Photo: People who participated in the recent community conversation on defining and understanding digital access

Community Conversation Reflections: The Role of Digital Access in Connecting and Collaborating

Posted on June 23, 2021 by Kiarra Louis, consultant with The Patterson Foundation
In our emerging digital world, digital access is essential to work, learn, and play. Think of how much time you spend working on your desktop or laptop. Consider how many times you reach for your phone to look up a quick fact or connect with friends and family or turn to a streaming service while unwinding. Although COVID-19 has altered our everyday realities, it has emphasized and increased our dependence on our internet connectivity, devices, and the digital skills necessary to achieve our goals and aspirations.

Wanting to learn how members in our community define and understand digital access, we facilitated a virtual 90-minute community conversation. Our question of the day paved the way for a rich and valuable discussion. When asked about the role technology plays in their lives, our peers' answers revealed technology means everything to them! Technology is necessary for their work and in their personal lives to connect, collaborate, and communicate. We are constantly plugged into the digital world.

Unfortunately, not everyone in our community has the privilege of being fully connected in a meaningful way. Being fully connected means having three essential elements: connectivity, devices, and skills and support. Lacking one or more of these elements creates difficulties and frustrations for individuals and families, especially for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed (ALICE) populations.

Interestingly, even those who consider themselves connected experience several challenges, which they openly shared. For example, subscribing to internet services is costly. You don't always feel like you're getting what you paid for, especially when experiencing internet bottlenecks and slow or lagging internet speeds. As a result, there is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that our peers feel yet also accept.

If those who are connected face the aforementioned issues and more, then we can't help but imagine how those who are disconnected confront even more challenges. We who have the privilege of being connected do not fully understand what it means to be disconnected. We know the disparities exist, but that is not the same as being in their shoes. While we wish to "unplug" for a time and free ourselves from the burden of constantly being immersed in the digital world, others desperately search for a way to "plug in" to reap the benefits of digital access. In other words, on the steps to digital access, those who are connected are near the top, whereas those who are disconnected are not on the staircase at all. They need our helping hands to help them take that first step.

Digital access is all about bringing those who are not connected onto the staircase of digital access so they too may be fully connected. Our conversation pivoted from challenges to opportunities as our peers shared the positive changes they believe can address digital access. Some of their ideas include cross-collaboration among individuals and community stakeholders to develop sustainable strategies and solutions, having genuine conversations in the community, and building awareness. Although resources exist, many people don't know about them, so they can't use them. In addition, we noted that different areas of the region, state, and country have diverse challenges when it comes to digital access. While brainstorming potential solutions to get people digital access and draw awareness, it became clear just how complex the issue is to solve.

Not everyone has the same needs or wants. The digital access needs varied among our small group of twelve, reflecting a much larger picture among individuals, families, children, and older adults in our community. There is no single solution that will work for everyone, but there is work for us to do to connect the disconnected. Closing digital access gaps for our families, neighbors, peers, and co-workers is an opportunity for collaboration and innovation to strengthen our communities.

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