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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Houston neighbor clocks as one of the best U.S. cities for remote workers

working from home

Working remotely is increasingly part of the modern lifestyle, and a new report cements a Houston neighbor as one of the top places for remote workers.

Apartment search website RentCafe ranks Conroe No. 15 in its Top 50 Cities for Remote Workers, released in November.

The study looked at 150 U.S. cities, comparing them across five main categories: leisure, affordability, comfort, rental demand, and remote work readiness. Scores were based on 19 metrics, from cost of living, availability of apartments with short-term leases, and rental demand to coworking spaces, percentage of remote workers, and internet speed.

"With remote work migration on the rise, we uncovered the most desirable cities to move to across the nation if you work remotely," the website says. It suggests that remote workers on the move "look toward the South and Southeast, where we identified several cities that offer the perfect balance between comfort, value, leisure and remote work-readiness."

Conroe ranks best for:

  • Number of high-end units
  • Share of new apartments
  • Number of apartments with access to sports amenities

Three other Texas cities join Conroe in the top 15. College Station (No. 9) makes the cut for remote workers due to its high availability of short-term rentals, large population of rentals, and access to sports amenities.

In the Austin metro area, both Austin (No. 13) and Round Rock (No. 11) appear, thanks in part to access to internet connection, average download speed, and the number of remote workers.

Lower on the list, but still in the top 50, are: Plano (No. 23), Lubbock (No. 27), Houston (No. 35), Amarillo (No. 36), San Antonio (No. 41), Dallas (No. 42), and Fort Worth (No. 46).The top city for remote workers, according to RentCafe, is Greenville, South Carolina.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Walmart, Houston startup team up to bring small biz products to shelves

holiday shopping teamwork

Thanks to a pop-up shop marketplace platform, small businesses will now have the opportunity to have their goods displayed in one of the country’s largest national retail stores.

Through a strategic partnership between Houston-based Popable and Walmart, local businesses to set up shop for short-term leasing and bring brand new eyes to their products.

“Supporting small businesses has always been a priority for Walmart,” says Darryl Spinks, senior director of retail services for Walmart, in a news release. “We are proud to work with Popable to offer local brands an opportunity to grow inside our stores. This is a great example of our focus on offering services unique to the neighborhoods we serve through our store of the community initiative.”

Popable has assisted brands secure qualified spaces, get education and resources, and build community, and connections that are vital to helping small businesses expand their visibility in the marketplace. The platform simultaneously helps retail landlords find qualified retailers from a directory of tens of thousands of brands to fill vacancies and drive traffic to their shopping centers.

For those small businesses interested, they can be paired with their local participating Walmart to connect and enter into an agreeable temporary leasing agreement by signing up on the platform’s official website. The businesses will set up right in front of the store generally where the customer service areas and salons tend to be. While the partnership isn’t aimed to be a pilot program, Popable will be giving Walmart the chance to infuse some local flavor into the stores from the community.

With the holidays around the corner, and small businesses looking to gain back revenues lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to display and sell their products at Walmart can be highly beneficial to recoup profits, and unload new and extra products to a larger audience.

“Going into the holidays the timing is pretty good for a lot of brands looking to move some access inventory that they have loaded up from last year, but this (hopefully with Walmart) will be a year-round thing,” says Popable CEO and co-founder Scott Blair. “The pop-up opportunities we’ve been seeing with brands doing reach outs so far, a lot of them are looking for stuff into January and February too.”

Scott Blair, CEO and co-founder of Popable, says he hopes to continue the partnership with Walmart. Photo courtesy of Popable