In too many communities, digital inclusion is a challenge without local owners.
Unless your organization is specifically dedicated to digital inclusion or digital literacy, it can feel like a less tangible cause and perhaps a less important cause than, say, poverty or inequality.
When I was a high school English teacher, my colleagues were so worried about the need for our low-income school to perform well on standardized tests that many felt we didn’t have time to take students to the computer lab. Someone else would have to be responsible for that.
Later, when I was a college instructor, there was a lot of discussion about what the English department should be responsible for. Sure, we were committed to literacy. But, were we also the gatekeepers of academic literacy and digital literacy? It seemed like too much.
Now that I’m a Digital Inclusion Fellow with a nonprofit host, there still seem to be a lot of competing priorities. How can digital inclusion be important when we’re also dealing with homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, and families in crisis?
The answer: Digital inclusion is a part of every battle.
The shifting of information from the physical to the digital form makes it so. To fully participate in education, access community resources, and be a part of the democratic process, people must have access to the internet, working devices, and technical skills.
If you fight for literacy, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
If you fight against poverty, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
If you fight for equality, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
If you fight for resilient neighborhoods, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
If you fight against homelessness, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
If you fight for women’s rights, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
If you fight for refugees, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.
Perhaps, like me, you work for an organization that isn’t focused on digital inclusion alone. If so, there are a few ways you can weave it into the work you’re already doing.
Map out how information is reaching your clients.
Look at the information you’re providing online. Review your website, your social media accounts, and any smartphone apps.
Is there information that can’t be acquired unless a client has access to a computer and knows how to use it? If so, consider providing paper copies of important information and showing clients where they can go to get internet access and one-on-one help if they need it.
At the United Way of Utah County, we developed a tri-fold brochure to give to clients participating in targeted programs. The brochures, available in both English and Spanish, give simple explanations for how readers can access our Library Computer Help Lab or enroll in our Adopt-a-Computer-Program. They also explain where readers can use public computers, get free access to the internet, and find discounted home connections.
Even if your organization isn’t providing the tech help itself, can you find or create a guide for clients who need this information?
Look for opportunities to transform competing priorities into complementary priorities
Some of the most successful digital inclusion projects at the United Way of Utah County have been carefully tied into existing, well-known programs.
For example, at Sub-for-Santa application events we set up tables with Chromebooks, brochures, computer class sign-up sheets, and consultants who spoke both English and Spanish.
Through multiple night and weekend events, we provided personalized tech consultations about devices, internet access, and programs to 735 families. We were able to turn an existing program into an asset (rather than a competitor) and target the families most in need of our services.
Train staff to see digital inclusion as a part of their toolkit of solutions
Digital inclusion isn’t a problem competing with poverty. It’s a part of a holistic solution to poverty. And, a part of the solution to many other programs.
As a Digital Inclusion Fellow, I’ve made an effort to work with staff and send out success stories that show how digital inclusion can impact other areas of focus (even when those stories sound a little braggy).
In one email, I shared the story of Thomas. This Adopt-a-Computer participant showed up to the Computer Help Lab for ten hours of training. Working with our mentors, he learned job search essentials and applied to half a dozen positions online. The day he got to take home his refurbished computer was the same day he got a call offering him much-needed employment. We celebrated with high-fives.
With his permission, I told his story to other stakeholders in my community. Yes, this is a story about digital inclusion. But, it’s also a story about poverty, education, job skills, and many other causes that organizations in my community are working to address.
Our collective responsibility
By nature, digital inclusion is an issue that cannot be addressed by digital inclusion organizations alone. No matter what our cause or focus, when we find ways to weave inclusion into our work, we increase our ability to do the greatest good.
Client names have been changed.