Diversity & Inclusion
Business / Communities / COVID-19 / Digital access / Municipal government

50 Baltimore orgs are joining together to close the digital divide — during the pandemic, and beyond

With the pandemic making tech access more important, efforts are rising to expand access to devices, internet connectivity and support. The Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition formed to coordinate the response work, and create new long-term initiatives.

Inside an early Byte Back class at Open Works. (Courtesy photo)

This editorial article is a part of Technical.ly's Community Building Month of our editorial calendar.

When a problem is widely felt and deeply entrenched, solving it takes work on many levels.

The efforts of a knowledgable and motivated resident who saw a need and wanted to help her neighbor can play a role in filling a gap, while at the same time a school official is seeking to marshal public resources to implement a strategy that crosses the city.

But those different levels of work don’t happen in a vacuum, so collaboration can help to spread information about what’s working and continue to spin up new solutions where needs remain.

That’s on view in Baltimore, as a group of organizations is banding together to address the tech access issues in a city where nearly one-quarter of households lack internet access at home and 18% lack access to a device.

The Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition includes 50 organizations from across the city to address the digital divide that has existed in Baltimore for years, but is being exacerbated in a time when school and work often require device and internet connectivity at home, and gathering points that would provide access like schools and community centers are closed. It brings together nonprofits working on tech access, organizations of parents and teachers working to improve education, foundations, school leaders and government.

They may be on different sides of the equation and look at the need outcomes in different ways — from education to financial access to job readiness to democracy. But there’s a recognition that internet and device access is akin to a utility for society, especially now.

“In so many ways, everyone is affected by digital equity these days, and we want to make sure all voices are heard,” said Adam Echelman, a leader of the coalition and executive of director of Libraries Without Borders, which is working during the pandemic to expand device distribution and Wi-Fi around laundromats where it partnered to bring tech access hubs last year.

And it is setting goals for action:

  • Delivering home internet access to 2,000 disconnected homes and growing public Wi-Fi through approaches that include mesh networks
  • Refurbish at least 2,000 devices for students and workforce development nonprofits, along with identifying inventories of existing devices
  • Creating a tech support hotline to help introduce virtual work and learning to residents participating in workforce training and skills programming

It speaks to the depth of the problem and the urgency of the moment that organizations mobilized to work on the issue quickly during the pandemic. With the new coalition that is forming, there’s a recognition that it will also require collective action. And in a city where efforts tend toward response in specific neighborhoods and specific sectors, the act of coming together is a bold move in and of itself.

With each group bringing strength and expertise in specific areas and many jumping into action to respond to the crisis that’s leaving challenges like students lacking connectivity to keep learning during the school year, the coalition can serve as a coordinating body, help to highlight the work happening by groups on the ground and ultimately lead to new investments, Echelman said.

“One of the important roles that the Digital Equity Coalition plays is to bring new investments to our shared work and to ensure that the folks on the ground and shared work on the ground have the funds and political support to work quickly and effectively especially during this pandemic,” said Echelman.

The policy role was on view last week. The Baltimore City Council and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office enacted a measure allowing City schools to use $3 million from the city’s Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to purchase devices and expand connectivity for students. It provided more funding toward the effort after the school district mounted a big effort to buy 12,000 Chromebooks and 14,000 chargers and put the digital divide alongside boxed meals as a pressing need that was fitting for the special fund.

“Our children need food and they need digital access right now,” City Council President Brandon Scott said at a news conference held April 28, adding that it’s important for students at all levels to get access.

The coalition had sent a letter urging action. During the news conference, it was specifically cited by 1st District City Councilmember Zeke Cohen, who shepherded passage of a Council resolution to address the digital divide on April 13, as he talked about the call from the community.

“It is pretty unprecedented to have 50 groups be able to collaborate on something, and I think that speaks to the energy behind this issue, and also the level of heart, compassion, commitment and organizing strength that exists within Baltimore. That is a hard thing to do,” he said.

It was that kind of sweeping-yet-rapid action that brought the group together. The Monday after schools were closed and companies switched to remote work, Echelman called Kelly Hodge-Williams, Baltimore director for ewaste refurbishing organization PCs for People, and both immediately recognized that the crisis was only going to bring the issue into further relief.

The broad, shared goal on the call was evident, per Hodge-Williams: “We said, our broad goal is that we want to close the digital divide in Baltimore. We know we cant do it alone.”

Others were having similar conversations, and they organized an initial conference call that had more than 30 people on it after the invite got circulated. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and Media Democracy Fund helped provide infrastructure, it has now grown to 50 organizations, with Echelman, Hodge-Williams, Byte Back Baltimore Site Director Chrissie Powell and Digital Harbor Foundation Executive Director Andrew Coy forming the leadership team.

