Tag: social change

Recently, Rainier Valley Corps’ Fellows completed a training on storytelling and nonprofit communication. The training was led by Nikkita Oliver, organizer, educator, lawyer, and poet. I was particularly interested in attending this training myself because of the challenges I face in attempting to share and communicate highlights and lessons learned from the Fellowship Program. Even now, as the second cohort of fellows are halfway into their first year, I am cautious of how we share the stories and complexities of each individual fellow as well as the cohort as a whole.

Nikkita began the training with a question:

How do we acknowledge our multiple identities, both the ones we claim and the ones that have been put onto us?

It was a powerful way to consider the identities we embrace and ones forced on us or the ways others see us impact our identities. The point of this activity was to understand how our identities intersect in relation to others and the world.

For example, I am the daughter of middle-class Ethiopian immigrants who moved to the United States and whose parents were regulated to working-class status. The experiences of my parents have deeply impacted my experience as a first generation person in the US. I don’t have first-hand experience of leaving behind everything I knew and moving to a new, unfamiliar land with hope and enough resilience to overcome the disdain they surely faced as Black immigrants. But I understand and have been impacted by those experiences. It’s one of the profound sources that dictates many of the choices I make, the paths I take, and what led me to commit my time, skills, and passions towards this work.

The nonprofit sector has a long history of exploiting the stories of the people they serve, particularly, people of color. This perpetuates racism and oppression, etc. Known examples are the stories and images you see on TV of “the starving and dying and warring” children and peoples, particularly in Africa. The nonprofit sector continues to struggle with diversity among staff, which contributes to non-people of color telling the stories of people of color.

The great African storyteller Chinua Achebe said, “People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.” When we tell the stories of the people we serve we are creating people in the imagination of our audiences and contributing to their existing biases, narratives, opinions, and idea about the people in the story. We have to acknowledge this power. Words have power. Stories have power. They can be revelations for change or destruction. Achebe also said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

With that said, until there is a radical shift in social, political, and economic power locally and globally, we must be cautious and tell stories that empower people and highlight the strengths, liberation, and self-determination of our communities.

Questions to ask yourself when sharing stories

Here are some guidelines and things to consider when writing or sharing the stories of the people we serve.

  • Think about how your own story (identity) or parts of your story show up in the story you are trying to share. What are the stories and identities you embrace and own? What are the stories and identities that are placed on you? What are those shared stories and experiences?
  • Is this the story that you, as the facilitator of the story, should be telling or can someone else? Are you connected to, part of, or a member of this individual’s community? This, especially, is a critical question for white folks telling stories of people and communities of color, able-bodied people telling the stories of people with disabilities, cisgender people speaking for and telling stories about trans folks, etc.
  • Assess whether the person whose story you’re trying to share is prepared to share their story. If yes, ask for their consent to share. If no, are they open or want to share? If there is openness then how are you providing the technical and emotional support in allowing them to tell their own story?
  • Is their consent informed? Do they know how and where the story will be used? What content it includes? Do they agree with the way you’re sharing how your services have impacted them? Are they able to approve changes and edits? If necessary, do you have written informed consent?
  • Ask yourself if you’re sharing their story with dignity, nuance, and with their humanity intact. Are you oversimplifying or over-sensationalizing their story? Are you prioritizing the voice of the person whose story and experience is being shared over that of the audience or the funders?
  • How can you tell the impact of your organization without exploiting the stories of the individual participants and perpetuating existing narratives about vulnerable or marginalized people and communities?
  • Are you fighting stereotypes and myths or contributing to it? Are you pathologizing them or have you provided sufficient socio-historical and political context?
  • Have you considered who this story helps by telling it?
  • By telling this story, are you showing your organization as a savior?
  • Do you have a process for those who have told their story to have the agency to retract consent/permission? This means if you’ve used their story, they can take back their permission and consent to no longer share or highlight their story.

Lastly, considering putting your money behind your values and convictions and offer to compensate people for their stories. Even if they’re receiving services from your organization. The stories you’re telling are directly connected to financial benefits for organizations. It’s only right those same funds benefit them as well.

I encourage you to create your own guidelines that align with the mission and values of your organization and your personal identities.


This article was originally published on Rainier Valley Corps’ Change-Makers blog and is reprinted here with permission.

