by Lidia Flores, via The Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship: A Participatory Action Research Project, published by benton.org
The COVID pandemic has been devastating for families nationwide, and many families have experienced compounded impacts as in-person interactions have become digitized. Consider the experience of Adriana, a monolingual Spanish-speaking single mother in Long Beach, California, who is a low-wage essential worker. When asked about her experience with accessing and navigating technology, she shared this:
I work as an hourly worker in the retail industry, and I’m doing my best to work as many hours as I can while raising my two young children. Since schools closed due to the pandemic, the shift to online learning has really affected my children. I have internet service at home, but it’s too expensive, even though it’s the most basic plan. My children frequently experience internet connection issues during their classes, and their teachers have noticed they are less interested and not performing as well. I’m doing everything I can to help my kids, but I feel clueless and frustrated about technology. I know I’m not the only person in this situation, but I feel alone. Community members sometimes mention organizations or programs that help people like me, but I don’t know where to start to learn more and connect with resources. I want to be more present for my children, and I’d love to work from home, but my job is in-person and I’m not familiar with looking online to find a better job. Sometimes I feel like my family is missing out on an entire world online and we’re falling behind.
As society’s dependence on technology increases, families like Adriana’s—in low-income communities and communities of color—continue to struggle to keep up with the shift to online services accelerated by the pandemic. This digital inequity persists due to underlying social and economic inequities as well as a variety of technological factors, including access to and cost of services and technology devices, discrimination toward communities receiving service, and lack of technical training appropriate for diverse communities. Digital equity and inclusion exist when all communities have access to dependable, high-quality internet connections; modern and reliable technology used to access the internet; and free, multilingual technology training tailored to an individual’s experience, skill level, and ability level. Sustainable and intentional digital equity also encourages and creates opportunities for the community to be able to participate in sharing knowledge, power, and support with itself and other communities.
Digital Equity in Practice
If all communities across the country had the equipment, knowledge, and resources to safely navigate and participate in the digital world, people’s quality of life, economic mobility, and participation in democracy would all drastically improve. Families like Adriana’s would be better able to access local and state-level essential services, connect with their local organizations, and even learn about and participate in specific support groups. With proper training, individuals like Adriana would be able 24 to safely research the internet, stay informed with critical news, and better understand the modern dangers of the digital world that their children might be exposed to. Adriana and individuals like her would be better prepared to use job-search websites and get the training needed to move up the career ladder. Civic engagement would increase, as communities would be able to readily contact elected officials, sign virtual petitions, and get involved in local, national, and even worldwide movements. Individuals like Adriana would be able to learn how to get involved in their children’s school board meetings, city council meetings, and worker rights groups.
Community involvement in designing, leading, and sustaining digital equity locally is crucial to making meaningful progress globally. In my conversations with Long Beach community members, three strategies to build digital equity and inclusion at the local level arose:
Community Connectors: Utilizing the Promotora Model
Community-based Long Beach Forward (LBF) designed a project called Community Connectors/ Promotoras Digitales to address digital inequity in Long Beach. Using the proven public-health strategy of deploying “promotoras,” or community health workers, to engage underserved communities in linguistically and culturally relevant ways, LBF provided an opportunity for community members to identify people in need of technology training. The idea was that LBF staff and community members would then work together to identify local high school and college students in regular contact with or proximity to the disconnected individuals to train them in person to use Zoom and relevant devices so that they can participate in LBF’s participatory budgeting process. These local youth would become promotoras and receive compensation for their time for each person they train. At the time of this writing, the project has not yet been implemented due to limited staff capacity, but the promotora model that employs trusted and relatable community members as effective digital trainers is a critical strategy for digital equity.
Nonprofit Organizations: Serving as the Community Hub
Government and private foundation grants can help community-based nonprofit organizations build digital equity in local communities. With sufficient resources, community organizations that are already trusted institutions and messengers can become digital equity hubs, purchasing and distributing hotspots, laptops, and tablets while providing free multilingual and appropriate training to community members of all ages. Through the community hubs, community members can learn more about the local resources for technology, health, employment, and more. Community members who receive training through the nonprofit hubs will be better equipped to train other community members (as in the promotora model) and connect them to the resources they learned about. To best serve the community holistically, the nonprofit organization can work with local groups, libraries, and schools to connect different populations to services in addition to directly meeting the community’s needs. Creating and nurturing digital equity relationships can lead to and sustain a more engaged and supported community.
High School Students:
Adopting the Service-Hour Model Since many high schools require some level of community service as a graduation requirement, students can apply their service hours to receive technology training and provide it to parents and other community members through digital equity events. Parents can learn how to navigate the internet, computer programs, and social media platforms. Participating students can benefit by learning about local community groups, programs, and resources while also developing job skills in information technology. Grants can fund this program and be used to purchase high-quality technology equipment and compensate students for their labor and skills.
If these intentional strategies were funded and implemented in underserved communities, families like Adriana’s would be much better equipped to fully engage with education, democracy, the economy, and their communities. With enough creativity, commitment, and empathy, this country can make monumental strides in supporting all of its residents—regardless of race, class, gender, age, or ability level—to thrive in the virtual world.
Lidia Flores (she/they) is a community organizer with Long Beach Forward. Like the community-based group, Lidia has a vision of race and income that does not determine one’s future in Long Beach, California. Through advocacy and coordination of the community-led participatory budgeting process, they work to build a healthy Long Beach with low-income communities of color by building community knowledge, leadership, and power.