Guest column

Houston expert: Three steps community organizations can take to close the digital divide

In times of crisis, communities are disproportionately affected and access to tech is limited. Here's what one organization is doing to bridge that gap. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on low-income communities. On top of job losses and a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, people in disadvantaged neighborhoods face another significant hurdle: access to technology.

In communities like Houston's Fifth Ward, owning a device with internet access can be an almost insurmountable challenge, as residents are 53 percent more likely to lack access to basic technology than the greater Houston area.

Technology has the power to help level playing fields, providing information and resources and even programming and socialization to all who have access, but for communities where the median household income is roughly $18,308, or less than half of Houston's median income, organizations must bridge the gap and support residents' access to and adoption of technology.

Here are three steps the Julia C. Hester House, a community center serving the greater Fifth Ward in Houston, has taken in order to provide successful virtual programming and services to ensure that everyone from children to seniors can benefit.

Provide greater access

The first barrier disadvantaged communities face is access: both to devices and to the internet. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of low-income adults lack a computer, and a majority are not tablet owners. However, many residents have access to landlines and smartphones, offering a starting point for virtual engagement. Community centers can start with partnerships with tech companies to help bridge the gap by securing and distributing tablets and internet-ready devices to provide an initial step toward connectivity.

On top of low device adoption rates, the recurring cost of home broadband internet creates another hurdle. When the City of Houston used a portion of CARES act funds to provide one-year internet vouchers to 5,000 low-income households, Hester House worked to spread the news quickly to the Fifth Ward. Hester House also recently partnered with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, which has taken on a leadership role in this regard, to get internet service into the homes of local seniors and families with young children. Public-private partnerships and policies that provide free or low-cost internet services across communities can enhance connectivity and improve outcomes for families and neighborhoods.

About 4 percent of Fifth Ward residents possess a college degree, and while that's not required to browse the web, it suggests a lack of exposure to technology, particularly among seniors who came of age before widespread adoption of the internet.Beyond securing greater access to broadband, new approaches to providing computer training and teaching tech fundamentals such as how to access and participate in Zoom meetings go a long way toward increasing new technology adoption rates. Zoom program participants may be reticent at first, but practice and support offer opportunities for greater community adoption.

Innovate program models

As internet, hardware and software access has increased in the community, the next step requires adjusting programming to meet new virtual parameters. Hester House moved many of their programs online and developed new programs to replace what was offered in person prior to the pandemic. Shifts to virtual programming can include virtual tutoring and youth classes, mental and social support programming, exercise and activity based video programming and purely social engagements such as group dinners and games.

The acclimation to virtual programming at Hester House has been a challenge, particularly for youth, however program managers continue to make adjustments to program models to strengthen engagement. Recurring programs that make use of music, guest speakers and pre-planned topics of conversation can help strengthen engagement and encourage participant retention, providing more shared experiences that uplift communities.

Measure and iterate results

As virtual programming continues to grow and find its cadence, program managers must continue to survey participants and make adjustments. Understanding the experiences and needs of participants will help guide planning and execution of changes that ensure participants will not only come back but will bring friends. Utilizing appreciative inquiry to improve programming benefits attendees and ensures that mission-oriented goals are met with regard to service to the community. For example, recent virtual gardening and food preservation classes, aimed at teaching healthy food growth and storage practices, has been so popular that the Hester House is assessing ways to expand the program and dive more deeply into specific topics.

Feedback from the community through surveys and qualitative data collection through individual interviews offer the space to understand the experience from members of the community, allowing organizations to focus on testing and iterating new approaches to foster successful engagement, continuing to meet the needs of the community.

It's no surprise that during difficult times, there's an even greater squeeze on nonprofits serving at-risk communities, which is why Hester House launched its Technology and Innovation Access Campaign in December. Campaign goals include funding long-term internet access, computer training, tech education classes and support, real-time tech support, helping residents navigate online applications for local, state, and national resources, and more. Community centers are focused on a successful continuation of service in these changing times, and the steps above offer a model for technology innovation for other organizations looking to provide continuity of service in difficult times.

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Lis Harper is a strategist and account executive at Houston-based Medley Inc.

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Building Houston

 
 

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. Photo courtesy of Comcast

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

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