Tag: community building

For members of the LGBTQ+ community, the current political climate has been turbulent. Now more than ever, the community has taken to the internet to make and encourage change in the world. Nonprofits play an essential role in supporting LGBTQ+ communities through advocacy and resources to effect social change. There is a huge opportunity for nonprofits to use their non-partisan positioning to support this community and others that are stigmatized through their content and interactions.

Here are six best practices for digital content and collecting feedback to make sure your spaces are more inclusive, especially when working with stigmatized audiences.

Digital Content

Make it a necessity to collaborate with members of the community you want to reach. Collaboration not only ensures that your organization has the support of the community, but it also means that your organization has verified knowledge about the community. Having this information can mean a lot for the comfort of your audiences, and makes it clear that you aren’t targeting this population for your own gains.

An excellent solution for this is to make sure that your organization is incredibly diverse. There has been plenty of research done that proves diversity makes a team smarter and stronger. It could also make it easier to connect with difficult-to-reach communities.

If you’re looking to reach a community that no one on your team is personally involved with, you should strive to connect with advocacy groups for that group. Be prepared to explain what you’re doing exactly and why you’re doing it. Make sure you want to reach this community for the right reasons. If anyone feels like you’re trying to tokenize a specific population, chances are they won’t want to help you. Being prepared and able to speak clearly about your goals will allow advocacy groups to vouch for you and your work.

Avoid stigmatizing language and labeling. You aren’t trying to ‘other’ any population. You’re working to bring everyone into the conversation and normalize their existence. Make sure that the language you’re using doesn’t have a negative history. While some LGBTQ+ people use the word ‘queer’ in their personal vernacular when speaking with others from the community, it’s understood that there is a significant and negative history around the word, so it’s a word to avoid when working with the LGBTQ+ population.

Avoid adding unnecessary descriptors. Sometimes, in an effort to be inclusive, organizations will call out groups that don’t need special attention. A website with medical information, for instance, might have a section labeled LGBTQ+ Health. While this doesn’t necessarily seem problematic, it adds an exclusionary tone and asserts that folx in the LGBTQ+ community have to worry about their health separately from everyone else. Creating these lines of separation between the health needs of audiences creates an assumption that LGBTQ+ folx have “other” health issues they need to worry about, which typically isn’t the case. All people have bodies and health concerns; there is no need to distinguish between healthcare and LGBTQ+ healthcare.

Content that is specific to LGBTQ+ folx in some way (i.e., hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries) can have relevant metadata to make sure it appears in a search, rather than using explicit labeling that creates dividing lines between populations.

Recently, Apple announced its new menstrual cycle monitoring in its WatchOS update. Apple did a great job using inclusive language in its announcement. Without stating it outright, the company acknowledged that women aren’t the only people who experience menstrual cycles. Nowhere on its site does it say that this feature is for women; the language (“Gaining insight into your menstrual cycle,” for example) is incredibly inclusive. Apple mirrors this language across all of its content, and in doing so is continuing its inclusivity without making a big deal out of it. You don’t have to announce inclusivity for it to be noticed and impactful.

Find unbiased ways to address people. It’s important to neutralize how you talk about and to people. Instead of using gendered pronouns or phrases like “he” or “she” use a neutral pronoun like “they.” If you want to take it a step further, you can avoid pronouns altogether and use descriptive phrases, like “the participant,” “the external stakeholder,” or “the sales-clerk.” And then there’s the most neutral descriptor: to use someone’s name.

When addressing a group of people, it’s good practice to stay away from saying things like “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” or “you guys.” Take a page out New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s book and try saying, “Attention, everyone …” This neutralizes the language and truly addresses all people. In more casual settings, you can say things such as “friends,” “y’ all,” or “people” instead of “guys.” Use of this language is habitual, and shifting your mindset will take time, but people will recognize the effort and appreciate it. This practice of neutralizing language should be mirrored in your company culture and in your personal life. The phrases “practice what you preach” and “practice makes perfect” apply here.

