A Tour of Kansas City’s Digital Divide
The following is a guest article by Casey De La Torre, a student at Florida International University. In May, Casey attended the 2016 Net Inclusion Summit at the Kansas City Public Library. In the post below, she discusses key insights from a tour of Kansas City organizations addressing the digital divide, and how it connects to her digital literacy work in Miami-Dade County, Florida. In June, the Benton Foundation published “Net Inclusion 2016: Addressing the Digital Divide From Miami to Kansas City” by Casey’s classmate, Romina Angelelli.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s first Net Inclusion Summit in Kansas City, Missouri, brought together activists from around the country who are working towards the same goal: for everyone, from all walks of life, to have access to the Internet. As a student of Florida International University (FIU), I had the opportunity to attend the Net Inclusion Summit, along with my classmate, Romina Angelelli, and our professor, Dr. Moses Shumow. During my time at the summit, I attended some incredibly informative lectures by excellent speakers. But it was the tour around Kansas City to different organizations addressing the digital divide that moved me beyond measure. The tour went to three locations that have successfully built networks to provide Internet access in underserved communities: Juniper Gardens, Reconciliation Services, and Wayne Miner. To see those community leaders in action, their passion illuminated, and to hear about their experience first-hand was inspiring.
From the speakers at each site, I learned the communities faced similar, yet different, challenges. I could relate to some of their setbacks and triumphs because my classmates and I worked on a project to build a Wi-Fi network in Liberty Square, a public housing community in the heart of Miami, Florida. FIU and Miami-Dade County partnered to build the Wi-Fi network and, for six months, my classmates and I worked at Liberty Square as part of a digital media literacy class taught by Dr. Shumow.
The Summit Tour showcased similar projects. Juniper Gardens and Wayne Miner are both public housing developments; Reconciliation Services is a center providing emergency, therapeutic, and self-sufficiency services to individuals and families. The Summit Tour taught us that a connected neighborhood is a stronger neighborhood.
In Juniper Gardens, every apartment has access to Wi-Fi. And every computer in the Youth Build Training Center has Gigabyte speed (GB) Internet connection (which is massively impressive, as that is approximately 100 times faster access than what most Americans have). Juniper Garden partners with Connecting for Good, a Kansas City nonprofit that provides computers, classes, and broadband access in a low-income community. Through this partnership, Juniper Gardens has been able to provide the neighborhood with a safe space that offers literacy assistance and community interaction.
Juniper Gardens has faced frequent challenges. Internet filtering is an issue the staff at the computer center addresses daily as they try to maintain a balance between Internet freedom and safety. There is always a staff member present while the computer lab is open, which allows the center to run smoothly. However, as we learned during the tour, the need for capacity will always be greater than what the organization can fulfill. With more resources, whether it be more computers or a more expansive Wi-Fi reach, the community would be better able to thrive.
Reconciliation Services community center is located on Troost Avenue in Kansas City. The avenue was the historic racial dividing line between people of color and whites in the city. Now, a building on Troost Avenue displays a beautifully unique historic mural, painted by Alexander Austin. Though the community has come a long way from the days of segregation, it still needs more attention and resources for its residents.
Reconciliation Services supports a local public Wi-Fi network and is building an Internet café for community residents. During the tour, we learned that kids in the neighborhood were writing their papers for school on their phones in a McDonald’s. This is not a new concept to me, as I immediately thought of my experience with a student from Liberty Square, who took a bus all the way to Key West because it was the only place that wouldn’t kick him off the Wi-Fi network after a few hours.
School systems and requirements have changed. The majority of students now have to turn in assignments online or complete an online class to proceed in their education. How can students do that if there is no Wi-Fi in their community no less their homes? Moreover, how can they apply for a job once they graduate if the only way to submit an application, even for McDonald’s, is online?
Thankfully, Reconciliation Services has addressed this issue of access, and has successfully built a wireless network by using two different technologies — public Wi-Fi access points and Google Fiber. Every day, community leaders are ensuring that residents receive quality education and have the resources they need to stay informed and succeed.
Wayne Miner, the last location of the Summit Tour, is a public housing development that partnered with Connect Home, a public-private collaboration and initiative of the Obama Administration aimed at narrowing the digital divide for families with school-age children who live in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-assisted housing. Through this partnership, residents can participate in a 4-week training program and are eligible for a free computer after just one class.
As shared by the tour guides, the biggest challenge at Wayne Miner was trust. Many residents had a hard time believing people wanted to help them without wanting anything in return. Community leaders at Wayne Miner have often been confronted with questions like, “Am I being spied on?” and “How much money do I have to pay?” It wasn’t until the members of Connect Home established relationships with respected members of the community that they were able to overcome these barriers and really begin to help.
Clint Wynn, a Connecting for Good staff member from Reconciliation Services community center, said ‘digital literacy’ is not an accurate enough term – it should be referred to as ‘digital survival.’ The fact that communities in the United States are denied access to Wi-Fi simply because they are low-income is unacceptable. The residents of these communities are being set up for failure because the world around them is advancing and they can’t keep up without Internet access.
The largest impact I had from the tour was in seeing the collaboration among nonprofit organizations and the community. The proof that there could be development without displacement was overwhelmingly encouraging. The tour showed that investing in an established community culture to empower residents with the knowledge and resources to succeed is a long-term solution that works. It is encouraging that the National Digital Inclusion Alliance is continuing to grow and to inform policymakers to help fund the resources needed in communities across the United States to address digital inclusion.
Seeing the work being done at Juniper Gardens, Reconciliation Services, and Wayne Miner -- and bringing in my own experience at Liberty Square -- has reinforced how vital it is to have Internet access for employment opportunities and education advancement. The tour also demonstrated how digital inclusion efforts serve as a way to bring a community together. It’s more than just Internet access – it’s about what it means to have Internet access: social equality and the opportunity for success.