Four big lessons from the front lines of the digital divide

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Highlights of a Jan. 11, 2017 Digital Charlotte meeting at Johnson C. Smith University, focused on how North Carolina organizations are addressing the digital divide. Moderated by Andrew Au, director of community projects for the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, the panel participants were James Walker, chief executive officer and founder of Informative Technologies; Will Ward, director of enterprise development for E2D; Jill Bjers, executive director and co-captain for Code for Charlotte; and Michael Abensour, executive director, Kramden Institute.

ANDREW AU, DIGITAL CHARLOTTE
Introduce yourself, your organization, your role and how your organization works toward digital inclusion?

JAMES WALKER, INFORMATIVE TECHNOLOGIES
I’m James Walker, founder of Informative Technologies. We’re also partnered with All Green Recycling, which is a zero landfill recycler here. We focus on systemically ending the cycle of e-waste in the digital divide by helping make solutions for a circular economy. What that looks like is open source software running on anything from phones that come in, to laptops, to tablets. And then getting that to those who are trying to make hardware available to those who are behind the digital divide. We’re not necessarily a refurbisher, but what we do is train and create research and development for alternatives to proprietary software to help refurbishing become easier. We also bring in the students from some of the most challenged schools in the system, train them on how to become technologists, build their first computer and then support those computers in their community as they become better at it. So that the answers about how to check email, what’s a spam email, and how to set up a network are done by somebody who lives in your apartment complex and has been trained on doing that.

WILL WARD, E2D
I’m Will Ward with E2D. My primary focus with E2D is building the enterprise of our organization consisting of developing new corporate and community partnerships. Our focus is simple. We want to eliminate the digital divide here in Mecklenburg County. We do that through three primary ways — providing affordable laptops, connectivity, and basic digital literacy training.

JILL BJERS, CODE FOR CHARLOTTE
I am Jill Bjers, co-founder and executive director of Code for Charlotte. We are a civic tech organization and use education, technology and advocacy to promote civic engagement, open government resource and all of the fun open things. As far as digital inclusion goes, we spend a lot of our time opening up government access to programs and resources. But without putting devices in the hands of the people who need those resources, we’re not doing any good. So we’ve done a twice-a-year laptop drive where we collect laptops and then James (Walker) does all the refurbishing. All Green Recycling is matching all of the donations, and then we use the library’s digital literacy program to distribute them to those in need.

MICHAEL ABENSOUR, KRAMDEN INSTITUTE
My name is Michael Abensour and I’m the executive director for Kramden Institute. Kramden has been around since 2003. Our mission is pretty simple. We’re a non-profit and our mission is to end the digital divide by providing technology tools and training. That’s a mission statement that we revised only a couple of years ago. It used to be more focused on just student access, but we realize as we started doing this work, a little deeper in the communities we work with that a lot of people, students need not just access to tools and training and everything else, but connectivity as well.

We do two kind of program areas, the first one is hardware. All the hardware programs are basically taking in donated computers, desktops, laptops, whatever we can get our hands on. We refurbish them in-house by volunteers and staff and then award them, typically, free to students in grades 3-12 who don’t have a computer at home. We also provide low-cost computers to members of the community who don’t have access. We do about 4,000 computers, give or take, annually every year and get those computers out into the community.

The other part is the training side. We’ve only been training for about two years now, but it’s everything from basic digital training — teaching folks how to turn on a computer, say hello to Mr. Mouse, what’s an operating system? How do you go from one operating system to another to another? Because at any one time, we’re all interacting with several. Getting the same basic precepts of safety, how you get on the internet safely, how you share, how you create on the internet. We’re proponents of creating own product and material and not just being consumers of everything that’s being slung at us. That’s the way we encourage students from low-income schools and communities to get more engaged on it. About 1,500 people have gone to our programs the last couple of years. We do basic digital literacy programs in public housing, and we do them in communities who ask us. There’s one model we really like where we bring people to Kramden, train them on digital literacy and then send them back out to their communities with computers — so that they can do this continuously.

Everybody talks about a three-legged digital inclusion stool, which is devices, connectivity, and training. How is this relevant to my life? Were tackling two of the three legs. Connectivity for us, like I’m sure everybody here knows, is an issue. It’s hard to convince the ISPs to give everybody low-cost broadband. It’s always something we struggle with and I hope this, tonight is one of those things where we can get some public pressure on folks to make that more affordable.

ANDREW AU, DIGITAL CHARLOTTE
What is the general process for when someone donates a device, desktop or a laptop to an organization? How do you distribute those devices?