Collecting Feedback

Be inclusive when collecting survey feedback to gain an accurate representation of your audience. If you want a true understanding of all your audiences and external stakeholders, you need to open up to genders that fall outside of cis-normative culture. Only using “Male,” “Female,” and “Other” will turn away potential participants who don’t feel welcomed into a survey based on the limited options. This common oversight means you aren’t getting an understanding of your entire audience. In surveys and screeners, offer the following options:

  1. Male
  2. Female
  3. Non-Binary/Third Gender
  4. Prefer Not to Answer
  5. Another Option We Haven’t Thought Of: ____________________(open this field to allow participants to include their own gender option. Thanks to Lynn Boyden for this suggestion.)

Most survey platforms don’t allow you to change the word “Other” to something more inclusive, so it’s incredibly important to make sure that field is open to allow participants to insert their desired gender option.

You can also allow participants to select their pronoun instead of gender, although that does assume that everyone knows what a pronoun is.

When collecting face-to-face feedback, make sure your participants feel comfortable with the moderator. People who belong to stigmatized audiences sometimes need additional assurance that they will be safe in new situations. When collecting face-to-face feedback, it is crucial to make sure that the participant doesn’t feel uncomfortable, as this could lead to biased or inaccurate responses. For example, trans people may not feel comfortable talking about transition-related topics with a cisgender person, no matter how much of an ally they claim or want to be. This type of mindset applies to any stigmatized, underserved, or difficult to reach population.

Another example would be women who have survived domestic violence. They may not feel comfortable talking to someone who resembles their abuser. You should gather this information in a screener beforehand to make sure that when it comes time to conduct feedback sessions, you are prepared to speak with them in the most empathetic way possible. Ask screener questions like, “Our researcher identifies as male; would you feel comfortable speaking about this sensitive topic with a male-presenting person?” or “Our researcher is cisgender, would you be comfortable discussing transition-related topics with a cisgender person?”

As for many stigmatized populations, the internet has historically been a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. If we all make these small but impactful changes in our organizations, we can make sure that the digital world continues to feel safe and welcoming to everyone. With this knowledge, we hope that organizations everywhere can make these necessary and important changes in language and practice, which will, in turn, encourage these changes in the “real world.”

For young Americans today, connecting with each other has never been easier, more immediate, or more influential. Causes must be strategic about entering into these conversations, and tech plays a vital role in the design and delivery of this strategy.

Millennials and their friends consistently share and actively respond to information and opinions. To effectively and authentically take part, causes must implement responsive models that involve young cause enthusiasts (and their networks) in your issue and ultimately persuade them to join your cause.

To begin in the right direction, we look at the nation’s largest body of research on millennials: the Millennial Impact Project, a joint venture between the Case Foundation and research teams I’ve led. After a decade of research, the final report was just released: Understanding How Millennials Engage With Causes and Social Issues: Insights From 10 Years of Research Working in Partnership With Young Americans on Causes Today and in the Future.

We instinctively know that tech is powerful, and millennials, for the most part, are savvy users. But tech must be so much more than a social media strategy. Far more than a tool for monitoring and pushing out content to this audience, tech should be part of the fabric of your organization’s strategy.

To help in your planning, we’re sharing the top five tech findings from the mountain of research data, analysis, and recommendations from the Millennial Impact Project:

  1. It’s an online and offline world. At the onset of this decade-long study, we expected by now to see millennials taking actions in digital-only environments. But it hasn’t happened. Moreover, in every study, we clearly saw that activity in the offline world — activism in particular — continued to reign. Millennials don’t restrict their issue participation to either offline or online. They do both. It’s “and” not “or.”
  2. Their online actions are both small and large. When looking at the type and intensity of actions taken online (from social shares to DIY fundraising), we find the spectrum to be broad and, at times, deep. Connecting and forming relationships among peers certainly expands the profundity of an action, but we cannot discount the power in individual (digital) hand-raising, either — especially when we’re trying to build affinity and loyalty. Small public acts like “Yes, I agree” have a huge effect on a millennial who is just starting to explore how they feel about an issue, let alone act for those affected.
  3. Concurrent digital and non-digital activism reinforce and build on each other. Millennials believe in the power of activism and move toward greater actions by using their voice in addition to other assets they hold. At the same time, they believe they can be an activist in small ways that make a big impact, such as donating online and/or offline and talking to their friends about it — again, online and/or offline. Online forums can be great places for inspiring activism, and they are organized online and off. From posts to petition signing to hosting small talks in digital and non-digital environments, their activism happens all across the spectrum of participation.
  4. SEO and search queries relate to the issue, not the organization. People who care about an issue will search for information on that issue before they look for a specific organization potentially related to it. They want to help people or animals or the environment, not organizations. Your website needs to be seen as a resource for educational information and advocacy resources. Digital ads and boosted posts can drive visitors to these resources. Tech can improve your site’s organic visibility for millennials through optimization, auditing, user testing, and keyword research.
  5. Online and in-person, it’s a journey. We’ve learned that millennials are what we call “everyday changemakers.” For them, mixing online and offline cause-related actions is a daily, ongoing journey with no straight path of engagement you can plot. Rather, millennials move in and out of participation; they use tech to enhance their offline experiences, and they use their offline actions as shareable experiences and knowledge. They begin their participation simply and easily, then become more deeply engaged over time.

