Bringing Digital Equity to Appalachia

Dr. Danielle King, Lead for America–American Connection Corps
                     Dr. King

The Thompson Scholars Foundation is based in the Town Branch neighborhood of Manchester, Kentucky. We provide wraparound after-school academic enrichment to historically underserved populations in Clay County in the Appalachian region of southeast Kentucky, one of the areas in the United States hardest hit by poverty. Our work with disadvantaged students has also meant a focus on digital equity because bridging the digital divide is essential to our community’s future.

According to the United States Census Bureau QuickFacts, in 2020, Clay County’s poverty rate was nearly 36 percent, and for 2020, Clay County ranked 117 out of 120 counties in Kentucky for health outcomes. Additionally, 72 percent of our children living in low-income families and 29.4 percent of our children living in food-insecure households, according to a 2022 Kentucky Youth Advocates’ Kentucky Kids Count Report. The Town Branch neighborhood includes three public-housing complexes and mixed-income housing. In 2022, 11.5 percent of people in Clay County had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with the state’s 25.7 percent (United States Census Bureau QuickFacts).

Clay County is not very racially diverse; the Town Branch neighborhood, however, is diverse for the area. The County has a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and political and religious affiliations, as well as many members of the LGBTQIA community.

Our programming promotes diversity and inclusion. Our target population includes pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade youth who live in the Town Branch area and who identify with an underserved population or are experiencing financial or other disadvantages. Given a history of disenfranchisement of certain groups, we prioritize the acceptance of students who identify with any minority status. Then we prioritize students experiencing poverty or other types of disadvantages. We also accept students in special circumstances—for instance, those in a single-parent household in which the parent works a second-shift job and cannot fully support the student’s academic progress. Engaging the families is an integral part of our work.

Although we serve the entire neighborhood through programs that reach and engage whole families, our weekly programming currently serves 48 students, and we are continually adding participants as our capacity increases.

Challenges in Historically Poorest Regions

Kentucky has seen more flood-related disaster declarations than any other state between 2000 and 2022. And Eastern Kentucky is recovering from the devastating natural disaster of 2022. In some areas of the county, homes, cars, properties, and businesses were either partially or completely wiped away from the torrential waters and debris that took up residence where humans used to reside. We recognize that this work is more urgent than ever, and it is easy to create a false binary of short-term relief versus long-term systems change. Our region is well accustomed to delaying long-term, meaningful change efforts due to the more pressing need to address immediate challenges; the recent flooding is just one example of this.

While it is important to discuss what equity and digital equity mean to Eastern Kentucky, we must understand how much farther behind the historical flooding puts Eastern Kentuckians. Ten of the 13 counties covered by the natural-disaster declaration from the recent floods had ranked among the 200 poorest U.S. counties in terms of both poverty and income prior to the flooding.

Opportunities that were within reach are no longer available or may not seem available to Kentuckians who have worked for most of their lives to provide for their families. People who were beginning to see opportunities are facing homelessness, joblessness, and general personal and community trauma.

According to Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), there is elevated concern regarding access to quality housing in Eastern Kentucky because, after the flooding, people do not have a home to rebuild or one to restore to the new normal. Knott County and Letcher County, two counties in Eastern Kentucky, is projected to lose forty-three percent of its population, according to University of Louisville State Data Center. The flood is accelerating these departures.

Long-term challenges include remoteness, topography, low educational attainment, and limited access to health care and technology, all of which contribute to digital inequity, making this area the epitome of the digital divide. These inherent challenges are barriers for current and future generations to obtain marketable skills, reskill in a new field, and/or upskill in their own careers.

Numerous advocates have convened on a regular basis providing immediate and direct support to those suffering from Eastern Kentucky’s catastrophic flooding, including:

  • Dr. Danielle King, Lead for America–American Connection Corps (LFA-ACC) Community Equity Fellow, Thompson Scholars Foundation;
  • Rhonda Phillips, executive director, Thompson Scholars Foundation;
  • Keith Gabbard, chief executive officer, Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC);
  • Randy Craft, community outreach coordinator, AdventHealth—Manchester and Volunteers of America;
  • Wayne Dubbels, IT director, AdventHealth—Manchester;
  • Amy Nunn, manager, Teleworks;
  • Betty Hays, director, Teleworks; and
  • Joshua Ball, chief operating officer, SOAR

Digital Equity and the Disenfranchised

As part of our youth development work, the Thompson Scholars Foundation addresses three digital divide factors: broadband connectivity, access to virtual learning, and access to technological equipment for students from underserved and underrepresented communities in the service region. In 2022, Thompson Scholars served approximately 200 students in the community through additional programs such as family literacy, classroom STEM, and summer STEM camps.