There are trees, and there is forest. There are anecdotes, and there is data. There are the pinprick pixels of our individual experiences, and there is the vast picture they paint together of the world we share.

The M+R Benchmarks Study is our annual attempt to bridge that divide. This year, we have collected an extensive array of data points from 154 nonprofit participants. Each of them marks a single digital interaction with a supporter: an email opened, a donation made, a petition signed, a website visited, an ad clicked, a Facebook post liked, or tweet retweeted. All told, these add up to 4,699,299,330 email messages, 527,754,635 web visits, and 11,958,385 donations.

NTEN is proud to partner with M+R once again for the latest Benchmarks report. Explore or download it here.


This article was first published on Ford Foundation’s Equals Change blog and is reprinted here with permission.

Activists rely on the Internet as a tool and space to build movements. But increasingly, forces that we can’t see are shaping these spaces—like algorithms that govern what rises to the top of social media feeds, companies that constantly track us in order to tailor advertising, or political operatives looking to manipulate public opinion. The Internet is a crowded place, and often gamed in ways that put those advocating for greater openness and justice at risk.

As everyone from advertisers to political adversaries jockey for attention, they are increasingly using automated technologies and processes to raise their own voices or drown out others. In fact, 62 percent of all Internet traffic is made up of programs acting on their own to analyze information, find vulnerabilities, or spread messages. Up to 48 million of Twitter’s 320 million users are bots, or applications that perform automated tasks. Some bots post beautiful art from museum collections, while some spread abuse and misinformation instead. Automation itself isn’t cutting edge, but the prevalence and sophistication of how automated tools interact with users is.

Activists and NGOs, politicians, government agencies, and corporations rely on automated tools to carry out all kinds of tasks and operations: NGOs and activists use bots to automate civic engagementhelping citizens register to vote, contact their elected officials, and elevate marginalized voices and issues—to perform operational tasks like fundraising and developing messaging, and to promote transparency and accountability. But they’re far outshone by the private sector’s use of conversational chatbot interfaces—like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri—that use these technologies to make their platforms easier to use, gather data on customers, and increase profits.

Politicians, governments, and organizations sometimes use bots to provide public services, like this educational tool on pregnancy and newborn milestones. But they also use them to manipulate public opinion and disable activists. For example, in Mexico, Peñabots were used to support President Enrique Peña Nieto and silence protests against corruption and violence. Activists and journalists in Turkey, Russia, and Venezuela have faced similar efforts meant to marginalize dissenting opinions on social media. In the US, bot-assisted traffic was used to make stories and misinformation go viral by spreading millions of links to articles on conservative news sites like Breitbart News and InfoWars.

In other cases, bots can be grouped together to create botnets that are used to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to bring down activist websites and other online communications systems. eQualit.ie, a nonprofit tech organization that protects independent media and human rights organizations from these attacks, documented over 400 recorded DDoS attacks aimed at social justice groups in 2016.

There is a huge opportunity for organizations and activists to use automation in constructive ways that further social justice causes, but doing so is not without risk. What follows is a set of questions aimed at helping advocates better understand the challenges and risks that bots and automated activism present.

Do you rely heavily on social media for your communications, outreach, and engagement work?

If social media is a big part of your organization’s strategy, be vigilant about how automated accounts might disrupt your outreach. At the same time, with the increased presence of bot-generated traffic online, be aware that it will be more and more difficult to tell the difference between engagements with actual constituents, versus bot-generated engagement aimed at confusing or deterring your message and activism.

Is your organization at risk of being targeted due to the nature of your organizing and communications work?

Develop internal policies on how to respond to negative and inflammatory comments online and vigilantly guard your organization’s website and communications. Develop a contingency plan for what to do if your website is hit with a big rush of traffic meant to take it down. Report any attacks to nonprofit tech partners such as eQualit.ie that can track botnet attacks and provide digital security planning recommendations.

What should bots for social justice look like?

There are many ways that bots can promote social justice and lift the voices and work of minorities. To take one example, in situations where releasing critical information to the public might endanger an activist’s life, a bot could be used to release that information instead. Bots could elevate the stories and narratives of groups often marginalized from mainstream public discourse.

As automated activism expands and deepens, we need to identify the broader ethical and legal frameworks to guide how automation is integrated into social justice. This means asking questions like: Where do we draw the line between governments’ and politicians’ strategic communications and propaganda? How can we balance the need for security, privacy, freedom of speech, user protections, and preferences in automated online spaces?