Tech can bridge the offline and online worlds millennials act within today rather than be a supplement for the other. As we have said time and again, expecting millennials to move along the traditional paths of passive to active engagement is a crucial mistake — which means we cannot force them to move within traditional organization structures, either.

Today, young Americans may enter a cause at almost any point on the engagement path and move back and forth along it. This means your organization must be flexible, adaptable, and highly responsive. Supportive tech underlying all these new approaches and opportunities may mean the difference between the organizations that truly stand out and those that continue to react.

Download Understanding How Millennials Engage With Causes and Social Issues: Insights From 10 Years of Research Working in Partnership With Young Americans on Causes Today and in the Future at themillennialimpact.com/latest-research.

We’ve heard from numerous partners and individuals within the NTEN community interested in learning more about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As our CEO Amy Sample Ward noted here, “We will continue to move forward so we can better be part of the world we want to see and meet our own vision of a more just and engaged world.”

If your organization is preparing to take similar steps, here’s a helpful outline below for planning and structuring your workplace goals.

This article was originally published by The Management Center. It is republished here with permission.

Goals are a concrete way to drive results, but how can you be sure to do it equitably? Introducing… SMARTIE goals! Adding an equity and inclusion component (that’s the IE part!) to your SMART goals is like putting avocado on a sandwich—come for the health benefits, stay for the life-changing impact (and don’t ever go without it again)!

For a goal to be effective in driving an organization’s performance, it needs to be:

Strategic – It reflects an important dimension of what your organization seeks to accomplish (programmatic or capacity-building priorities).
Measurable – It includes standards by which reasonable people can agree on whether the goal has been met (by numbers or defined qualities).
Ambitious – It’s challenging enough that achievement would mean significant progress; a “stretch” for the organization.
Realistic – It’s not so challenging as to indicate lack of thought about resources or execution; possible to track and worth the time and energy to do so.
Time-bound – It includes a clear deadline.
Inclusive – It brings traditionally marginalized people—particularly those most impacted—into processes, activities, and decision/policy-making in a way that shares power.
Equitable – It includes an element of fairness or justice that seeks to address systemic injustice, inequity, or oppression.

Here’s an example of a SMART goal turned SMARTIE:




By incorporating IE into your goals, you can make sure that your organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is anchored by tangible and actionable steps. There’s a fine line between inclusion and tokenism. What’s the difference? Power. In most cases, it’s not enough to tack on “…and x number of volunteers/new hires/spokespeople should be people of color” unless the people you’re trying to include will be able to influence the work in a meaningful way.

SMARTIE goals are about including marginalized communities in a way that shares power, shrinks disparities, and leads to more equitable outcomes.

Want to get started? Download this SMARTIE goals worksheet.

Here at NTEN, we are always looking for ways to make our programs, services, and spaces more accessible and welcoming to our communities.

As part of our continuing efforts to improve the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference, we need your help! We are creating an Accessibility Committee, that will identify ways for us to make the 19NTC more welcoming – both online and onsite.

It’s vital that we get good community representation in this committee, so they can guide us as we strive to be better.

See our accessibility page for some of the elements the committee will address, and read about our specific needs and sign up at our commitment page.

We will be accepting applications until September 28.

