Early in the pandemic, Itha Cao remembers seeing a Facebook photo of a friend surrounded by stacks and stacks of laptops.
Vanessa Buffry, then head of digital inclusion for downtown Pittsburgh’s Neighborhood Allies, was looking for volunteers to help get those laptops into communities where very few existed in each household. While Cao does not have a lot of tech experience in the coding sense, she had contacts in the tech industry that could help facilitate distribution and literacy programs.
“So the call to action was to see if I could help coordinate volunteers, and could I just help to do it myself?” she said.
Cao, one of Technical.ly’s 2022 RealLIST Connectors honorees, volunteered for Neighborhood Allies in 2020 from April to June, and then stepped away to focus on her senior civic innovation specialist job with the City of Pittsburgh. There, she honed her skills in community organizing and advocacy for STEAM and tech startups, including by managing the city-run accelerator PGH Lab. Neighborhood Allies didn’t stay away for long, though: In September 2021, the nonprofit hired Cao as its director of digital inclusion and innovation.
A trajectory of service
Initially Cao, 32, had her sights set on global affairs. She earned her master’s of international development, with a focus on development planning and environmental sustainability, from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
“Whenever I did apply to grad school, I knew that I was always interested in volunteering and giving back to the community,” the Pitt alum said. “I just didn’t know what that looked like.”
A month after graduating, Cao joined the City’s Water and Sewer Authority and managed a $250,000 pilot green infrastructure grant program. The program collected 2 million gallons of stormwater, which prevented it from running into the rivers and polluting the waters, Cao said.
Cao, whose parents emigrated from China in the early 1980s, said her family received government assistance when she was a child, and they didn’t have a lot. Her parents instilled a strong sense of the importance of education, and her family often visited the local library for reading materials. These early memories also planted the importance of community in Cao.
“In terms of giving back to the community, I just think it’s important to be involved in that as a person,” Cao said.
Why digital inclusion matters
With Neighborhood Allies, Cao has been able to work more closely with local community members to boost their computer ownership, computer literacy and internet access — the three pillars she believes are necessary to achieve true digital inclusion or equity. So far, Cao said she has overseen the distribution of about 1,900 laptops to low-income youth and adults in Pittsburgh.
The director learned while working for local government that many adults lack basic computer skills like typing and using a Word document. Educational opportunities teaching those skills, including programs provided by Neighborhood Allies, are crucial for today’s adults and teenagers to be financially independent, to apply for a job completely online and to manage federal benefits, Cao said: “Not knowing how to type is like not knowing how to read nowadays.”
One of Neighborhood Allies’ and Cao’s latest initiatives is managing the two Verizon Community Forward Centers at the YMCA Homewood-Brushton and the Community College of Allegheny County. Cao considers the centers to be makerspaces or innovation hubs for people to access computer labs and collaborate, but the Verizon program also supports other programs like the Financial Empowerment Centers and GOGO, or Get Online Grow Online, which provides free technical assistance to small business owners.
Cao hopes that more large internet providers invest in low-income communities, or offer more affordable internet plans. While she still sees a far road ahead to achieving her three goals in digital inclusion, Cao is hopeful that Pittsburgh can overcome this challenge through collaboration — something she can facilitate through her connections in the government and private sector.
“I think the tough part for me personally is, we could do it all if I just work more hours,” Cao said. “But I think a lot of what Pittsburgh relies on is solid partnerships.”
And sometimes, that collaborative work starts with a Facebook post, and ends with a new career.-30-