Philanthropy Joins Hands to Build a New Generation of Leaders to Help Bring People Online

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Digital Beat

Philanthropy Joins Hands to Build a New Generation of Leaders to Help Bring People Online

Adrianne B. Furniss

American Connection Corps, an initiative operated by Lead for America, is the nation’s largest fellowship program focused on bridging the digital divide. AmeriCorps, Land O’Lakes, Heartland Forward’s Connecting the Heartland initiative (which supports fellows in their target states of Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas, and Tennessee), and select partners from the American Connection Project all support the corps. The American Connection Corps is building and empowering a new generation of leaders to help bring connectivity to communities.

One fellow, Liz Lima, was placed at Rural LISC (a branch of the community development nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation), which “help[s] rural community developers address the problems rural communities face.”

Rural LISC manages a digital navigators program that takes a holistic approach to digital inclusion, including home connectivity, devices, digital skills, and free or affordable home internet service options. Navigators work at 41 sites in 20 states across the Appalachia region, the Deep South, the upper Midwest, and the Navajo Nation. “Digital equity leads to economic mobility,” according to Christa Vinson, a program officer for Rural LISC, and the belief that “creating digital opportunity is all of our jobs” motivated LISC-affiliated organizations to enter the digital inclusion space and join the digital navigators program.

The sites are diverse—including affordable-housing developers, health providers, financial opportunity centers, and even a volunteer fire department—and each one possesses the trust of the local rural community.

But how did Rural LISC determine where best to target its efforts, particularly for those who needed help paying for internet service? Lima, the American Connection Corps fellow, made an impact by working 1) to understand the lessons learned from the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program rolled out by the Federal Communications Commission during the pandemic, and 2) to help increase enrollment in the FCC’s successor program to EBB, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). (ACP lowers the internet service bills of low-income people with a $30-per-month subsidy [$75 on tribal lands].)

Lima and other Rural LISC team members created an innovative mapping tool, the Affordable Connectivity Program Enrollment Visualization, that overlays ACP enrollment data with census data estimating ACP eligibility. This tool has helped target ACP outreach by pinpointing zip codes where large populations of people are likely eligible for the program but haven’t yet taken advantage of it. To further assist digital inclusion practitioners’ outreach strategy, the ACP visualization tool also layers data from the Digital Divide Index (DDI), which ranks digital exclusion on a scale from 0-100.

“The ACP map is an easy-to-use tool for local governments, organizations, and digital navigators interested in bettering digital equity in their communities. We hope this tool allows practitioners to see where outreach has been successful and where outreach is needed next,” Lima said.

Reneisha Rudder, another fellow assigned to the Southeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, helped promote Indiana’s Broadband Ready Community Program requirements by working with community leaders and organizations to establish broadband and digital inclusion task forces in five of nine counties in her region. Nathan Palmer works with PCs for People in Cook County, Illinois, which provides refurbished, affordably priced computers plus low-cost high-speed internet connectivity to eligible Illinois households, as part of a statewide Computer Equity Network.

The 50 fellows, who undergo extensive training, mentoring, and networking throughout the program, spend one year in their communities as leaders in digital inclusion, strengthening local civic infrastructure and helping to create the critical community development initiatives that broadband can enable.

Our appreciation to the following for their help on this article:

  • Benya Kraus, Co-founder, Lead for America, and Executive Director, Lead for Minnesota
  • Madison Conrad, former Senior Program Manager, Lead for America

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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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Adrianne B. Furniss.