Photo by Ralston Smith on Unsplash

As executive director of Knowledge Quest, Marlon Foster knows well how not having access to technology can make schoolwork and getting a job more difficult for young people in South Memphis.

In 2012, Foster learned that his students’ computer experience from school was exclusive to Microsoft applications. Many students had never used Apple software. In response, Knowledge Quest created training sessions for Apple’s Mac computers.

Though Knowledge Quest’s urban farm and counseling services may not suggest it, bridging technological gaps has been integral to the organization’s service, Foster said. So it made sense for the group to partner on a digital education project. 

That project, “Digital Inclusion in South City,” aims to provide financial, technological and educational support to 500 homes in South City and the surrounding 38126 ZIP code to ensure students’ achievement isn’t limited by their technology access. The project leaders began setting up the program more than a year ago but started reaching families this summer.

“For children who are developing, it’s their basic access to what would otherwise be universal knowledge that’s readily being shared across the globe,” Foster said.

Broadband is available for 98% of Shelby County households. However, only 32% of households actually have it.

Analysis of Microsoft and Federal Communications Commission data by The Commercial Appeal

Backed by a $575,000 city grant, the effort is a partnership between Knowledge Quest and Urban Strategies Inc., youth and community development organizations; Start Co., a venture capital firm; CodeCrew, a computer science mentorship program; and the University of Memphis’ schools of Urban Affairs and Social Work.

Each group plays a different role in the project, collaborating on three key parts for households: providing computers and faster internet, teaching children to use their devices and introducing computer skills such as coding.

These steps are the first phase to address the digital divide since technological disparity is a multilayered issue that needs a multilayered response, according to Gregory Washington, an associate professor of social work at the University of Memphis and lead researcher on the project.

High-speed internet and smart devices have become integral to life — if you can afford them. A substantial number of low-income Americans — many Black and brown — don’t have access to computers or the internet at home, locking them out of essential information and services.

In a Pew Research Center survey taken earlier this year, of adults with annual household incomes less than $30,000, 25% didn’t own a smartphone. A little over 40% didn’t have broadband internet, while nearly the same number didn’t have laptops or desktop computers.

This disparity is often referred to as the “digital divide.”

“We’re talking about access to information, communication, usage of the internet and that gap that exists (between) people at different socioeconomic levels,” Washington said.

The digital divide isn’t exactly a new problem, but rather a symptom of the same systemic discrimination that underpins Memphis’ other disparities, Washington said.

Broadband is available for 98% of Shelby County households, according to USA Today’s analysis of Microsoft and Federal Communications Commission data. However, only 32% of households actually have it. In rural areas, there is often a shortage of infrastructure to bring high speeds to households, but for urban neighborhoods, high speeds are usually just unaffordable, USA Today reported.

“We didn’t just get here. We’re founded on these divides,” Washington said. “The policies that have resulted in some communities, and groups of people, having greater wealth, and resources than others — that includes the internet when it came into existence. So it’s a continuation.”

Foster says some of the inequality in getting on the internet comes from it first being sold as a luxury item, meaning companies built and maintained it based on where — and how much — residents could pay.

That left some of South Memphis with weak cell and internet service and without access to expensive high speeds.

“If you don’t have infrastructure or access, again, it’s a continuation of certain communities and certain classes being locked out of the American dream — if you will — or even [basics].”

Gregory Washington, associate professor of social work at the University of Memphis and lead researcher of Digital Inclusion in South City

Still, solving internet and computer inequality is growing more urgent as services of government, education, business and entertainment become increasingly dependent on the internet and devices. This growing dependence means the internet and home computers are a necessity, Washington said. 

“If you don’t have infrastructure or access, again, it’s a continuation of certain communities and certain classes being locked out of the American dream — if you will — or even [basics],” Washington said.

The pandemic brought the divide out in a new way, Foster said. “It really exposed itself for the time that children were only going to school virtually, just how impactful weak infrastructure (and low access) … really impacted those students every day.”

Before the pandemic, Black students in families with low incomes were already more likely than others to have trouble getting their homework done because they didn’t have computers or Wi-Fi at home, according to Pew research. The pandemic widened that “homework gap.”

However, for families to get the most out of these resources, they can’t be simply dropped into homes, Washington said, but must include a “social envelope,” meaning support for families’ other necessities. “If you don’t have housing, you don’t have lights, don’t have food [or] employment, the internet is not the first thing on your list.”

As the project continues, university interns will work as digital mentors who guide the families’ technology use with a curriculum from Everyone On, a national internet enrollment and training organization.

Because Knowledge Quest and Urban Strategies have existing connections with South City households through their case management services, they will help distribute the equipment, select households for mentorship and identify South City students interested in advanced training.

Those students moving beyond basic digital literacy will learn more advanced computer skills such as computer programming with CodeCrew as well as STEM and entrepreneurship in after-school training.

Both Foster and Washington want to continue the program past its planned two years and continue fundraising. Start Co. has been an essential coordinator in attracting funding as well as corporate partnerships, Foster said.

It will take further cooperation and investment from business, community, and policy leaders to address systemic contributors to the disparity, they said.

In fact, some government leaders, including Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, are looking to invest in broadband access for cities and rural areas using federal dollars targeted for pandemic relief and as part of the president’s plan for potential investment of billions into American infrastructure, a current debate in Washington D.C.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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