Social media is not going anywhere. And for nonprofit organizations, having a social presence is necessary for marketing, communication, networking, and brand awareness. If you’re a new organization or your social presence has been lackluster, how exactly do you build a social presence?

The best way to build your social presence involves three key concepts: consistency, clarity, and community. By incorporating each of these principles into a social presence strategy plan, you’ll have consistent content to share, provide a clear message about your work and your mission, and connect to and network with the community you serve.

1. Consistency

Becoming consistent with your social presence is important—not only for making sure that you are posting on a regular basis, but also so you’re consistent with your content. A great way to stay on top of being consistent is to establish a monthly content calendar.

When planning your content calendar for each month, keep these three questions in mind:

  • What type of content do we want to post each week?
  • Which platforms do we want to post on each week?
  • How often do we want to post each week?

Due to the use of algorithms on most social networks, you want to make sure to post at least once each day to help increase the chances of your content being seen. However, this does not mean just posting any picture, quote, or video just for the sake of having the content posted.

Always remember that it is important to be consistent with posting at the times that your audience is most engaged. Your content should have a “call-to-action” for them to comment on, share, or like. Be consistent with using hashtags that relate to the post as well as your organization’s personality.
Tenelle Bailey quote

When building a consistent social presence, you need to also be consistent with your social branding. Your organization has built-in branding items that should be used across social media, such as logos, colors, and font. Make sure to remain consistent with adding these elements (where possible) to establish a clear, branded theme that is woven throughout your social presence.

Additionally, your organization should decide on a few main hashtags that you will use when posting content across social networks. This will allow for your content to create a branded, identifiable, and searchable social presence. For example, when posting to Instagram for SISGI Group, we always try to include the hashtags #sisgigroup, #nonprofitorganization, #socialchange and #nonprofitleadership. Take some time to research the hashtags used most often in your nonprofit’s area of focus and use them frequently.

2. Clarity

Building your social presence also means that you must be clear on the “Why?” when it comes to the reason that your organization is using certain social networks and what type of content should be posted.

There are few things to keep in mind when when setting up your social network profiles, creating, and curating content to share:

  • What does your organization want to accomplish on social media?
  • Who is your target audience, and what are you here to help them with?
  • What voice does your organization want to present on social media? Humorous, conservative, emotional, etc.

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you maintain a clear social media strategy as well as help you connect to the right audience for your work.

3. Community

The concept of building a community on social networks should be one of the main reasons that your business or organization would want to be on social media.

Although social media networks are a great place to promote and bring awareness to your organization, these days most of the social network platforms encourage “authentic community building.”

This means that the information being posted by your business or organization is perceived to be beneficial to potential followers, and is not perceived to be salesy or spammy. Similar to real life, where constantly talking about yourself and how great you is frowned upon, you don’t want to do this in a social networking space either. Think instead of building your social presence by creating two-sided conversations through your posted content.

When you create a consistent social media presence, you’ll find it easier to engage and connect with the community you serve. However, that community will not grow if you do not build upon your consistency and clarity, within your content strategy. Knowing how to balance the content that your organization shares and what content to share will help you to effectively build your social presence while building your community.

Refer to this content sharing chart to help you maintain a balanced content strategy:


Now it’s time to put these tips into action.

  1. Establish a workspace that all of your team can use to upload images, notes, and other useful attachments or information that should be shared. We’ve created a helpful template if you’re looking for inspiration.
  2. Decide on your organization’s branding concepts, social voice (emotional, serious, humorous, etc.), and posting schedule.
  3. Start planning monthly content on the calendar, keeping in mind the 3 C’s: consistency, clarity, and community.
  4. Post and repeat.

In April 2017, the Sierra Club joined hundreds of other organizations in the Peoples Climate March (PCM) in Washington DC and across the country. Together, organizations turned out over 300,000 people to protest the Trump Administration’s attacks on clean air, clean water, and our climate.

This was actually the second Peoples Climate March—the first was in New York City in September of 2014. We learned a lot about how to amplify mass mobilizations on social media during the first event, but three years is a long time in internet years. Since then the world has seen the rise of Facebook Live, Snapchat, and a massive public resistance movement, made more visible through events like the Women’s March this past January.

