2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Awards

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Digital Beat

2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Awards

(Remarks as prepared for delivery at Net Inclusion 2023)

Adrianne B. Furniss

A more equitable, more just society. What an audacious goal. But it is a goal that, I believe, everyone here shares. “It takes a village” is such an understatement. What it takes to reach this ambitious but increasingly necessary goal is all of us pulling in the same direction over many miles and many years. What it takes is commitment, innovation, leadership, and collaboration.

Today we get to celebrate some digital equity heroes. These champions demonstrate the commitment, innovation, leadership, and collaboration we all need to embrace in our own work. Gathering to recognize their efforts will hopefully inspire us all when we return to our communities and push towards a more equitable, more just society.

First up, our 2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Emerging Leader, Angie Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Heartland Forward, a “think-and-do” tank based in Arkansas focused on advancing economic performance and opportunity in the center of the country. It is hard for me to call Angie an “Emerging Leader,” given all she has done, but let’s just say she’s brought a heck of a lot of energy to Heartland Forward as their leader in bridging the digital divide. Angie launched the Connecting the Heartland initiative to help communities maximize unprecedented federal investments in universal connectivity.

Angie Cooper

Heartland Forward is the perfect place for Angie because she takes to heart that people’s lack of high-speed internet fundamentally hinders their opportunities, in education, work, and healthcare.

Benton is lucky to be a collaborator with Angie and her expert Heartland Forward team on the Accelerate Community Broadband Planning program, reaching over two dozen communities with hours of training for local leaders on how to create broadband plans in Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas. We are launching a new Accelerate in Tennessee next month.

Angie also pioneered an Affordable Connectivity Program outreach campaign with the League of United Latin American Citizens, reaching over 380,350 people in Latinx communities with information about how to access affordable service.

Angie started a digital equity fund for 14 American Connection Corps fellows to create hyper-local, innovative digital skills training models to serve as blueprints for other communities. We’ve worked with the ACC fellows during our Accelerate programs and it’s good to see a new generation of broadband leaders emerging from this effort.

Angie is intentional in her work to ensure it is meeting people where they are with what they need to get online.

I am honored to present the 2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Emerging Leader award to Angie Cooper. Please join me in celebrating her efforts.

Cooper, Furniss, and Crago Blanton

I am excited to say that this year we honor two Charles Benton Digital Equity Champions. I believe that as I introduce them both you will understand why the selection committee could not pick just one!

Catherine Crago Blanton
  Crago Blanton

First is Catherine Crago Blanton. Catherine is the Head of Strategic Initiatives at the Housing Authority of the City of Austin Texas & Austin Pathways, a nonprofit that promotes the education and general welfare of low-income Austinites in subsidized housing programs.

We work in a field when numbers are most often used to help us understand the scope of the challenges we face. Let me today stress statistics that illustrate the success story of Catherine and her team. In 2015, about four percent of subsidized housing households in Austin were connected. With Catherine’s leadership, by 2022, 78 percent of those households are connected. That is a 20-fold increase. Incredible.

Catherine’s digital inclusion programming accelerates trust by ensuring public and private partners invest in participatory innovation. Catherine works closely with and frequently convenes nonprofits, government, and technology providers across the region and engages with academia and other researchers.

Catherine has provided testimony to federal agencies, including the Federal Transit Authority and the Department of Energy on digital equity issues, presenting meaningful solutions and best practices affecting low-income people in public and affordable housing. And she requires policymakers, technologists, and philanthropists to participate in resident-led discussions about lessons learned so stakeholders can weave digital equity into their departments and funding and service requirements.

In a 2020 Benton Institute publication, Toward Inclusive Urban Technology, we highlighted how Catherine’s work helps build human infrastructure to grow the capacity of residents, protect their technology-related priorities and rights, and approach technology change management in a community-based way. The Smart Work Learn Play initiative hires residents to be “Smart City Ambassadors” to:

  • teach other residents how to use digitally-enabled education, workforce, and transportation tools;
  • advocate for and manage meaningful partnerships with private smart city technology providers;
  • engage in democratic processes, both online and face-to-face, with local and other government officials; and
  • participate in the design of smart city systems and tools with a wide array of actors.

Catherine is a strong leader that leans into collaboration in all her work. She has her ear tuned to find common purpose and is prepared to work out solutions. She is consistently linking people and organizations to resources and including new entrants to build digital equity capacity.

Please join me in applauding 2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Catherine Crago Blanton.

Burt Lum and fans

When someone speaks broadband in the State of Hawaii, the first name mentioned is Burt Lum.

Burt Lum

He is the Broadband Strategy Officer at the state’s Broadband & Digital Equity Office—and our second Digital Equity Champion this year.

Burt has been a driving force in Hawaii technology and telecommunications for nearly four decades. And it you’ve met Burt, you recognize his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

In March 2020, in response to the pandemic, Burt launched the Hawaii Broadband Hui – a grassroots community gathering which convened more than 500 partners from diverse backgrounds who collaborated to increase Hawaii’s digital capacity, and support the continuity of social connections, education, employment, and access to other essential services throughout the pandemic.

Burt has developed strong relationships across sectors through the weekly Hui meetings to address the urgent need to provide digital connectivity to those in need. To date, he has held 137 consecutive meetings that engage more than 50 members each week. The Hui has supported broadband infrastructure development in rural communities, provided digital devices for students and families, championed the accessibility of telehealth, provided information on low-cost internet options, and adopted a Digital Equity Declaration to set a vision and goals for a more equitable digital future.

The Hui is collaborative by nature, and Burt has supported subcommittees and other member initiatives that leverage the collective strength of the Hui. For example, Burt spearheaded the community outreach of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program – now the Affordable Connectivity Program – to raise awareness for, and encourage registration among, low-income residents in Hawaii. Through outreach, he was able to educate the community on how essential it is for all Hawaii residents to have internet access in order to go to school, work from home, visit one’s doctor by telehealth and much more. Over 36,000 Hawaii households are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program to date.

Burt can’t join us here today as he takes care of legislative session business in Hawaii, but perhaps if we make enough noise, he’ll be able to hear us.

Let’s give a big shout out to 2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Burt Lum.


The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
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