Among the organizations are tech community leaders who have long been working on issues at the center of education and access like Code in the Schools and DigiBmore, the group of local nonprofit leaders that teamed to refurbish and distribute devices through the Baltimore Robotics Center and Rowdy Orb.it, as well as expand internet access with mesh networks via pay-what-you-can ISP Project WAVES. And in the effort to bring the teachers and families into the room with the people who will design solutions for them, Hack Baltimore began hosting a design jam for the effort, said Delali Dzirasa, who chairs that effort and is CEO of downtown digital services agency Fearless, which is also a coalition member.

The problem isn’t only evident to those with tech roots. Teachers’ Democracy Project, a parent-led education advocacy organization, works on systemic issues which has turned a focus toward distributing devices during the pandemic.

“What parents really said they need right now is technology to access distributed learning,” Director Rebecca Yenawine said during a Saturday afternoon collecting device donations outside Impact Hub Baltimore on North Ave. With a waiting list of 300 people, it’s been holding similar drives every weekend since mid-April.

With seven parents teaming to work on the project, she’s coordinating refurbishing of even devices that seem broken with local refurbisher Tyler St. Clare and heading out on weekday afternoons on dropoffs to families. She has found that one device and broadband connection does not full connectivity make, as multiple children and parents in a family need access for school and work at overlapping times during the day.

Usually, they can get a device from a donor to a family in less than a week. With school in session, she said it’s important to get devices into the hands of families as soon as possible.

“I feel a lot of urgency,” she said.

Alongside devices and a broadband connection, it’s worth remembering that the folks getting devices will need support in using them. At Byte Back’s courses on computer foundations, Powell said those who aren’t used to using computers often need help downloading Zoom before they can use the videoconferencing software for virtual learning.

It was these kinds of realities that led to a recognition: “We need to have a resource where all of our adult program and participating students can call a number if they’re not computer savvy,” Powell said.

Now Powell is leading the coalition’s digital skills and help desk support team and the group is working on the hotline that will be available for the folks who receive devices and are in education programs like Byte Back, Strong City Baltimore and South Baltimore Learning Center. It will be staffed both by volunteer technology professionals, and youth who are interning at tech training programs like NPower and YearUp.

Byte Back Baltimore Site Director Chrissie Powell is a leader of the Digital Equity Coalition. (Courtesy photo)

As they got the idea going, coordination led to the recognition of where folks who are ready to act can be most helpful. City schools had set up a support hotline, so they sought to create something filled a gap for a specific audience. And, now, they’ll have the experience of the schools to learn from as they launch.

The effort is one way the coalition can combine resources and launch new solutions today that will also be able to be used by organizations into the future — however distanced it may be. The hotline can start by serving the organizations working directly with adult learners, and then expand to serve all Baltimoreans, Echelman said.

“COVID pushed us to come together, but this is just the beginning. It’s going to take a lot of effort and time beyond the rapid response for us to be able to ensure that everyone in Baltimore has access, has support and has devices. This is going to be work for years to come,” Powell said.

Here’s a full list of the organizations involved:

  • Adoptions Together
  • Advocates for Children and Youth
  • Arts Education in Maryland Schools
  • Baltimoreans for Educational Equity/Leadership for Educational Equity
  • Baltimore City Infants & Toddlers Program
  • Baltimore City Public Schools
  • Baltimore Community Foundation
  • Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance
  • Baltimore Robotics Center
  • Baltimore Teachers Union
  • Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative
  • Baltimore Youth Film Arts
  • BCIT – Smart City Baltimore
  • Byte Back
  • Cash Campaign of MD
  • Center for Urban Families
  • Code in the Schools
  • Coppin State
  • Digital Harbor Foundation
  • Dream Big Baltimore
  • Everyone On
  • Fearless
  • Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
  • Fight Blight
  • Fund for Educational Excellence
  • Greater Baltimore Urban League
  • Hack Baltimore
  • The Helen J. Serini Foundation
  • Inciter
  • Libraries Without Borders
  • Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools
  • Maryland Coalition for Community Schools/MOST
  • Mayor’s Office on Employment Development
  • Media Democracy Fund
  • Neighborhood Design Center
  • NPower Maryland
  • Open Society Institute
  • Open Works
  • PCs For People
  • Project Own
  • Project WAVES
  • Robert W. Deutsch Foundation
  • Rowdy Orbit
  • South Baltimore Learning Center
  • Strong City Baltimore (Adult Learning Center)
  • Teachers’ Democracy Project
  • Tech Policy Institute
  • Wide Angle Youth Media
  • YearUp
Companies: Fearless / Byte Back / Robert W. Deutsch Foundation / NPower / Baltimore City Robotics Center / Code in the Schools / Baltimore City Council / Baltimore City Public Schools / City of Baltimore / Digital Harbor Foundation
Series: Journalism / Community Building Month 2020 / Coronavirus

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