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

 
 

What's an employee group and why do you need to know about it during Hispanic Heritage Month? This Houston expert explains. Photo via Getty Images

Making a name for yourself in corporate America is no easy task. It is especially hard if you are the first generation in your family to attend college in this country and the first to take a stab at climbing the corporate ladder. The secret behind those who successfully make it to the top is access to a strong support group.

Finding the right support system, one that provides professional and personal mentorship and one that you identify with culturally, can help you navigate the business world and help you achieve your career goals.

Many Hispanic/Latino professionals have found that support system in employee groups, or EGs.

What are EGs and how can they help Hispanic professionals succeed?

EGs are employee-led groups that foster inclusivity and build community. The purpose of the group is to provide personal and professional support to its members, who usually share certain characteristics in common – like being Hispanic, or those who simply have interest in learning about a culture that is not unique to them.

AT&T has 14 EGs, including HACEMOS, which was established in 1988 and is dedicated to supporting Hispanic employees and the communities they live in. There are 36 HACEMOS chapters across the country supporting more than 8,500 members. The Houston chapter currently supports 278 members – all in different phases of their career.

HACEMOS members believe that “Juntos HACEMOS más,” which means “Together we do more.” Under that guiding belief, members work together to support each other in advancing their careers. Through HACEMOS, AT&T employees can participate in various professional development learning opportunities and have access to one- on-one mentorship sessions with members from the leadership team.

For many members, the group offers a safe environment to engage and learn from other professionals who understand their personal and professional hurdles from a cultural point of view.

At a personal level, the support I receive from HACEMOS has helped me to better understand and be proud of my heritage. HACEMOS has embraced my “Latina” identity, encouraging me to continue using my Spanish skills to serve our Latino customers within AT&T.

EGs provide members with a sense of community and belonging. 

Most EGs have a community aspect to them that allow members to work together to address needs in their communities. HACEMOS members in Houston take pride in organizing, volunteering, and participating in various initiatives that provide support to the most vulnerable members of their community.

This year, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Houston HACEMOS Chapter will be hosting events throughout the city, helping support our youth and instill the importance of continuing their education and striving for success. Our national group is actively volunteering on efforts to help close the digital divide (the gap between people who have reliable internet access and those who do not) which is more likely to impact people of color, especially Hispanic families.

EGs create a win-win for employees and employers. 

EGs are beneficial to employees and employers. It’s true, EG members are engaged and develop strong relationships with their colleagues from other departments resulting in a collaborative environment.

Also, the company benefits from the knowledge and skills EG members gain through the various workshops and learning resources. In addition, EG members serve as brand ambassadors in the community for the company while they participate in community volunteer events.

So, if the company you work for currently does not have an EG you identify with, it’s easy to build your case to launch one. And if your company has an EG you identify with, then I encourage you to join it today – I can ensure you, it will be a rewarding experience that can help you advance your career.

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Erika Portillo is the Houston HACEMOS president for AT&T.

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