Overcoming the Digital Divide

As an American Connection Corps (ACC) Fellow, I participated with partners and stakeholders in a 2022 LFA-ACC listening tour to discuss, in an open forum, how digital equity would bridge economic disparities in Eastern Kentucky and allow communities to prosper. Specifically, how one of the poorest counties in Kentucky, Clay County, could benefit from—and possibly become a model for—other counties in Kentucky by virtue of increased telework and entrepreneurial positions created and sustained during the COVID pandemic.

Thompson Scholars provided broadband for 22 families and 30 children during the 2020 pandemic to enhance virtual learning for students who would not otherwise have had broadband services. This access enabled a continuity of educational attainment for all our student participants and families involved during the public health crisis. As a wraparound organization, Thompson Scholars received 35 laptops and a smartboard to decrease the technology limitations of our students.

Thompson Scholars piloted an accelerated hybrid high school program for participants who were not enrolled in school to graduate on time. The program is part online and part in-person. Thompson Scholars’ staff monitor student progress and achievements within the comprehensive program (life coach, mental health support, in-person instruction from host site, online exam proctors, and nutrition support). Connecting our students to such resources closes the digital divide.

Communities Working Together to Close the Digital Divide

The historic flooding impacted Thacker-Grigsby, a local internet service provider (ISP) that suffered a loss of vehicles and line trucks serving the better part of Eastern Kentucky. Local and state ISPs such as the Peoples Rural Telephone Collective (PRTC) collaborated to get Thacker-Grigsby operational again.

Funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help to create awareness of digital equity programs and policies, begin to inform communities of need via faith-based communities and community organizations, and establish private-public partnerships, ISP partners, and remote-based learning initiatives.

Lessons Learned

Each time we’ve addressed the digital divide, we’ve been surprised by the degree of participation and engagement from students and families. Any initial frustration we experienced setting up programs aimed at lessening the digital divide has been countered by the fantastic outcomes.

Through the accelerated hybrid high school pilot program, we are continually learning what works for our students. As a result, we are sustaining a high school accelerated program. No work is wasted when there is groundwork laid, since there is an ongoing need for infrastructure and capacity in the following examples below directly linked to Thompson Scholars.

  • Remote Work Opportunities—Remote work is a big business in Eastern Kentucky, attracting talent to a higher quality of life. People were able to work for big businesses, such as Toyota, remotely, and families were able to migrate to the mountains due to these opportunities.
  • Establishing and Sustaining Partnerships—PRTC, headquartered in McKee, met with the heads of Windstream and AT&T to form a partnership to begin to build out and map broadband for hard-to-reach communities in Eastern Kentucky. PRTC met with Kentucky Office of Broadband Development executive director Meghan Sandfoss to create a plan for the next steps. PRTC informed the broadband group that fiber-optic cable is a six-to-12-month wait.

LFA-ACC Fellows established a partnership between a local broadband provider and Thompson Scholars. Students met with the CEO and manager, who gave a two-hour tour on broadband operations and the inner workings of fiber-optic cables. The students learned immediately why broadband is essential to their and future generations’ opportunities in the region.

In 2022, the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), the parent company of Teleworks, reported 184 job placements; 61 were from Clay County community events and job fairs. Teleworks created its first employment-paid internship, called REMOTE—Rallying Education Minds Opportunities Telework. Through this telework certificate program, high school students have an employment pipeline internship for six months, giving them immediate work experience. Apple and U-Haul, as private-public partners, are participating in this newly minted certificate-internship program.

Inspiration to Continue the Work in Our Region

Seeing the groundwork laid and the progress being made gives those of us who are involved in this work a demonstration that equity is possible.

Dr. Danielle King is the diversity, equity, and inclusion advisor in the Kentucky Department for Public Health, Office of Health Equity. Dr. King also serves as the Lead for America–American Connection Corps Community Equity Fellow with the Thompson Scholars Foundation. Dr. King’s mid-career and subject-matter expertise has been in public policy as a Doctor of Law and Policy and a 2020–22 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Johnson & Johnson Health Policy Legislative Fellow and co-lead for the United States House Committee on Ways and Means’ health legislative portfolio. There she led advocacy efforts and endorsements for the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, in launching the reintroduction of the 12 titles in the Momnibus and many more in the 117th Congress. She is also passionate about gun violence prevention and legislation.

After graduating from Berea College in 2008, she received her MPH in Public Health Education and Promotion from Arcadia University and her doctorate in Law and Policy from Northeastern University in Boston.