How might innovations in automated activism coexist with traditional forms of organizing, messaging, and movement building?

The Internet has already been found to contribute to “slacktivism,” or half-hearted attempts at engagement. If we continue to automate more aspects of our political and civic engagement, we will need more research to determine how automated technology can increase civic engagement, support traditional forms of offline political engagement, and achieve political and social outcomes—rather than commoditizing that work and making some forms of engagement less impactful.

Before building the next call-to-action bot, it’s important for technologists to understand what political organizers need to effectively do their work. Social justice advocates and activists should work with well-intentioned technologists and become key partners in identifying and understanding how technology can be useful to building and sustaining movements.

While automation can be used to lower the costs of collective action for social justice activists and organizations, it can also increase risk. It is relatively easy for bots to tear down organizations’ and activists’ discourse, in contrast to the challenges organizations face in defending themselves against those automated attacks. As long as bots continue to participate—at growing rates—in our public sphere without regulation or transparency, they will pose enormous threats to democracy. Every person’s voice—including those expressed online—should count, but that is threatened when automation is used to impersonate a single individual while amplifying his or her voice by the thousands.

Looking critically at your organization’s online strategies will help mitigate and plan for risks. And remembering that automation cannot replace activism, but only complement it, will go a long way toward ensuring the effective use of automated tools as they continue to develop.

It took me three months into my social media dream job to realize why the word “online” was part of my job title. It was 2010, and I had finally found a job that had social media marketing at its heart, at a small AIDS nonprofit that planned to use Facebook, Twitter and dating apps to connect with people living with and at risk for HIV.

Even before my first day, I’d had a run-in with our horrible, outdated and very difficult website, but I knew there was a web developer on retainer and I figured it was his problem. Or maybe it was the Executive Director’s problem. Or perhaps the office administrator. I don’t suppose there was someone on the board who could help? A volunteer? Bueller?

As anyone who works in digital marketing or fundraising knows, your organization’s website is at the crux of how people relate to your organization and its work. When something is wrong, it hurts your ability to attract, engage, and convert the people you need to make your work a success. As it turned out, our website was my problem, and to solve it, we needed to build a working digital strategy.

What is a digital strategy?

For many nonprofits, technology adoption isn’t hard. We’re smart people, and we’re perfectly capable of finding the tools we need to help us perform particular tasks. But what often happens is that an organization will accrue a slew of tools, all of which maybe do what they should perfectly, but still aren’t getting the results that you need them to. Perhaps your content strategy is bringing scores of people to your website but you aren’t capturing them in your email list for fundraising campaigns, or you’re gaining lots of Instagram followers but none of them know about your online forum. A good digital strategy will knit your tools and aspirations together into a cohesive plan to meet your goals.

We’re here to help. NTEN is producing two conferences this fall—in New Mexico and Oregon—and both are designed to help you develop and refresh your digital strategy. The program includes case studies, workshops, panels, presentations, and tactical sessions, to help you formulate the best strategy for your organization, and show you how other nonprofits have done it.

That seems like a big task. Where do I even start?

I am a people person and NTEN relies on members to survive, so I like to start with personas. What are the groups of people that want to engage with your organization, how did they find you, what do they want to know, how do they want to engage, and what do you most want them to do? Plot their journey from an unconnected community member to engaged part of your inner circle, donor or member. What’s their ideal journey? What roadblocks are in the way right now? How can you clear them?

Identify the top handful of actions you really want your constituents to take—for example, donate, advocate, join or inform others—and consider the technologies they need to do that easily. Find data that can tell you how you successfully moved them to that action (or “converted” them, in marketing-speak). How many touch-points do you need? What’s the story to tell them, and where and how is it best told? Which are the channels that net you the most success, and why do you think that is?

Like me, when I finally realized the website monster was mine to tame, you will have a lot of questions. But it’s only through considering the (sometimes difficult) questions that you can build a digital strategy, pulling together your organization’s disparate parts and making them work better, for you and the communities you represent.

Best of luck! We hope to see you in the fall.

Kristin Johnson is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a slight uptick in people exhibiting activist-like behaviors in the last couple months. I can prove this based solely on my Facebook wall, where I have watched my political D.C. friends get out-activisted by old high school classmates and friends of my mother, who went from sharers of baby photos to vehement, pink-hat wearing radicals.

