We asked Christine Kendrick, Denise López and Elisabeth Perez to talk about their work addressing the digital divide during the COVID pandemic, using a $5 million CARES Act grant to provide internet access, devices, and digital literacy skills to the community.
What is the digital divide?
Many Portlanders, especially Black, Indigenous, Asian Pacific Islander, Latinx and other communities of color and people living with disabilities, have limited access to the internet or no access at all. They may also lack computers, tablets, or other critical hardware, as well as knowledge about programs for secure chat or video calls, online healthcare, banking, or online learning.
The lack of reliable internet access, devices, and digital literacy skills creates economic, social, and educational inequities. These differences describe the digital divide.
What's the problem you’re solving for?
Christine Kendrick (BPS): Early on in the pandemic, because of our relationships with frontline community serving organizations, we heard about two problems that we needed to come together to focus on:
Many community members have limited or no internet access. They also lack critical hardware, software and knowledge about key tools (e.g., chat, video calls) or emerging pandemic-related internet scams. This divide places them at greater risk because so much of the pandemic response assistance is offered online. It also increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and social isolation.
Frontline community organizations need new digital support to build community. Traditional outreach tools (canvassing, community meetings) are no longer possible due to physical distancing and stay at home orders. Community organizations can no longer gather people in a community space or knock on someone’s door to share information or help deliver resources. New digital communities need to be created and supported.
Elisabeth Perez (OCT): This second need is so important as Portlanders and the City of Portland rely on frontline-community serving organizations as trusted partners. The City and many local agencies rely on these organizations to share information, distribute resources, and facilitate community engagement.
The frontline community leadership and shared decision-making in this Digital Divide work led to actions designed to meet the needs of those most impacted. Then the City, across multiple bureaus, brought support to this community-led response. The COVID-19 Digital Divide Response Work Group model resulted in the idea of offering technology kits which include a device, training from trusted community organizations, and internet support.
Building trust and protecting data privacy
Denise López (BPS): Trust has been a key factor throughout this process. Our impact was strengthened through relationships with community organizations and the trust they had with their communities. The internet assistance cards were not tied to any Internet Service Provider. This meant each recipient could make the decision about how to spend internet support. Initially, this was unbelievable to some community members. Community organizations helped convince those who were skeptical that this was real. Some recipients described the sense of freedom they felt when they realized their device (Chromebook/iPad) was theirs to keep and use. Communities have expressed heartfelt appreciation and shared stories highlighting the impact Technology Kits have had on their school, work, and social connections.
Christine: We worked to minimize data collection across several elements of the project to focus on privacy protection and trust. However, to meet certain federal grant requirements we needed to collect some personal data. In those cases, we communicated up front why certain data needed to be collected and worked with each community partner organization to make sure they were the holder of that data, not the City. These decisions were made by our community-led executive team and informed by experiences shared by our work group stakeholders in frontline communities.
Denise: We also needed to consider the burden of asking demographic questions. We worked with our frontline outreach team to understand how extractive this might feel to community recipients and recommendations to address this. The amount of resources community partners handed out was significant. In total 3500 Chromebooks, 547 iPads to people with disabilities, and 8,429 internet assistance cards were distributed. To understand if we met our equity impacts in serving Portland’s BIPOC communities and those who live with disabilities, we needed to collect a certain level of information.
Christine: We also saw that who is asking the questions has a big impact. Each community partner we worked with had varying levels of previous experience contracting with the City. Particularly in the immigrant community or communities who speak a different language, asking questions on gender, income, or housing can be sensitive. We found that our community partners were more able to communicate the purpose of the data and ease any worries regarding privacy. We will keep collaborating with partners to enhance communication methods about the use and purpose of data collection.
Centering expertise from impacted communities
Elisabeth: Our partnerships with community organizations were especially important in this time of emergency. The success for this CARES Act Digital Divide Technology Kit projects comes from the dedication and contribution of community members from the design to implementation. Supporting leadership from frontline communities from the inception ensured that we were actually meeting the needs of the community because we heard from them directly. The experiences shared also helped create a different experience in accessing resources.
Working with communities from the beginning helped us develop the questions to ask to get the data that would help us to understand the impact our efforts have and who we are ultimately serving.
Christine: The Digital Divide Work Group model centered expertise from impacted communities. This structure was designed with community and allowed for wide participation with weekly stakeholder meetings, sub-team volunteer roles, and an Executive Team made up of frontline community leaders and City staff. Given the short timeline for this project, this model worked well to deliver a rapid response.
City staff who choose to apply this approach to their work should ensure they prioritize time to support their relationships with community organizations and work group members. While our community partners had a heavy workload in a compressed timeline, they expressed feeling supported by the project team (City staff and community work group members).
Denise: For staff working on projects where they do not have existing relationships with community organizations, it will take time to build this. The partnerships and intentional design of the project made it clear for stakeholders that this was a good use of their time. There was a true ability to participate and help shape the implementation and outcomes of the response actions in this project.