This year, we combined the lessons of 2014 with some new strategies and a bit of trial and error to successfully cover the March on social media. Here are just a few things we learned along the way:

1. Stay on message—meaning the coalition’s message, not your own agenda.

A mass mobilization isn’t a branding opportunity—it’s about mobilizing supporters around the issue. Everyone (the social team, the media team, celebrity supporters, etc.) needs to understand and agree to what the messages for the day are. It’s easy to harm relationships with partners and supporters by posting something that clashes with your message and values. We held a messaging training for our staff who were covering the PCM on social media to ensure everyone was on the same page.

2. Use a variety of voices and perspective to tell the story of the day.

You have to remember that you’re not always the best messenger. If you have a large audience, you should be elevating posts from smaller or less visible members of the coalition. Go out of your way to make sure you are highlighting a diversity of voices from other organizations, different communities—especially front-line communities, and people in the crowd.

Assign one or two people to monitor conversations happening online with your supporters and also checking out traditional media sources. During this year’s March, CNN tweeted a stunning timelapse during the event. It was inspiring for us to see and great for us to share with our community; the video received overwhelmingly positive replies and favorites from our followers and a lot of reshares.

3. Be everywhere.

“For the first PCM [in 2014] we had three, maybe four people running all the Sierra Club social media for the event. It worked, but there were a lot of ‘quick saves’ going on, like finding a coffee shop with wifi to transmit because it was impossible to get a signal. And we mostly captured content that we used immediately.

This time, we had 12 people just capturing content, so inconsistent signals weren’t as much of an issue. We still had a queue of quality content to choose from, so we could take a more editorial perspective and support more social channels.” – Bharat Kusuma, Digital Community Manager

4. You don’t need fancy equipment.

You’ll definitely want professional videographers and some high quality photography happening at the event, but mostly for future use. For the PCM, our team on the ground used their own phones for everything.

We had looked into what we could do to make sure they’d always have a signal, but really there wasn’t much. Satellite hot spots would would be running through the same cell towers, so there wasn’t enough benefit to justify it.

5. Have a command center.

“Most members of our core social team weren’t actually at the march; they were holed up in a hotel room with good WiFi a few blocks away, which became our command center.

Our role online was mainly editorial and moderation. We also did our best to troubleshoot as we went along—checking in with some of the staff working the march itself to find out what was going on when using radios. Getting that to work took a little longer to get going than we planned. If we hadn’t had multiple folks in the control room, it would have been a bigger problem because you can’t easily play editor and do technical troubleshooting at the same time.” – Heather Moyer, Senior Content Producer

6. Look beyond the social media team.

We have a relatively small social media team for a large organization, but even with a large team, it’s worthwhile to recruit staff and volunteers to be in the crowd capturing content for social media.

There are plenty of people who aren’t social media professionals who have great social savvy and personal reach. These are the people you want out there getting good stories and pictures and talking with people. They’re motivated, and not intimidated about the responsibility and can roll with it when something unexpected happens.

Things will go wrong, and you need your people on the ground to know that you may not be able to respond to them individually, but they can just keep going — posting, streaming, tweeting, being in the moment.

7. Be crystal clear on roles before the event.

“We’re getting better at this. The important thing is to make sure that everyone is clear regarding who has final decision making authority on what gets posted and what doesn’t, or if something has to come down—but hopefully that’s a last resort. You have to train the team days and weeks in advance on both organization and mobilization event guidelines, and make sure anyone who doesn’t normally have access to post content knows how to properly engage that day.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy

8. Facebook Live can be tricky but really resonates with people.

“Your signal will probably be shaky so use it when you’ve got a good one. Just jump in. People love it. You can narrate the event, move around and show different aspects of it, interview people. The energy is contagious. For this event, 5 minutes seemed to be a sweet spot, but shorter broadcasts were useful too, because we could add more specific descriptions to the individual posts.” – Emma Cape, Online Organizer

9. Work with big social media organizations to amplify the message (they appreciate it).

“We were lucky to be able to partner with Snapchat for their coverage of the march—mostly because we had something to offer them as well: the inside scoop, lots of our folks on the ground. It created an opportunity to build a relationship with Snapchat that we hope will create more editorial opportunities in the future. It also gave us an opportunity to create content optimized for a younger audience, and they were great to work with too.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy


Mass mobilizations have grown so much more powerful through social amplification. The stories are all around—you just need a few people to collect them, the desire to raise marginalized voices (not just your own), a clear game plan, and a hub to manage it all.

