Exploring Connectivity as a Civil Rights Issue in a Pandemic Plagued Country
By Megha Goel
Michelle’s school expects her to finish her five page quarantine assignment on her smartphone. Her mother cannot access the telehealth service to manage her diabetes, and her brother is struggling to fill out job applications online.
Michelle is among the roughly 21 million Americans who lack high-speed internet access. In Ohio, only 47.7% of residents have access to low priced internet plans. Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) includes 38,000 school students and 27,000 families out of which an astounding 40 percent do not have access to broadband internet. Two-thirds of the students do not have any e-learning devices. Education, jobs, medical care, and government services carried out in person before the pandemic have been turned over to the web, exposing a deep split between the internet haves and have-nots. To discuss this persistent digital inequality, EYEJ Speaks featured an incredible panel of educators, youth, thought leaders, and community residents in its last two episodes(July 30 and August 6), entitled Connectivity. The conversations explored the dynamics of digital exclusion, the implications for countless Cleveland residents, and innovations that lower the bar for entry into the digital age with technology for disconnected communities.
Defining Connectivity, Digital Redlining & Digital Divide
It’s hard to talk about Digital Redlining without talking about connectivity. In Cleveland, people have telephone access, data access on phones, some form of internet access at home, and other kinds of access at school or work. To be digitally connected is to communicate, learn new skills, and perform daily activities, giving the youth equal opportunities to grow economically.
The digital divide and redlining issues have to do with inequities in people’s ability to have and use those different connectivities for the things we need to do in our lives. Redlining is a historical practice of banks and insurance companies, geographically discriminating amongst people; in the ability to get conventional loans, insurance and sell, buy, or insure houses. It’s the connection between discrimination and geography. Bill Callahan, Research and Policy Director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, points out his research report on AT&T’s discrimination against lower-income urban neighborhoods in the deployment of its standard fiber-enhanced broadband service. He shares, “The major reason people do not have access to the internet in Cleveland is ‘cost’. It’s the connection between having and coming with $70 a month. It’s more than most people’s electric bills. It’s a significant addition to people’s budget.” Additionally, Phill Althouse from Legal Aid Society of Cleveland shares, “There is a gap between households within the city of Cleveland based on economic status; 53,000 houses do not have internet access while they might have cable & cell phone access. TVs cannot help with remote learning, nor can cell phones replace a PC.”
- With COVID- 19, getting online isn’t an option for students anymore. Access to the internet is critical for children to attend virtual classes, graduate from school, and apply for jobs. “The issue of connectivity has huge implications for youth academic development. There are the mental health effects of social isolation, registering to vote, filing for unemployment, taking part in telehealth services…there are so many essential services that aren’t accessible,” shares Delaney Jones, Lead Organizer, EYEJ Youth Council. Urgent action to get high quality broadband into their homes is a priority. Additionally, Mai Moore points out the graveness of the problem: “How are people supposed to vote, prepare for voting, or get information?” The issues of connectivity wouldn’t end simply with internet access and devices for all Cleveland youth. We can only achieve true connectivity when the youth can effectively use the technology at their disposal.
- Strong literacy skills are a must-have to adopt digital literacy skills. These are compounding problems and need to be resolved simultaneously. From a digital inclusion perspective, individuals should have the ability to access and use both information and communication technologies. This encompasses access to the internet, availability of hardware, relevant content and training for digital literacy skills. Bishara Addison, Senior Manager, Policy & Strategic Initiatives at Towards Employment, points to research from Burning Glass: “More than 8 in 10 middle skill jobs now require some digital proficiency.” If we intend to bridge the digital divide, we also should ensure that the youth and community members are provided with new and transformational learning experiences with technology. Mai Moore draws a recent example from Miles Park School in Cleveland, “Students in the school have four different devices, with no IT help. Students who have devices do not know how to turn them on or how to connect to the internet.” With constant changes in technology, being competent and confident with technology is a task.
- Solving the issues of connectivity should be a coordinated, concerted community priority. We need diverse leadership from different sectors of the community. Bishara Addison shares, “It includes ownership, budgets, and responsibility whether it’s a market driven, decentralized approach by telecom service providers or support from the local government, which includes policy and lobbying from state and federal.”
- Hotspots are a great short-term solution for families and communities that do not have internet access. Urgently, we need all families to have devices and internet access. Hotspots are the most efficient solution to address the immediate need of schools reopening and taking an online learning approach. But this is not a long term solution. Our expert speaker Bill Callahan says, “Relying on wi-fi hotspots is not a solution. It’s a great mobile solution for people on the move.” The bigger priority here is getting broadband access into communities. This would not only enable learning, but all create jobs and help solve other issues in communities.
- Census is essential for government resource allocation to local schools, fire departments, and other community resources. Bishara explains that people do not understand the importance of filling out the Census. She says, “Census information is taken seriously and is protected…Since the Census counts the population, it impacts representation. The fewer people counted, the less representation we have at the state and federal level.” EYEJ team member Delaney adds, “This impact lasts for ten years. We cannot wait for another ten years for the resources we need.” The discussion also pointed out that poor or no internet access would again make it difficult for all Clevelanders to fill out the Census.
Connectivity is a Social Justice Issue
Mai Moore says, “The focus of connectivity came from COVID-19; listening to what was happening in the community and with our youth from YODJ and listening to what the EYEJ Youth Council wanted to focus on.” She said connectivity became the new strategy for EYEJ as the organization pivoted direction to respond to the pandemic, and it meant directing efforts towards two things: increasing the connection between people and reducing the Digital Divide. It’s interesting to consider that the mission for the non-profit has always been about connectivity from the very inception.
This issue of connectivity deeply intervenes with the inequality that exists in America. Chantal Brown, a member of the Youth Council, shares, “The Youth Council has put a lot of time [deciding] what we want to focus on [for] the next social justice initiative. We wanted to choose a relevant issue, that people wouldn’t have any political argument with. While there are issues like police brutality which are also relevant, there are complications with that… The digital divide is a major issue. It affects all of us and our siblings, especially now. A lot of us are in school right now. The ability to get devices and connect with our teachers would help.”
Delaney Jones best concluded the discussion, “We can’t move forward as a society until we allow all our citizens to take part in the society which is mostly online now…This needs to be a community-led solution, so people must know the work we are doing and get involved. The biggest thing that young people can do to contribute is to speak to your local elected officials. Let them know that you recognize how much of a problem this is and that we need an URGENT solution before the kids resume school again in the fall.”
To watch the episodes of EYEJ Speaks on Connectivity from July 30 and August 6, visit our Facebook page. Be sure to comment on the program and let us know how connectivity is impacting your community. We would love to thank the incredible panelists from both the episodes who donated their time and thought leadership for our virtual series.
Moderated by Kenyatta Skyles, the first episode (July 30) on Connectivity included insights from:
- Mai Moore, Founder & Executive Director EYEJ
- Chantal Brown, Youth Council Member
- Bill Callahan, Research and Policy Director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance
- Adam King, Technologist & Creative Principal, nine.four.five.
The watch party on August 6, moderated by Tara Tadimalla, included insights from:
- Delaney Jones, Lead Organizer, EYEJ
- Bishara Addison, Senior Manager, Policy & Strategic Initiatives at Towards Employment
- Phill Althouse, Attorney at Legal Aid Society of Cleveland
- Willis Ferguson, Technology Specialist
- Denakpon Tchobo, EYEJ Youth Council Intern
- Kendall Smith, Youth Council Member