I have lifted my jaw off the ground multiple times, marveling at the Google spreadsheets being passed around each day with phone numbers and scripts for contacting Members of Congress. Suddenly, town halls are the new brunch, and wait—was that—were people chanting the number for the Capitol switchboard at that rally?

These new activists, hungry for knowledge, are not just sharing daily targets and talking points—they are also discussing the most effective ways to change votes and influence their legislators.

And in lots of ways, nonprofits are missing from the equation.

Sure, some orgs are seeing definite boosts in actions and donations, especially from their existing base of supporters, but this new wave of people are learning how to engage with decision makers via their friends and online networks, and not necessarily hopping on our email lists to be fed a steady diet of action alerts and online petitions.

Add to that, these newbies are spreading articles and tweetstorms that Members of Congress don’t necessarily read those nonprofit-inspired emails and petitions—or even trust that they were sent from real constituents.


Death of the Action Alert?

Online mass advocacy campaigns have never been perfect. The better we’ve gotten with edit-and-send email technology and name collection tools, the better the offices we’re targeting have gotten with receiving (or ignoring) them. Many recipients now have the technology to run them through computer algorithms to group similar text and topics and respond with the same form letter.

Nonprofit: “Yay! We got 10,000 people to submit our action!”
Congressional Staffer: “Yeah… We’re going to count that as one vote in favor…”

For many nonprofits, these tactics are the bread and butter of online advocacy. Sending petitions and form letters are a useful pulse check to an email list, and they still reign as one of the most cost-effective acquisition tools to bring on new names.

But when it comes to connecting a constituent and a decision maker, time and again, it’s the personal stories, in-person meetings, and jammed up phone lines that get noticed.

“I don’t care if those emails don’t get read—500 of those 10,000 actions came from people new to my list,” you may say. I get it—in the fight against constant email list attrition, new names are gold. People who engage with you as activists are more likely to become donors, who in turn, could help you fund other lobbying activities that may be more effective in turning a vote.

But as your advocacy team huddles late into the night trying to figure out how to get my mom’s friends signed up to your email list, you must think through how your organization can be of value to these new activists—and to all your veteran grassroots champions for that matter.

Will Nonprofits Be Able to Prove the Change They Make?

Before your organization presumes to step in between a person and their representative, reassess what you bring to the table.

  • What can your organization do to amplify those voices and make them 100 times more effective?
  • What can you do for someone that a viral Google Doc just can’t?
  • What part do you play best? Organizer? Travel Agent? Educator? Event Coordinator?

Revisit the last five times your nonprofit’s advocacy efforts had a direct impact on legislation or a policy decision: What votes have your supporters actually changed the outcome of?

Was your nonprofit was one of 15 other organizations to flood Senator So-and-So’s office with thousands of emails about an issue last year? That’s nice. Did they change their vote? Is their re-election at risk if they didn’t?

What did your organization do that was different from the 15 other groups? What got through?

Remaining a Part of the Equation

For the nonprofit community to continue being seen as relevant to new generations of activists, we must measure our reputations for effectiveness alongside our list sizes.

The nonprofits that get noticed will be the ones who find ways to aid and abet activists. They will be the ones who outline effective plans of attack that mesh online and offline tactics to surround a target.

They will be the nonprofits who can prove to people that joining their ranks is better than going it alone.

It’s a communications challenge as much as it is an organizing challenge, but it’s one that thoughtful nonprofits have the ability to crack.

The Digital Inclusion Fellowship is expanding and applications are now open for 22 Fellowship positions!

Last year, we announced the first ever Digital Inclusion Fellowship (DIF), in partnership with Google Fiber. In an effort to increase digital literacy and broadband adoption in digitally divided communities, we placed 16 Fellows with locally-based organizations in eight cities across the country.

Applications for City Hosts in the second cohort of the Fellowship opened in February, calling for local organizations who would like to host a Fellow for a year with a focus on four core mission areas: adult literacy, digital inclusion, libraries, and public or affordable housing. Fellows in these organizations will have unique projects that reflect the missions, programs, and communities of each organization, but will share a common set of desired outcomes for adult digital literacy. As a network, both the City Hosts and Fellows will receive support, program guidance, training, and access to leading practitioners as they develop and implement critical programming locally.