What are your barriers to implementing digital literacy programs at your organization? We addressed this question in the panel we presented at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference: “Same Issues, Different Contexts: Digital Literacy in Schools, Libraries and Housing.”

All four of us have worked across sectors in housing, schools, and libraries and found the same barriers to digital literacy throughout. We facilitated a discussion among attendees, who also came from varying backgrounds, and found some common themes.


Lack of knowledge of what digital inclusion is

There is an assumption that everyone has access to technology. This was brought up by attendees who referenced attending local government meetings where officials made comments implying that everyone should be able to access the internet. Other attendees focused on the need to educate community members; one person even created a tutorial on digital literacy education. Another suggested tying issues of digital inclusion to community priorities around workforce development.

Barriers in libraries

One panelist, Stacy Vincent, spoke about barriers from her personal experience as a librarian. Much of her job as a public librarian is spent putting out fires and doing behavior management, so setting aside time for training and addressing digital literacy falls to the bottom of the list. Other librarians from the audience mentioned that many librarians aren’t trained to help patrons with these issues.

Practical issues: child care and transportation

Another panelist, Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, teaches refugees how to use the computer. She told a story of how one student had to bring her child to class due to lack of childcare. The child sat under a desk while the student gave her toys to occupy her during the lesson. Childcare was an issue brought up by other panel-goers. Other practical and logistical issues such as transportation and lack of English skills to particulate fully in digital literacy trainings were cited as barriers to digital literacy programs and effectiveness.


A factor affecting all organizations was lack of funding. This large elephant in the room was pointed out by both panelists and attendees. Funding can be limited, very restricted, and not secure. One attendee who works in a nonprofit brought up that foundations do not understand what digital inclusion issues are. Others brought up barriers such as metrics to show success and how to share stories of digital inclusion.


Digital literacy is part of all our fights, and although there are barriers, there are also solutions. One solution that goes beyond context is communicating the importance of the work being done. The panelists asked attendees to draft a Tweetable elevator pitch talking about what they do.

Panelists suggested additional solutions, such as building relationships or creating mentoring programs like the Ready, Set, Connect! youth program in Oakland Public Library. Other solutions brought up by attendees were getting help for childcare from existing after-school programs, using volunteers for one-on-one tech assistance, and addressing digital skills training as part of staff professional development.

During the panel, it was reiterated that issues of digital literacy are issues across different organizations. One of the panelists, NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellow Jamie Littlefield spoke on the importance of digital literacy work: “If you fight for literacy, digital inclusion is part of your fight. If you fight against poverty, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.”



During the panel, Shauna Edson shared some of her favorite digital inclusion resources to help address barriers:

For more information about this panel and discussion, see the collaborative notes.


Being part of NTEN’s Digital Inclusion Fellowship has led me to do some really cool stuff. I support digital inclusion efforts from the ground up: from recruiting and training skilled technology volunteers to finding innovative ways of connecting adult learners to San Antonio’s changing digital landscape. Best of all, I’ve counted on some great local support from my City Host, the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL), and our national network of Fellows.

So what exactly have I been up to?

During my Fellowship year I’ve coordinated the launch of a pilot hotspot check out program, developed a technology volunteer training, integrated digital literacy into multiple workforce development programs, planned San Antonio’s first Digital Inclusion Summit and even taught seniors the ins and outs of online dating. But we’re not done yet! To celebrate Digital Inclusion Month, we kicked off a new program in May 2017 which will allow San Antonio Housing Authority residents to earn a device by taking computer classes.

I’m very proud of the concerted effort SAPL staff, partners, and volunteers have made to expand our digital literacy offerings and am eager to share our insights into digital inclusion.

Working together to address inequity

San Antonio, as big cities go, is pretty average when it comes to prosperity and distress according to the “Distressed Communities Index from the Washington D.C.-based Economic Innovation Group. Where we stand out, however, is our segregation and inequality. San Antonio leads the nation when it comes to extreme differences between our most prosperous neighborhoods and our most distressed.

