Digital Equity is Essential and Transformational: My Experience with the Digital Access For All InitiativePosted on April 07, 2023 by Jada Ford, 2023 Study Away
Editor's Note: The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and The Patterson Foundation partnered on "The Future of the Philanthropic Sector," a special topics course for the school's students during the spring 2022 semester. The course connects students to The Patterson Foundation's innovative approach to philanthropy and nonprofits in the Sarasota area engaged in the foundation's initiatives.
When COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, individuals, organizations, and communities were trying to rapidly adapt to a new way of life in which meeting with people in person threatened one’s health. However, among various issues across American communities, digital access immediately emerged as a necessity. Without being digitally connected, people could not connect to a variety of services to assist in meeting their needs regarding education, health, employment, and other areas. Unfortunately, many asset-limited, income-constrained, employed (ALICE) families and communities struggled to obtain internet access, computer devices, and training to succeed in this new, technology-driven world. The Patterson Foundation’s Digital Access for All initiative works to address this emerging issue in the 4-county region of Desoto, Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte.
The Digital Access for All initiative hosted an Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) enrollment event at the Betty J Johnson Library. This Federal Communications Commission (FCC) benefit program helps ensure households can afford the broadband they need for work, school, healthcare, and more. So, The Patterson Foundation works with community partners, who designate employees to serve as trained Digital Navigators who attend digital access events and help those who need help obtaining low-cost internet and need access to devices and other resources.
I assisted with check-in surveys and shadowed the Digital Navigators on how they worked with participants to determine eligibility. As I began speaking with those participating in the event, I was deeply moved by the visitors and their diligence in seeking resources to ensure that they were digitally connected for the sake of their families. My heart began to grow heavy as their stories resonated with me; it reminded me of the digital barriers that I experienced as a child when my family couldn’t afford high-quality internet and, in turn, impacted my confidence due to delays in learning.
TPF’s Digital Navigator Program trainer, Maribel Martinez, sat down with me to explain the importance of digital access. Maribel explained that she hadn’t always been involved in digital equity work, but her first career was in education. She recalled living in a time when the internet wasn’t prominent in most people’s lives, but schools progressively transitioned to incorporate technology in their curriculum. She explained that educators received pressure from school district leadership to integrate the Internet into students’ homework assignments; this was in the year 2000. More and more teachers were expected to prove that they were using technology within their curriculum; this luxury was unattainable to some students. Maribel explained that children who did not have an internet connection at home were pressured to arrive at school early in the morning or stay after school, which wasn’t feasible for many parents. She said, “I saw kids fail because they couldn’t do the work at no fault of their own .”Maribel has seen how much of a barrier digital access can be for people, especially young students. She reminded me that the digital divide primarily affects black and brown communities and low-to-moderate-income families. This divide is called digital redlining, in which internet providers provide poorer quality internet but at a higher price. In all, this issue has started ripple effects in lower-income communities because if they cannot have digital access, then it decreases their chances of having the necessary resources pertaining to education, health, food, and employment.
As I listened to Maribel speak about digital equity, I could feel the wheels turning in my head. I have a significant interest in social issues that permeate marginalized communities, but I have been unaware of the role digital access plays. She helped me understand that it’s not just about getting people affordable internet or saving money on their internet bill; it’s about getting people to adopt the necessary 21st-century computing skills.
I learned from Digital Access for All that it is imperative to work with communities to provide these resources to eligible households and meet them where they are. Being part of this initiative was such an eye-opening experience in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember when initiative consultants Cheri Coryea, Kiarra Louis, and Alicia Exantus informed me of the event and asked me about my expectations beforehand. My answers were vague, expressing that I had hoped to learn innovative methods in philanthropy and bring new ideas to my home in Indiana. My expectations were exceeded, and I walked away from the study away experience with a newfound interest in digital equity. I hope to spread the urgency of this message to community leaders.