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Bridget Jackson, Senior Public Affairs and Communications Advisor and NTEN board member12/21/2022

The internet has reshaped the way we live our lives and governs how we obtain employment, education and many other essential services. However, some communities are caught in the widening digital divide. This connectivity gap stems from inequities rooted in long-term disinvestment in broadband infrastructure – known as digital redlining – and currently impacts an estimated 42 million Americans, according to the National League of Cities' Digital Equity Playbook
 
The lack of digital equity has become an opportunity and a challenge for community development organizations and housing providers alike. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations found themselves struggling to address the needs of residents who were suddenly facing the burden of obtaining affordable broadband connectivity while simultaneously trying to keep their families fed, sheltered and healthy. In many instances, the organizations themselves were sidelined by their own existing broadband infrastructure deficiencies, further complicating efforts to remain a lifeline for their service areas. 
 
NeighborWorks America's annual NeighborWorks network surveys found during the pandemic that at least 16 network organizations had pivoted to add internet access for employees and residents. Emergency grants from NeighborWorks helped organizations boost online access for their now-at-home employees and helped provide emergency access to devices for families until more permanent solutions could be sourced. Meanwhile, organizations like NeighborWorks Laredo made grants to two local veteran organizations to help with food and internet assistance. NeighborWorks Green Bay mentioned in the survey that its priority was closing the digital divide, a goal that NeighborWorks network organizations continue to center as they move forward.
 
Getting started: The differences between digital equity and digital inclusion
 
For housing and community development organizations that are starting efforts in this area, it is important to know the differences between the terms "digital equity" and "digital inclusion." The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) defines these terms as follows:
 
Digital equity: The condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.
 
Digital inclusion: The activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of information and communication technologies.
 
The ways in which the lack of residential internet access impacts service should be fully assessed as well. How are nonprofit programs and service delivery affected by the digital divide? What parts of residents' lives remain impacted? The list is extensive:
  • Education: After-school homework help, computer lab learning, workforce training programs and English as a second language classes.
  • Healthcare equity/access: Telehealth check-up visits (such as those for prescription refills), online psychological counseling and supportive housing community needs (such as drug and alcohol/social work referrals).
  • Social/physical well-being: Maintaining consistent community interaction with neighbors and families (for example, older adults and disabled individuals facing ongoing social isolation in their homes), ability to receive personal care services and food deliveries and more. 
  • Financial services: Banking, access to credit counseling, financial capability and foreclosure mitigation programs, basic document signing and data retention needs.
  • Economic development: Remote office workers, opportunities for economically displaced residents to participate in small business entrepreneurship opportunities.
Understanding digital redlining
 
As household broadband use grew during the early 2000s, there was a prevailing belief that the lack of access was limited to rural locations. While it is true that rural communities' online connectivity remains behind the capacity of urban and suburban areas, rural connectivity has improved since 2015. 
Today, about 75% of rural households are online. According to the County Health Rankings report, 79% are connected in the most segregated urban counties, but research shows access is worse in areas that NeighborWorks America also defines as areas of persistent poverty. It is these segregated areas for whom limited internet access is an illustration of systemic racism that has added layers to the historical disadvantages for low-income neighborhoods, and particularly communities of color, researchers say.
 
Discrimination by internet service providers in the deployment, maintenance or upgrade of infrastructure or delivery of services is not solely an urban versus rural issue. The denial of broadband services has disparate impacts on people in certain areas of cities or regions, most frequently on the basis of income and profit potential. Research has shown that having reliable broadband access is related to social determinants of health, adding to factors that nonprofit community development organizations have been connecting to affordable housing for decades.
 
A 2017 digital redlining analysis in Cleveland, Ohio by the NDIA and the Cleveland-based Connect Your Community found that Ohio's suburban AT&T customers typically experienced speeds of at least 18 megabits per second and sometimes up to 1 gigabit per second. Pockets of Cleveland's lowest-income neighborhoods lacked behind at 768 kilobits per second to 6 megabits. 
 
Interim solutions
 
At the federal level, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was enacted in 2021, providing $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which is the successor program to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB Program). The Affordable Connectivity Program  played an integral role in addressing affordability barriers to broadband access and adoption by providing qualifying low-income households with a monthly discount of up to $30 a month (or up to $75 for households residing on qualifying tribal lands). 
 
As of Summer 2022, 1,550 broadband providers participated in the Affordable Connectivity Program, and more than 12 million households are currently enrolled. At present, despite nationwide outreach efforts, a large number of qualifying households have not yet enrolled in the program. As a result, millions more low-income households are still grappling with being digitally invisible, presenting an important equity issue for the nonprofits that serve these households. 
 
Organizations are now accepting the reality that they must be able to understand, use and share new opportunities for digital equity and inclusion within the affordable housing/community development industry. This is especially true for community building and engagement programs, for which resources available to the organizations encountering challenges in achieving digital equity in their service areas can make resident participation a rather significant challenge.
 
In 2022, a collaborative effort between NeighborWorks America and NDIA created an innovative learning cohort poised to address the digital inclusion process, home connectivity, devices and digital skills. Part of the cohort is training "digital navigators" to work with community members one-on-one, in classroom settings or groups, acting as "caseworkers" as opposed to IT support desk representatives. Their work can include helping users with selecting the right device for the right activity or accessing and applying for low-cost internet programs. They may also distribute or facilitate the acquisition of low cost, quality devices. Sarah Kackar, director of Rural Initiatives at NeighborWorks America, is part of the leadership team organizing beginner and intermediate cohorts, totaling up to 60 NeighborWorks network organizations across the country. 
 
The program is designed to "meet nonprofits where they are at" in the digital equity spectrum, Kackar shares. "Now that we are about to launch our second year of supporting NeighborWorks network members in the digital equity space, we are excited to take the feedback and insight gained from our inaugural group last year, which has led to the development of specific training courses for an intermediate-level audience in addition to the existing beginner-level digital navigator program."
 
The cohort is also incorporating "office hours" with NDIA experts "so that organizations can be supported in their own individualized, technical assistance needs along the way while fostering increased peer connections."
 
For Kackar, feedback from last year's cohort proved promising for the future growth of the program through funding via the Infrastructure Act. "As the digital navigators develop their skillsets, the organizations are becoming very specific about how to make the best use of the funding that's currently available to provide these crucial services to communities," she says. "It's inspiring to witness the development of our affiliates' knowledge as they tie in resident and community stakeholder engagement needs surrounding digital equity, and then apply it to the financial and city/state/federal partners that are also integral to continue the growth of digital equity needs in our communities."
 
Southwest Solutions, a NeighborWorks network member based in Detroit, is in the intermediate learning cohort. Team members say they are excited to support learners in attaining their digital literacy goals while providing supportive services, such as access to affordable connectivity solutions and devices. 
 
"By integrating a digital literacy curriculum into our programs, it helps to mitigate barriers for the clients that we serve, as well as increase their digital skills," members say. Clients are able to access more health, education or employment resources, many of which have online applications. "All of these things combined help increase the odds of success for our participant. This is so important to help our community meet their goals and further our mission of helping families reach greater economic success."."
 
Sustainable digital equity and inclusion in communities works best when local governments and community development organizations tap into their city's diverse collective strengths while building stronger engagement initiatives. Before this can be accomplished, however, these entities must first identify and then address the root causes of digital inequity in their cities and municipalities, define interim solutions to equitably engage with all residents and commit to initiatives aimed at ending the digital divide. 

Bridget Jackson is a board member for NTEN, an organization that connects people who are putting technology together for social change. 




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