Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Ashbury Senior Community Computer Center

Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Ashbury Senior Community Computer Center

Angela Siefer
Angela Siefer
Broadband access and adoption are essential for full participation in our society, for education, for public health, and for public safety. But nagging gaps in broadband adoption exist in too many U.S. communities. In Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, (1) Dr. Colin Rhinesmith explored successful, local efforts to help low-income individuals and families overcome the barriers to broadband adoption. Dr. Rhinesmith finds that successful digital inclusion organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.

In this series, the Benton Foundation and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explore the origins, strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms for successful digital inclusion organizations. In this second article, we examine the Ashbury Senior Community Computer Center (ASC3), a community-based organization which provides technology training and low-cost home internet service.

Origin

ASC3 serves four Cleveland neighborhoods (Glenville, Forest Hills, South Collinwood and East Cleveland) -- and anyone else who requests their services. These neighborhoods are economically-diverse and family-oriented with a strong representation of older, African-American adults and Case Western Reserve University students. The draw of important churches in these neighborhoods brings in traffic from elsewhere in Cleveland. All four neighborhoods have low home broadband adoption rates.

Wanda Davis and her family wanted to strengthen their community. They had two family businesses they needed to close, but they owned the property and realized there was an opportunity to create a community center. Ms. Davis said, “As we closed the hardware store and deli, wanted to make sure what we left was long standing and supportive of the community. The purpose has always been about impact.”

The easy part was getting confirmation from the community that a technology training center was very much needed. They asked community residents what they would like to see in the community. They gathered responses through a paper survey filled out in the stores and by going door-to-door. Ms. Davis said, “We could see middle- and upper-age community members didn’t have the computer skills they needed and this was causing job loss.”

Getting financial support was much more difficult. As a new 501(c)3, ASC3 had trouble securing grants because it did not have a track record. So it spent two years in the planning stage. Finally, Ms. Davis and her husband sent out letters to 50 people in their business network asking for $300 each to support this new community venture. Their goal was to create 10 work stations (PC, monitor, keyboard and mouse). Eleven people sent back $300 for a total of $3,300. The Davises added personal funds to purchase recycled work stations. A $10,000 grant from United Black Front was used to pay an instructor and keep the doors open.

Partnerships have been key to ASC3 since it was founded. At the time, Case Western Reserve University was trying to be more engaged in the community because there was a clear divide between the university and the surrounding community. Case couldn’t donate funds, but could give office equipment and the basics needed to get set up (tables, chairs, carpet, paint, etc).

ASC3 began operation in 2002 and welcomed a total of 30 students in two class sessions. Students were recruited via flyers, partnerships (including a nearby senior center that did not provide technology training), and word of mouth. Ms. Davis said, “We went to street fairs and churches (those are very important!) and we ended up with way more students than we could train!” By 2005, ASC3 consistently had 55 to 70 students (all seniors) in each class throughout the year. These numbers continue to grow and demonstrate the success of the center, as well as the widespread interest from the community.

Mission

The mission of ASC3 is to bridge the digital divide in Cleveland communities by addressing the technology needs of older adults with limited income. ASC3 provides access, education, resources and training to help clients obtain technology literacy.


Table 1. Ashbury Senior Community Computer Center (Rhinesmith)
Providing low-cost broadband yes
Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services yes
Making low-cost computers available yes
Operating public access computing centers yes


Seeing the clear need for technology training for non-senior populations, ASC3 now serves adults year-round with a workforce program and youth summer program.
ASC3 now runs four digital literacy training programs:

  1. Classes for seniors include introduction to email, Excel, internet, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word. Most of the cohorts meet twice a week. ASC3 runs seven different class sessions per academic year in its storefront, five eight-week session per year at PNC Fairfax Connection, and two eight-week sessions at the Helen S. Brown Senior Center.
  2. Classes for adults are held at ASC3’s satellite location – the Connect Your Community (CYC) Center, funded by a Community Development Block Grant designated by Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins. The CYC Center serves six to 15 people in four-week class sessions covering e-mail, internet, and basic device training.
  3. An intergenerational program called Youth Empowered by Seniors (YES) meets during the summer. Seniors (many of whom have taken ASC3 classes themselves) work with youth. The focus each summer changes. YES serves 10 to 12 youth with a minimum of four seniors.
  4. Internet Core Competency Certification (IC3) and Training Program covers a broad range of computing knowledge and skills that prove competency in computing fundamentals, key applications, and being safe and ethical online. This program serves adults starting at age 17.

ASC3 recognizes cost is the biggest barrier to home broadband adoption and thus works to lower the cost of service for its clients. ASC3 provides low-cost home Internet service via partner Mobile Citizen. The service is provided over Sprint’s LTE network. Clients pay yearly - $241 for the first year (which includes the cost of a hotspot device) and $134.16 each following year ($11.18/month).

To lower the cost of devices, ASC3:

  1. Refers students to the local recycler, RET3.
  2. Donates old computers to students whenever it upgrades its lab (students then only pay for the software that runs on the machine).
  3. Keeps up to date on which tablets are the best value in order to make recommendations. (Currently, the tablet ASC3 recommends is $89.)

Financial Model

ASC3’s services and payroll both fluctuate depending upon funding. ASC3’s two primary sources of funding are grants and fundraisers.

Basic maintenance, one instructor and partial coverage of Ms. Davis’ time is covered by a Community Development Block Grant designated by Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell and the Time Warner-Cleveland City Council Neighborhood Technology Fund.(2)

The additional instructors, the remaining balance of Ms. Davis’ salary, and all other costs are dependent upon additional grants and the success of ASC3’s fundraisers. Sometimes instructors get paid the full amount due them, sometimes they don’t. In its 15 years of operation, ASC3 has paid full salaries for Ms. Davis and her instructors in just six years (including the three years that ASC3 received support from the federally-funded Broadband Technology Opportunity Program). Ms. Davis said she’s “lost good instructors because I couldn’t pay them.”

