October 30, 2015

Who Shut Off the Internet? 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. Ruben Campillo shares his recent work as a Fellow in Charlotte, working with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

I have often wondered if it is possible to shut down the Internet. Is there a hidden button somewhere that our government can push that would take us all offline in a second? Does the President of the United States walk around with a special briefcase that has the secret codes to melt down the World Wide Web? The Internet was built with the purpose of creating a redundant system, a network of computers where no single point of failure would prevent information from getting to its final destination. It is my job as a Digital Inclusion Fellow at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to ensure that no single point of failure prevents people from being online, and that our community’s ability to access and use the Internet is as consistent and strong as the Internet itself, because what good is the Internet if you can’t get to it?

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is the largest provider of free Internet access in the Charlotte metropolitan area, but my work over the last few months has been to ensure that access is not just limited to the library. Yes, we love it when people come to the library, but our work extends beyond our walls. We are partnering with community organizations to ensure that families have the tools, knowledge, and resources to take full advantage of the resources available online. We are reaching out to local churches to share with congregations the importance of being online and their many different options to stay connected. We are meeting with community leaders to identify the best ways to work with neighborhood associations.

Seeing parents spend quality time with their children reading  at the library, chatting with teenagers stopping by the library after school, or helping someone get online for the first time are some of the perks from my job.

Our first digital literacy program has been a tremendous success. We have young parents who are trying to improve their technical skills in order to get a better job; retired grandparents who are eager to learn about the most recent technology in order to stay in touch with their grandchildren; and people who feel like technology has just moved too fast and that what they thought they knew is no longer applicable. No matter what their knowledge level or experience, they share one thing in common: an eagerness to learn that is inspiring.

One of our students, for example, shared with me that his daughter gave him a computer for Christmas four years ago so he could stay in touch with his grandchildren in another state, but he has not been able to use the computer, and he would like to learn how to use Skype and Facebook. Another student has been eager to apply for a job that he knows he would be really good at, but the application is online and complex. A retired grandmother who once felt very competent in an office environment using what was considered modern technology at the time wishes she could regain those same skills and feel comfortable using some of the tools that are now used in a professional environment. For some of our other students, it is not only the tech skills they are working on—they are also trying to overcome a language barrier, so we are offering an additional course in English and Spanish. All of these students are working on learning the skills to fully participate in a digital world. Still, challenges remain.

Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet access at home is a barrier for many of our students. So we are working with partners like EveryoneOn to find affordable Internet plans. Students who graduate from the our digital literacy programs will also have access to laptops and Chromebooks at a reduced price, thanks to the support of Google Fiber and our partnership with the Kramden Institute. Our students are encouraged and supported, thanks to the great work of AT&T volunteers; this type of collaboration is a reflection of what is happening across our city. Service providers, community organizations, and community leaders are working together to ensure that we create a digitally inclusive city.

So if there is no magic switch that can turn off the Internet, why should there be any roadblocks that prevent all our communities from being online?

Ruben Campillo
Ruben Campillo is a native of Mexico but considers Charlotte, NC his home. He is passionate about social justice and technology. Over the last ten years, he has worked closely with students, business leaders, and grassroots organizations in statewide and national campaigns in support of access to higher education, voter engagement, and immigrant rights. In his free time, he enjoys traveling and keeping up with the latest high-tech gadgets.