Today, we are thrilled to announce, with the continued support of Google Fiber as well as new support from Capital One, we will have 22 Fellows in the next cohort of the Fellowship program starting this July. We have selected 22 incredible organizations in 11 different cities who will work with Fellows this year to launch and expand adult digital literacy programs.

Applications are now open and interviews may be scheduled on a rolling basis during the application period. Fellow selection may happen before applications close, so we encourage you to apply today! Fellow applications will close on May 13.

Learn more about the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, the available Fellow positions, and how to apply in the Community Call on Apr 28.

Atlanta, GA

Austin, TX

Charlotte, NC

Kansas City, KC / MO

Nashville, TN

  • Martha O’Bryan Center – (4/26/16 – Closed)
  • Nashville Public Library – (5/5/16 – Closed)

Portland, OR

Provo, UT

Raleigh / Durham, NC

Salt Lake City, UT

San Antonio, TX

San Francisco, CA

UPDATE: The application deadline for Digital Inclusion Fellowship applications has passed. You can learn how to get involved with the DIF program in other ways on our Get Involved page.

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. Maithri Vangala shares her recent work as a Fellow in Atlanta, Georgia, working for TechBridge.

On a recent morning, I woke up and immediately reached for my smartphone. Certain that I had missed the world’s end overnight, I went straight to my email inbox to find an article my mother sent over about how low- and middle-income families in the United States are affected by limited access to the Internet.

What Is Underconnection?

The article cited a recent study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which found that, while 91% of Americans have basic Internet access, many low- and middle-income families are “underconnected,” subsisting on limited access through mobile technology or a single connected computer.

The concept of underconnection is one I’m very familiar with in my work as a Digital Inclusion Fellow with TechBridge here in Atlanta. TechBridge typically serves other nonprofit organizations addressing the causes of poverty in their communities by providing them with affordable technology and business know-how so that they can better carry out their missions.

This year, we launched a pilot to help five nonprofit organizations start digital inclusion programs. These include the following:

(Check out our project adoption page here.)

Last fall, I met with program managers, employment coaches, instructors, principals, and even parent liaisons of over 20 nonprofit organizations to determine which organizations we would support.

Each time I met with an organization, I was provided with anecdotes of the challenges the clients of these organizations faced—being unable to apply for jobs online, enhance their own education or participate in that of their child’s, or even be in good contact with their physician to manage complex health issues.

Many staff members told me how helpless they feel in watching those whom they serve be affected by the digital equity gap, which is what being under-connected ultimately means.

The Income Gap and the Digital Divide

Here in Atlanta, we hear a lot about inequity and inequality. We’ve got a challenging racial history. And we are currently ranked number one for income inequality, with the largest income gap between the top 5% and the bottom 25% of any major city in the country.

In addition to things like access to affordable housing, transportation, and health care, the income gap our city faces also impacts who has unlimited access to broadband Internet and who does not. Twenty percent of households don’t have Internet access in their homes. Forty-two percent of families earning less than $25,000 don’t have computers or Internet access in their homes.

As I’ve met with other community members and talked with peers about digital inclusion, I realize that we still have a great deal of work to do in educating our community about why it is so important to uplift residents who are currently under-connected so that they can become informed participants of the digital economy.

Curiosity as a Privilege

I know our city understands this, too. Last month, the city launched the Atlanta ConnectHome Program at the Center of Hope in the Dunbar Recreation Center in Southwest Atlanta.

Mayor Reed shared his thoughts about the program’s importance: “The Internet is an indispensable tool for accessing educational resources, employment opportunities, health care services, and so much more. Our families and children who now have the opportunity to participate in the ConnectHome program will realize that high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

For a Fellow like me, it is invigorating to hear a city official get it.

Here’s a personal story which helps all of this hit home for me. Last fall, I was speaking with my friend Josh, a high school English teacher in an inner city public school. He was talking about the challenges of teaching his students how to do research online. As we talked about how intuitive it might be for him or me to do a quick Google search to learn about, well, anything we wanted, we realized right in the middle of our conversation that limited access to Internet goes so far as to make curiosity a privilege.

Sure, as an informed participant of the digital economy I rely heavily on my smartphone to carry me through a day. But without unlimited access to the Internet on a larger device, I wouldn’t have been able to write and edit this very piece with the ease and timeframe within which I did, shifting back and forth between studies, reports, press releases, and my own notes.