WILL WARD, E2D
At E2D, we truly believe in our partners and truly believe in this community, so we partner with various corporations to receive their decommissioned laptops. In return we take those laptops and we actually re-image and refurbish those devices. We have about seven high school students that we hire part-time and train them on how to reimage and refurbish those devices. We partner with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system and that’s how we’re able to identify the various communities and schools and students to provide those devices, in addition to various community trusted partner organizations.

JILL BJERS, CODE FOR CHARLOTTE
I think you’ll hear the theme running through all of this is community. We all work within our own partners and they’re overlapping, which is awesome. So when you donate a laptop and it comes in through us, and then it’s housed until James is ready for it. Then it goes over to Informative Technologies where the high school interns work on refurbishing it, loading an operating system on it, cleaning it, making sure everything is working and up-to-date.

Then it comes back to me. Then there’s a digital literacy class at the library and at the end of that class we show up and on the last day, we give those laptops away. So it’s a process.

Refurbishing is not our strong suit. It’s important for us to use partners, and because teaching digital literacy is not [a strong suit]. We use the library’s digital literacy class and I think it’s really important to talk about how how important our partners are. Because when we work together, we’re much stronger.

ANDREW AU, DIGITAL CHARLOTTE
Are there other hurdles or obstacles that you face in your organization?

JAMES WALKER, INFORMATIVE TECHNOLOGIES
People have to think about waste differently. I have a bucket of things that are unopened — smartphones, tablets, and things like that from stores. Clothes that don’t sell and eventually are just kind of swept up and thrown away. This is considered to be waste. But if people understood that technology could be used as a renewable resource to create jobs — it can train students who can help these great non-profits here — then it’s almost like looking at it as a piece of gold. You throw it away because you’re not using that lump of gold, but there’s a whole economy for it and that would help all of us with our fundraising. We intersect in so many ways.

WILL WARD, E2D
For us, just awareness that a divide even exists. There are so many individuals who just don’t realize that there’s such a big need. The more organizations and the more corporations that know that their devices have more life, I think that we will be able to truly make a dent in this divide — at least here in Mecklenburg County. One of our biggest challenges is just providing awareness in letting corporations know that there’s extra life to to their devices.

JILL BJERS, CODE FOR CHARLOTTE
Also, finding the right messaging for how we how we securely wipe the data, and make sure that the data left on there isn’t going to be used by somebody else.

MICHAEL ABENSOUR, KRAMDEN INSTITUTE
We had a meeting earlier today with a group that works with refugees and one of the things they said stuck with me. They rely on a computer to Skype back with their families back home. Why should that be a right exclusively reserved to the folks who can afford a computer? Isn’t it’s a basic need?

ANDREW AU, DIGITAL CHARLOTTE
Do you have any examples of how the technology that you are providing has fostered social change?

JAMES WALKER, INFORMATIVE TECHNOLOGIES
I’m chair now of Vance High School’s Academy of Engineering Advisory Board. Probably about 30 students alone in the last school year — almost none of them were familiar technology before, but they’re smart kids, and they would not have ever said, ‘Yeah, I’m a technologist. I’m a geek.’ If you’re an urban kid, there’s no role model there’s nobody’s uncle who works in tech. None of that. We have them take apart a computer and rebuild it about two times and by the second time they can identify everything in terms of what the components are, on their own, with no note-taking. They remember what RAM is, what the storage is. Most of these kids start by not knowing the difference between storage and memory — that was jargon to them — but now they understand it. Then we have them install an operating system and code on it, and they go home and show it to their parents. They realize, ‘My parents think I can fix computers now! How do I fix computers? So now they want to learn more after one-day experience. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’d love to learn how to partner with the other organizations in the schools to say, ‘Here’s how we put together a master plan to turn that light bulb on.”

WILL WARD, E2D
We are excited to announce our West Charlotte Academy which will begin at the end of this first quarter, where we’re going to take our model of having 12 high school students, E2D kids and train them on how to re-image, how to to refurbish the devices that we get. The great thing about this is that these aren’t students that are just volunteering their time. They’re developing a skill, and they’re actually getting the idea building skills they can take beyond the classroom and so that they can actually impact their own communities.

MICHAEL ABENSOUR, KRAMDEN INSTITUTE
We finally got funding for a program called Trail Blazers. It takes middle school kids from communities where there aren’t as many property taxes, so schools don’t have quite as many elective classes. It takes a middle-school kids from a lower socioeconomic background and brings them in for five weeks to Kramden. Over 25 weeks they actually learn the basics of computer hardware and software. We’ve been told, and these kids have been told — ‘Don’t open that computer! Don’t play with that!’ And they come for an hour and a half in the classroom where they learn about this. And then for the second hour and a half we take them to the warehouse. It’s kind of like Mr. Magoo’s magic important computer stuff. Go ahead and touch it. We have thousands more. They’re out there breaking them apart, and they learn to recycle, they learn to triage, they to install an operating system. After five weeks, they do a kind of capstone program where they build their very own home computer and take it home with them.

