Chicago Mobilized Philanthropy to Connect School Kids, Then Built On These Partnerships to Accomplish Broader Digital Equity Goals

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Digital Beat

Chicago Mobilized Philanthropy to Connect School Kids

Then Built On These Partnerships to Accomplish Broader Digital Equity Goals

Adrianne B. Furniss

At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, the City of Chicago learned that roughly 1 in 5 K-12-aged students did not have internet access at home. Schools had shifted to remote learning, and Chicago needed to act quickly to ensure that students could continue their education from home. By June 2020, the City of Chicago, in partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Kids First Chicago, successfully galvanized the philanthropic sector to quickly stand up a $50 million public-private partnership, Chicago Connected.

Thanks to 10 philanthropic donors and the City’s commitment of CARES Act dollars, Chicago Connected subsidizes at-home broadband costs for CPS families in need, connecting 77,000 students in its first year of operation and an estimated 100,000 students across the first two years of the program. Chicago Connected, the first program of its kind in the country, informed more than 20 cities’ approaches to the digital divide and pandemic learning and was directly replicated in Philadelphia and Miami.

Philanthropic contributions allowed the City to respond swiftly to the emergency pandemic situation. Now, two years after the launch of Chicago Connected, the City is building upon the historic public-private partnership to understand and tackle the nuanced barriers to digital equity faced by Chicagoans citywide. Once again, philanthropy stepped up to complement the City’s investment in closing the digital divide, funding a comprehensive community engagement effort through the Chicago Digital Equity Council. Thanks to philanthropic contributions, the Digital Equity Council is able to compensate community members for their time and contributions, provide incentives for participation, and contract with a stakeholder engagement expert to ensure that the engagement process is equitable and inclusive.

Philanthropic dollars can be deployed quickly and nimbly. Chicago Connected partners with United Way of Metro Chicago to serve as the fiscal agent for the program, allowing it to allocate and invest funds efficiently into communities. For example, philanthropic dollars are funding more than 20 community-based organizations to conduct outreach, support, and digital learning workshops for Chicago Connected families. This coming year, community partners will also assist community members with Affordable Connectivity Program sign-ups, moving beyond just K-12 families to additional households facing barriers to digital equity.

Initially, the Chicago Connected philanthropic funders weren’t primarily motivated by the digital divide. Rather, the urgency of addressing low-income, primarily Black and Hispanic students not being able to attend school due to lack of internet access motivated Chicago Connected’s seed funders and most of the immediate followers to invest in the program—as did the fact that the school district and City of Chicago also committed funds to the effort. As the funders saw the extraordinary success of Chicago Connected and learned more about how impactful connectivity was for families, a few funders have become more interested in the digital divide overall. These funders have learned that digital equity aligns with their core missions of racial and social equity.

We appreciate the contributions of Devon Braunstein, Digital Inclusion Policy Fellow, Chicago Mayor’s Office, who worked with us on this article.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

More in this series

These articles and much more in Pathways to Digital Equity: How Communities Can Reach Their Broadband Goals—and How Philanthropy Can Help

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

Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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By Adrianne B. Furniss.