During Atlanta’s ConnectHome launch, I met with the first participants of the program in the Center’s gym. Excitement rang about getting a device, and I often received evident joy from participants who were first hearing about a GED class or career program offered by some of the nonprofit organizations present at the launch. A GED class might benefit a sister who had previously had a hard time in school or who was forced to drop out to help to support the family. A career program could benefit a husband who has been unemployed for a very long time.

And then a mother with a hearing impairment dropped by to speak with me, bringing her son along to help us communicate. As someone who often needs to text or email to communicate with others, she was so excited about having a device to help her day-to-day operations. “With this device, I can do even more without your help,” she happily explained to her son.

As I heard these stories I couldn’t help but swell with pride at the hard work our organizations are doing this year to make space to incorporate digital literacy and inclusion into their existing programming.

Yes—it is still a privilege to be curious. But we’re onto something here in Atlanta. We’re connecting the underconnected.

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. Sarah Bell shares her recent work as a Fellow in Kansas City, working for Literacy Kansas City.

In the 21st century, it is impossible to talk about literacy without mentioning the digital component. It seems like everything has an online counterpart these days. Most of these provide convenience in our busy lives, such as online banking, bill pay, shopping, interactive maps, etc. Of course, without access to the Internet, these can become barriers instead of conveniences, especially when the digital option is often the only one. Many of the discussions about bridging the digital divide focus on alleviating those barriers, helping those individuals who cannot afford the Internet or a device, or who do not have the necessary digital skills to navigate the Internet. These are important conversations to have, and it is exciting to see how many organizations are working together to break down those barriers.

But what about those individuals who also have low literacy as a barrier? For them, technology might not just be too expensive, or one item on a list of skills they want to learn. Instead, technology becomes yet another thing that has a lot of words and letters that they don’t have the skills to read, or the confidence to navigate.

Before I started as a Digital Inclusion Fellow, I worked at Literacy Kansas City as an adult literacy instructor. I have worked with a lot of students who come to us with a variety of goals and needs. Some have limited reading skills; others need help with comprehension; and many want assistance with their writing. During our orientation for new students, we ask them what their goals are at Literacy KC, including if they have any that are computer-related. I will never forget one student I talked to, who explained that, while she understands the value of computers and technology, she needed to focus on her reading and writing right now, so anything digital would have to wait.

Hearing her prioritize her goals in that way stunned me, although I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course working on reading and writing skills is a tremendous priority for our students. But to go back to my opening statement, 21st century literacy cannot be detached from its digital component. No matter what a student’s goals are for coming to Literacy KC, most likely the student will need to know at least the basics of navigating a computer and the Internet, if not more advanced skills depending on their career and education goals.

Yet, technology barriers look different for low-literate adults. For a student with dyslexia, typing in a web address can be a daunting task. Missing a symbol or hitting a wrong letter can take you to a completely different location. A lack of typing skills can prevent a student from completing a job application, or creating a resume or letter. One student had to submit a typed essay as part of his application for an online high school program. His essay consisted of all lower case letters with no spaces and punctuation. Similarly to misspelled words, poor grammar, and bad handwriting on a written application, poor typing can determine whether a student is successful on an online form. There are many digital resources and tutorials available online to assist individuals with learning about and navigating the Internet, yet they presume their audience reads at a certain (usually high) reading level, let alone that they have a knowledge of basic computer skills. My student’s statement about not having time to focus on anything digital is significant because I don’t believe we can separate out what we do in the classroom—teaching reading and writing—from the digital components of literacy.

Though technology can be a barrier for low-literate students, in other ways it can be a tool to help them. Every week in one of my classes, I had a student speak words into his phone to give him the correct spelling while he was writing. We use a reading software program called Reading Plus that helps students with their comprehension and vocabulary skills; but logging on can be difficult for students. One of my former students always needed help getting on the website, although she was able to navigate it just fine after she got there. A few weeks into our term, she pulled me over and exclaimed that she had gotten on the website all by herself!

I had already observed many of the positive and negative aspects of using technology with my students in the classroom, so when I became the Digital Inclusion Fellow, I had a good understanding of what worked, what didn’t, and what we could add to our already existing digital literacy curriculum. Moving forward, we are hoping to get more students using our computer lab. In addition to using Reading Plus, we will be strongly encouraging students to practice typing and to take our 4-week computer class series, which will teach them how to use online library resources, navigate everyday websites, and learn parts of the Google Apps. I believe, as we help students break down both sets of barriers—reading/writing and digital—we will see their confidence rise in all areas of literacy.