This inequality and segregation marginalizes low-income San Antonians in all aspects of life and reflects the nation’s broadband divide: more than 80% of households in higher-income areas north of downtown and in northern suburbs have broadband, while in areas west of Interstate 10 and within the urban core, fewer than 20% of households have access. San Antonio’s more affluent residents are four times more likely to have access than lower-income residents.

The digital divide is just one of many hurdles our city’s population is facing, and a multifaceted issue requires multifaceted approaches.

Bringing digital inclusion to the least equal city in the United States is no small feat, especially in a city where low-income residents are also more likely to be hampered by lack of basic literacy, including text literacy, numeracy and financial literacy, and digital literacy. Estimates of illiteracy among San Antonio’s adult population range from 11% to 25%, meaning that up to one in every four San Antonians is functionally illiterate.

In San Antonio, the digital divide is just one of many hurdles our city’s population is facing, and a multifaceted issue requires multifaceted approaches. Digital inclusion is often depicted as a three-legged stool with training, broadband access, and devices as its interdependent legs. During my Fellowship year I have aimed to keep this model in mind, understanding that no single entity can resolve this issue alone.

Any concerted effort to close the economic divide that impacts our city must have digital inclusion as an integral part of that plan. 78% of middle-skill jobs now require digital skills. Digital literacy must be included in our capacity-building efforts in order for all residents of San Antonio to be included in this “city on the rise.”

Transforming digital inclusion in San Antonio

In the last year I have seen San Antonio bring digital inclusion to the forefront of its concerns as it begins implementing smart city approaches that promise more efficient, effective, and responsive governments. We as a city understand that without digital inclusion, smart cities could ultimately result in a perpetuation of existing inequities.

As a proactive measure, in 2015 San Antonio Mayor Ivy R. Taylor created and allocated funding to the Digital Inclusion Initiative (Di2) whose overall goal is to provide opportunity to San Antonians in communities that struggle to have access to affordable broadband, devices, and training. Rather than duplicate efforts, Di2 has focused heavily on building on work already being done and engaging both internal (City of San Antonio) and external partners.

We should view digital inclusion not as a new undertaking, but rather an opportunity to double down where our organizations excel and seek partnerships where we don’t.

Through this effort, the San Antonio Public Library benefited from partnerships in multiple sectors as we hosted the city’s first Digital Inclusion Summit in March 2017. Partners included local and national entities such as the Office of the Mayor, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Google Fiber, EveryoneOn, and ConnectHome. This symposium versed attendees on best practices from cities across the nation and provided networking opportunities for internet service providers, funders, and local organizations working to bridge the digital divide.

As a result of these conversations, starting in May 2017 San Antonio Housing Authority residents will be able to earn Windows devices refurbished by Goodwill Industries at no cost to them by attending digital literacy classes at any San Antonio Public Library location.

These are the types of approaches that signal our city’s vested interest in digital inclusion and a dedication to strategically partnering to maximize our efforts. The biggest lesson here is that we should view digital inclusion not as a new undertaking, but rather an opportunity to double down where our organizations excel and seek partnerships where we don’t.

Integrating digital inclusion

The most successful element of my project with the San Antonio Public Library has been our integration of digital inclusion into other staff, volunteer, and community programs.

First, I launched a new technology volunteer position and training program focused on empowering SAPL volunteers to lead informal interactions with new computer users. The Technology Volunteer Program has created an additional pool of trained individuals who can assist patrons in SAPL public computer labs.

By having these volunteers available at SAPL job fairs, we have been able to assist 198 patrons register online with the Texas Workforce Commission, start job applications, and take assessment tests. In February 2017 a job fair attendee met recruiters in person, was assisted in filling out the online job application by our volunteers, and was hired on the spot. He started a full-time position the next day.

We also piloted a hotspot checkout program at six locations, which allowed adult learners the opportunity to connect to the internet from home for up to three months. Though we are still collecting survey data, initial feedback from participants has been positive. One patron was able to continue his online job search outside of library hours and successfully found a position. Another patron remarked: “The hotspot program made it evident the resources my local area is lacking. Since we are not within range of a decent internet provider, we do not have access to basic services necessary for everyday tasks.”