ASC3 relies upon a lot of volunteers. Often those volunteers are ASC3 alumni and current Case Western Reserve University students. Ms. Davis said, “We have always been fortunate to have folks donating their time.”

The “community” in ASC3 Senior Community Computer Center includes a very active alumni group. The Alumni Association operates two fundraisers each year; the average annual revenue is $6,000.

In 2002, ASC3 received permission from the dissolving Glenville Business Association to take over its annual Evening with the Stars Gala. This fundraiser is a grand party of gowns, black ties, dancing, and dinner. The Gala nets $5,000-8,000.

ASC3 Gala 2015
ASC3 Gala 2015

A very small percentage of ASC3’s revenue comes from the $14.16/year administrative fee that each client pays for the Mobile Citizen internet service. ASC3 pays Mobile Citizen $120/year per account. The clients pay ASC3 $134.16/year. Some of those clients require technical support and some do not. ASC3 chooses not to charge a higher administrative fee because doing so would defeat its purpose to lower the cost of home internet service.

ASC3’s newest venture is a call center to conduct phone research surveys. Contracts with researchers will be a source of income for ASC3 while also providing local jobs. Past and current ASC3 training participants conduct the phone research surveys.

Organization’s Strategy

Over the summer of 2016, in cooperation with other digital inclusion programs in Cleveland, ASC3 was preparing to sign up community members for Access from AT&T, a low-cost internet service program. ASC3’s instructor at the CYC Center attempted to sign up for Access from AT&T, knowing he lived in AT&T service territory. He was told service was not available at his address. This was the first indication received by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) that there might be a problem with Access from AT&T. NDIA went on to alert AT&T of the problem. You can read the full story.
ASC3 has intentionally created a learning environment that is social, welcoming, and respectful. Ms. Davis said, “When folks walk through the door, they feel part of us, not separate.” To make sure this atmosphere always exists, ASC3 recruits staff and volunteers who feel strongly about giving back to the community. ASC3 always recruits from within the community. Staff and volunteers must have technology and teaching skills along with cultural understanding and a sensitivity to the students being served.

ASC3’s outreach strategy has relied upon word of mouth. If attendance numbers are low, the ASC3 staff and volunteers “hit the pavement,” particularly through the churches.

Articulating Success

Ms. Davis defines success saying,

“When I am no longer needed. When the digital divide is no longer. Folks know where they can get access, where they can learn to take advantage of technology. When I no longer see a person who doesn’t have access who wants it. We’ll never get to 100% but if we can get to 85-90% who are not only aware but know how to use technology to improve their quality of life, that would be success. Success is when I teach myself out of a job!”

ASC3’s short term success has been awareness. ASC3 has created a buzz about everyone’s need to be connected. Ms. Davis says that relevance is no longer a top barrier to home broadband adoption in her neighborhood.

“When you ask someone if they have the internet, what I often hear is ‘No, but I know I need it. Only reason I am not connected is I can’t afford it.’ That’s the cost barrier. For our community, the relevance barrier is gone. Relevance is tied to fear. We have taken the fear out of learning. That used to be the barrier. So we make sure everyone feels comfortable while focusing our limited resources on digital literacy and the cost of home access.”

Ms. Davis said, “People know they need to be connected. That job is complete.”

Wanda Davis received the Cleveland Leadership Award 2016 along with a Resolution of Recognition from the Cleveland City Council. The Resolution reads:

“BE IT RESOLVED, that Cleveland City Council is sincerely pleased to recognize Wanda Davis for her extraordinary dedication and commitment to the people she serves. This council applauds her outstanding leaderships, contributions and faithfulness to the Greater Cleveland community and further extends best wishes to her much continued success and happiness in the future.”

Ms. Davis defines Cleveland’s success as having “a really good digital inclusion center in every neighborhood.”

Conclusion

After fifteen years of increasing digital equity in Cleveland, the ASC3 Senior Community Computer Center is not slowing down. Being in and of the community it serves, ASC3 understands the changing needs and changing resources of the neighborhoods it serves. Realizing it no longer has to convince potential students and clients of the value of the internet led ASC3 to focus on training classes, on-demand technology support (nobody walking in the door is turned away), and low-cost home internet service.

14th Annual Graduation Ceremony 2016
14th Annual Graduation Ceremony 2016


Notes:
  1. Rhinesmith, Colin. “Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives.” Evanston, IL: Benton Foundation, January 2016. benton.org/broadband-inclusion-adoption-report (Rhinesmith)
  2. The fund was created in October 2000 by Cleveland’s City Council and Adelphia Cleveland LLC and established as part of the city’s approval of the transfer of the city’s cable television franchise from Cablevision of Cleveland, L.P. to Adelphia. In the ordinance, Adelphia agreed to donate $3 million “to a fund to be held by the Cleveland Foundation and to be restricted to and used for the sole purpose of promoting the use of various types of modern telecommunications and computer equipment and services, including but not limited to, high speed cable modem equipment and services, cable equipment, programming, and services, by and for the residents of the City of Cleveland through, among other things, training such residents in the use of such equipment and services, and making equipment, programming and services accessible in the neighborhoods in the city.” The “projects, programs, and entities to be funded from the monies in the fund” are to be determined by an advisory board or committee consisting of three members appointed by the council president, three members appointed by Time Warner, and one member appointed by the executive director of the Cleveland Foundation.

Angela Siefer is the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Angela envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997, Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. This work led Angela to co-found the National Digital Inclusion Alli- ance, a unified national voice for local technology training, home broadband access, and public broadband access programs. A profile of her written work is at angelasiefer.com.