In May of last year, we announced the first ever Digital Inclusion Fellowship (DIF), in partnership with Google Fiber, and with additional funding support from the Knight Foundation in Charlotte, N.C . In an effort to increase digital literacy and broadband adoption in digitally divided communities, we placed 16 Fellows in locally-based organizations in eight cities across the country.

We’re excited for the potential of a second year of the DIF. To start that process, we’re opening Fellowship City Host applications in several cities we’re considering for our next cohort. More program details about the next cohort will be available soon.

Fellows and their City Hosts have made much needed progress in addressing the digital divide. For example, Ruben Campillo is the Digital Inclusion Fellow for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. He has launched digital literacy classes at six locations throughout the city, prioritizing communities where Internet access is still unattainable for many residents. The classes, implemented in English and Spanish, not only taught nearly 100 local community members basic digital skills, but also offered low cost refurbished devices upon graduation, so that they could continue the learning at home. The classes also provided an incredible opportunity to bring diverse communities together; Ruben was able to recruit over 20 private sector volunteers to help tutor and support the students in learning to navigate their devices. Throughout the spring, classes are scheduled to extend to a total of five library branches and three to four community organizations, serving another 120 students.

Looking Ahead

While all current Fellows and City Hosts have made incredible progress, there is much more work to be done, which is why we’re extending the Fellowship for an additional year with the support of Google Fiber and Capital One.

During this pilot year, we learned a lot about what works well and what can be improved upon. In order to better support Fellows and their digital inclusion work, in year two we’ve decided to focus on the following types of organizations: libraries, housing authorities, and those dedicated to literacy and digital inclusion.

City host applications are available for the following cities:

  • Atlanta – 2 City Hosts
  • Charlotte – 1 City Host
  • Kansas City, MO/KS – 1 City Host
  • Portland, OR – 2 City Hosts
  • Salt Lake City, UT – 2 City Hosts
  • San Antonio, TX – 3 City Hosts
  • San Francisco, CA – 2 City Hosts

And while we are not accepting City Host applications in the following cities, we will continue to have Fellows in:

  • Austin, TX
  • Nashville, TN
  • Provo, UT
  • Raleigh & Durham, NC

What Are We Looking for in a City Host?

Our current criteria for City Hosts, includes:

  • Mission Alignment: City Hosts should serve adults and be one of these four types of organizations:
    • Adult Literacy
    • Library
    • Digital Inclusion
    • Public or Affordable Housing
  • Leadership: City Hosts should be interested in becoming a leader on digital inclusion issues in their city and beyond.
  • Community: City Hosts should already be connected to key demographics through existing direct service or location in digitally divided areas, and operate in target geographies.
  • Management: We are looking for organizations with a clear plan for positioning the Fellow for success.
  • Collaboration: City Hosts will be expected to collaborate (share lessons and knowledge, communicate about progress and challenges, serve as peers) with other City Hosts, in the same city and across the program.


If you are interested in learning more about the opportunity to apply for a City Host position, or have questions about the program, please join the upcoming Community Call on Wednesday, February 24, at 10 am pacific time.

Get more details about the City Host application, the expectations of City Hosts, and notes on how to apply at http://www.nten.org/community/dif/hosts/apply.

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. Adam Strizich shares his recent work as a Fellow in Nashville, Tennessee working for the Martha O’Bryan Center.

Marilyn Greer is a model community leader. When I met Marilyn for the first time and was introduced as “the computer guy,” she told me, “I’m fixing to get with you because I need those computer skills, Adam!” She pulled me in for a big hug and a kiss on the cheek as if we had known each other for years. No one in the neighborhood is more involved or connected than Marilyn. If you want to promote a program, she will introduce you to everyone. Stomping the neighborhood with her is a community-wide stamp of approval. As someone who believes that digital literacy is essential to full participation in a 21st century society, I was blown away by Marilyn’s ability to be a community leader without possessing basic computer skills.