Be an advocate for digital literacy and work to increase staff buy-in by aligning your programmatic goals with theirs.

Most importantly, craft digital literacy programs around the crucial life moments where your audience may need assistance. Adult learners often realize that they are lacking digital literacy skills once they have an immediate need like job searches and online forms. By offering dedicated computer areas and technology volunteers at our job fairs, we are allowing low digital literacy patrons to start their job hunt on equal footing and maximize their time in our branches. In one day you can meet a recruiter, complete assessment tests and fill out a job application. As job applications move almost entirely online, a job fair with integrated digital literacy elements is a more modern approach.

The biggest lesson here is to meet your audience where they’re at and make digital literacy programs relevant; this goes for staff, volunteers and community members alike. Be an advocate for digital literacy and work to increase staff buy-in by aligning your programmatic goals with theirs. Inform volunteers of the digital inclusion climate and how their volunteerism can make a difference.

In digital inclusion work, we often stress the importance of digital inclusion to things such as education, financial stability and economic mobility, and career advancement. As a Digital Inclusion Fellow at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, I’ve seen firsthand another perk to digital inclusion: community building.

In addition to connecting participants with the vast online communities that exist across a variety of social media platforms, digital inclusion programming can also build capacity in neighborhoods and foster a stronger sense of community.

Digital inclusion builds capacity of neighborhood leaders who acquire new digital literacy skills, devices, or internet access. Classes teach community members how to harness the power of digital resources to leverage assets and engage the community through online organizing. At the Housing Partnership, we’ve developed classes specifically designed to support neighborhood leaders who want to leverage technology for local impact.

Participants show off their certificates.

We’ve all probably heard a grandparent complain about the lack of interaction between neighbors; oh the good ol’ days! But digital inclusion programs can also strengthen relationships between neighbors. When marketed to a specific community and located in the heart of the neighborhood, the classes attract local residents. In a laid-back, fun learning environment, conversations bubble up. Be prepared to witness neighbors, who start the class as strangers, become friends! As they move through the class together, students support one another, laugh together, and begin to build relationships that are key to fostering an engaged community.

So, how can you develop a program that naturally reinforces community building? Every local context will require a unique approach. However, here are some tips based on our experiences at the Housing Partnership that can help get you started:

1. Tap a neighborhood resident to help recruit class participants.

While marketing a class at an apartment complex for seniors, I noticed two ladies who were always busy doing some sort of fun activity in the community room, which they playfully referred to as “their office.” These ladies turned out to be my secret weapon. They easily recruited neighbors, as they were familiar (and persuasive!) friendly faces. Once a resident is on board with your program it can help build trust with other residents in the neighborhood.

2. Hold classes in a convenient location.

Many of our classes are held right in the community room of various apartment complexes. People literally do not need to leave their homes to attend the class (okay, maybe their apartment unit, technically, but still!). The community rooms are not always the ideal setup logistically (note the curtains served as a makeshift projector screen), but it’s a small trade-off for a favorable turnout. Neighborhood churches, recreation centers, or community centers are other good options.

3. Cover topics that support community organizing.

While many students need computer basics to make the most use of other programs, building up to more advanced topics that support neighborhood efforts can be an exciting incentive. Incorporating tools like NextDoor, Google Voice, Canva, and other tools that make community outreach more efficient may reinvigorate community leaders or motivate new ones.

4. Encourage students to support one another throughout the class(es).

It is important to stress all the knowledge that is in the room beyond just the instructors. I often encourage students to help their neighbors if they get stuck. I have found that this creates a laid-back environment where students can laugh and feel comfortable when they are just a tad (or a lot) lost. Offering a class that runs for multiple days instead of one long session also makes a difference. It builds camaraderie amongst a cohort.

5. Celebrate!

Taking time out of the last class to incorporate a community dinner or celebratory cupcakes builds social time into the class where participants can chat in a casual setting. When we hand out certificates during the final class, each student receives a genuine round of applause from their neighbors. I’ve been told that our digital literacy classes have made “taking out the trash and picking up the mail more pleasant,” which is a start!