Knight Foundation joined NTEN and Google Fiber in supporting DIF in Charlotte, NC. Jessica Washington shares her recent work as a Fellow in Charlotte, working for Urban League of Central Carolinas (ULCC).

I have been very fortunate that when I started this fellowship, there was already digital inclusion work being done in Charlotte and the surrounding areas. I imagine this is the case in many cities; but much of the time, those players don’t know about each other and may not be working together. That is not the case here in Charlotte.When I started, there was already a Digital Inclusion Steering Team, and they were on their way to hiring a Digital Inclusion Project Manager for Charlotte. They understood that we all need to work together to  bridge this gap.

My second day on the job, I was already attending the Digital Inclusion Community meeting, where people from organizations and groups on the ground and in the community come together to discuss needs—those of their organizations, populations they work with, and communities they serve. I think that the effort and work in Charlotte and that of the Digital Inclusion Steering Team, specifically, have been very deliberate about listening to what the community needs and gathering this information from community members as well as agencies. The goal is to get the organizations to work together, to see where the gaps and overlaps are.

Urban League of Central Carolinas (ULCC) is my host organization. They are also represented on the Steering Team because Urban League has long been working in the digital inclusion and tech skills training space. ULCC offers GED, job skills training, HVAC training and certification, Fiber Optics training and certification, and youth technology programs in several middle and high schools. I have to admit that before working at ULCC, I didn’t know much about the organization. One of the goals of the Digital Inclusion Project Manager for the steering team is to spread the word about the community organizations that provide technology training.

Here is one really great outcome of the Urban League’s recent work: Just over a week ago, a computer, Internet, and training event was held in a West Charlotte neighborhood in a local church. A local neighborhood organization, Historic West End Partners (HWEP), sponsored a shipment of 200 desktops from Kramden Institute in Durham, NC. That name might seem familiar because that is the host organization of another Digital Inclusion Fellow (DIF), Mike Byrd. Kramden is a nonprofit that refurbishes large numbers of computers and, through their programs, makes them available to the community. So, two weeks ago, 200 computers were offered at an incredibly low cost to the very community that we’ve been working to serve. J’Tanya Adams, president of HWEP and EveryoneOn’s Charlotte Regional Manager, made sure that low-cost Internet would be available, as well. Ruben Campillo, the DIF at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and I were involved in offering the free computer training for the community.

The event was a hit! I honestly can’t believe that I was a part of something so awesome. To many of us, having a computer with Internet access (I mean the good stuff) is a no-brainer. Some of us have multiple devices—a laptop, tablet, two smart phones—but for so many people, computer and Internet access in their homes is out of reach due to cost and the fact that they see no relevance. Why would someone who makes $30k or less in a year want to invest in a $35-$50/month bill for Internet access when they could be using that money on another necessity; when they think that their kids will only be using it to play games or watch videos; or when they say, “I’ve already got the Internet on my phone?”

This is what I’m here for. This is my job—to bring relevancy to the communities that don’t have Internet and computers in their homes. Providing a computer is great; getting folks to sign up for Internet is even better. But what will they do with this new device and service? They need training. They need to know how this will impact their lives for the better; and they need to know what they are missing.

I can’t say that I wouldn’t be doing this work if I wasn’t part of the Digital Inclusion Steering Team, but I can say that I wouldn’t know about all the other agencies and organizations doing the same or similar work in Charlotte. I wouldn’t have been included in such an awesome event, as the one Ruben and me organized, and I may not have been able to see firsthand how many lives can be affected if we just work together.

Jessica Washington
Jessica Washington is a graduate of UNC Charlotte with degrees in Spanish and Africana Studies. She has worked for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Teen Services, at Rowan Cabarrus Community College as Early Literacy Coordinator, and as an ESL teacher. She is interested in community programs, coding, and especially women who code. Her hobbies include trying to learn how to code, dreaming about travel, reading, and shopping.