Marilyn is a resident of Cayce Place, the largest and poorest public housing property in Middle Tennessee. Ninety percent of the neighborhood’s population is African American; single mothers head 90% of households; 59% of residents are under the age of 18; the average annual income is under $8,000; and 30% of adults are unemployed. Plus, Cayce Place is in the middle of a food desert, with the only semblance of a grocery store near the property being a Dollar General that just opened a year ago. Generations of children have been trapped in a cycle of poverty that started the day they were born.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

As staff members at Martha O’Bryan Center (MOBC), our mission is to help break the cycle of poverty by empowering neighborhood residents to transform their lives via education, employment, and fellowship. We take pride in our duty to “break the line” of poverty between the wealthy surrounding neighborhoods and Cayce Place. I am privileged to work alongside an incredibly determined and devoted team that provides a suite of cradle-to-career services. MOBC has a food security program; family support services; counseling and pastoral care; an early learning center; K-8 youth development programs; charter schools; college prep programs; workforce development; post-secondary success initiatives; parent coaching; and adult education services. After spending a few months getting to know each program, I found that they all shared a common thread that every program emphasizes the formation of strong, personal relationships with program participants.

With so many daily challenges facing Cayce Place residents, learning to use a computer is rarely on the top of the priority list. However, accessing social services, excelling in the workplace, succeeding in school, and contributing to the well-being of the community are always at the top of the list. And so, in October, MOBC’s College and Career Services Department opened a drop-in computer lab with 1:1 support to help participants accomplish their goals using technology. The Digital Empowerment Lab (DEL) in its most ideal form is a space for community members to realize their dreams by using the life-enhancing potential of technology. Much like your average coffee shop, DEL strives to be a relaxing escape from the day-to-day grind while providing a comfortable learning atmosphere and a fertile environment for developing meaningful relationships. DEL also provides space for children to create artwork while mom and dad work on the computer. The inspiration for DEL comes from a Langston Hughes’ poem, which is posted in our Adult Education classroom:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow

The Adult Education Team at MOBC is the type of brilliant, innovative team you might expect to find in a Google office in Mountain View, California. This team of education entrepreneurs developed their very own flipped-classroom model whereby participants receive a personalized learning pathway via Google Drive. Participants in the program learn digital literacy skills alongside normal High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) preparation coursework, receiving 1:1 support along the way. No program at MOBC is better at empowering community members than MOBC’s Adult Education Program. I have the honor of working with the Adult Education team to develop and implement our newly-minted Northstar Digital Literacy Program. The program is nationally recognized for teaching and testing the foundational computer skills that are essential to being a digital citizen. But more importantly, the program inspires hope that one day participants will have the tools to be agents of their own change by possessing the technological know-how necessary for socioeconomic success.

A Visit from Secretary Castro

In President Obama’s final State of the Union speech, he asked the question, “How do we give everyone a fair shot and security and opportunity in this new economy?” The answer came to Nashville a day later. On January 13, HUD Secretary Julian Castro visited Nashville to speak with city leaders about the ConnectHome Initiative – HUD’s plan to create a more digitally inclusive America. During his visit, Secretary Castro paid a visit to the Digital Empowerment Lab where he made time to speak with some of our community members to learn about how the Digital Empowerment Lab had impacted their lives. I was proud to see Secretary Castro affirm my belief that meaningful human connections are the key to bridging the digital divide.

Marilyn’s primary reason for wanting to learn computer skills is to enhance her Positive Attitudes Program. Positive Attitudes provides education and mentorship for young ladies in Cayce place. Thanks to the unique collaboration between the private sector and some stellar nonprofits, Marilyn now has the opportunity to participate in a digital literacy program in her neighborhood, which will enable her to significantly enhance the types of opportunities for young ladies in her Positive Attitudes Program. And she will also have the computer skills to email Secretary Castro, detailing how his visit to Cayce Place positively impacted the neighborhood.

I am mindful of the reality that I am a guest in the Cayce Place community. From day one, I have tried to work alongside community members to develop programming that makes valuable use of our participants’ time and is sustainable beyond the one-year fellowship. But the reality is that I am merely a facilitator of resources. The future of the Digital Empowerment Program ultimately depends on the continued generosity of volunteer instructors and the continued development of genuine relationships where mutual trust enables a community to clasp hands and venture over to the other side of the digital divide. I’m holding fast to my dream, that since the Secretary of HUD sees the value in taking the time to share his gifts and talents with the people of Cayce Place, maybe some the more fortunate members of the Nashville community will “break the line” and do the same.