ANDREW AU, DIGITAL CHARLOTTE
What stands out to you as a key event or experience you’ve done with your organization?

WILL WARD, E2D
One experience I had was with a student, actually a homeless student. We have partnered with the Charlotte Hornets Foundation and Sprint to provide laptops and hot spots to students. There’s this and there’s high school senior who we provided a laptop to. He asked me, ‘Is this my monitor? Do I have to return it?’ And I said, ‘No, this is yours. You get to keep this.’ And it was just that moment that I realized that the device means so much more. I could see in his eyes that he that he knew that someone cared enough about him and that he could have ownership and it was just an incredible experience.

MICHAEL ABENSOUR, KRAMDEN INSTITUTE
North Carolina has a lot of military bases. There are a lot of military personnel here. I never realized this, but you think they would have an in-house computer they are allowed to use. But the problem is that the Department of Defense laptop you’re not allowed to touch a thing on. So need a computer for their kids. They’re some of the most appreciative families I’ve ever come across. I mean they just light up when they get a computer. They’re so happy to have it, and their kids are thrilled. These events are so so important, and about 10 percent of our computers on average go to military families. I wish we could do more with them.

ANDREW AU, DIGITAL CHARLOTTE
What would you like to say or encourage the Digital Inclusion community here in this room, and out in Charlotte and watching online?

JAMES WALKER, INFORMATIVE TECHNOLOGIES
I think that coming together like this is extremely helpful because you can hear echoing in different ways. One sector might be dominated by somebody sitting a couple of seats down but if all of us are hitting on all cylinders we could really make some connections.

If we get Johnson C. Smith University, where you have smaller colleges or community colleges trying to introduce working-class people to high-growth, high-paying jobs…. As I said before, this is a renewable resource. If you want more renewable resources to be in your city, more giving creates more opportunities for these non-profits to create the training in the pipeline. It also creates technology that can be done that’s relevant. You don’t have to have driverless cars and drones and landing rockets backwards in the middle of the ocean to get your family connected. But that could be your job and that’s innovation right there. Getting these local institutions of higher learning to be on board, I think would be something that we could have a shared voice.

WILL WARD, E2D
I’m going to ask two questions. By show of hands, who has a cellphone? Second question, by show of hands, has there ever been a time that you forgot your cellphone or misplaced your cell phone? Do you know that feeling you get when it’s gone when you you can’t make the phone call that you need to make? Or you can’t GPS directions that need to be made? There are so many students that have that same feeling every single day in the classroom. Technology truly is a great equalizer and making sure that we close this divide ensures that our economy is going to grow stronger. It’s a breeding ground for innovation, and it provides a sense of self-worth. So I encourage everyone to engage with some of the organizations that you’ve heard about today and find out how you can lend your services, your skills, your devices, your connections. Because for this to to be achieved for us to end this divide it’s going to be a team effort.

JILL BJERS, CODE FOR CHARLOTTE
It’s all about community, and there’s lots of work to be done. There’s no way the four of us can complete it on our ownm, and there are probably at least eight organizations we’re working with. But if you’ve got something sitting in your closet waiting, you can provide a solution for one family. That’s one more family, and that’s amazing. It’s so easy that to chip away at this. I feel like a lot of time we sit around and wait for these giant solutions. You bet that nobody wants to do anything until you can solve a problem for 500 families. And in that time frame there are families sitting there need our help but we could do the small things and chip away at it. If we can work together to make a difference in even 10 families, that is a huge success.

MICHAEL ABENSOUR, KRAMDEN INSTITUTE
The fact that there are Fortune 500 companies out there who are not giving up computers, all their refresh stuff instead is going to for-profit recyclers who are then shredding it or reselling it — that to me is a huge shame. That’s awful. That those computers and those devices could have a second extended life. We’re not talking one or two devices. We’re talking 10,000 or 20,000. Those companies need to look at themselves and say, ‘You know what, we can make an impact. We can make a huge impact.’ Can you imagine if each of us here got 10,000 or 20,000 computers that we could refurbish and then put back into the community? You’re not just talking about crossing the digital divide. You’re talking about making a big bridge over it, something that’s really sturdy and going to make an impact.

Jayda Brown and Ciara Shupe are student interns in the Digital Charlotte program, headquartered at the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte.