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The digital divide is a real-world problem for too many families; we need a redoubling of effort to close it

According to Wikipedia, the “digital revolution” is the change from analog mechanical and electronic technology to digital technology that has taken place since about 1980 and continues to the present day. It’s a revolution without end in the ways we transact daily business.

Public debate about implications of our digital world have focused on content issues along with speed and ubiquity of technology, but an emerging concern is the subject of a Dec. 6 community forum at the Humphrey Institute; “Digital Inclusion: A Community Agenda for Economic, Education and Civic Equity.” As the title suggests, for some members of the community lack of access and inability to meaningfully use digital technology is a growing barrier to full participation in modern society. The afternoon forum, from 4 to 6 p.m., will shine a bright light on this concern. (To register for this free event, go here.)

What we experience at Project for Pride in Living, Inc. (PPL) working with lower-income people illustrates the challenge. At a recent meeting a cross-section of frontline staff talked about the aptly named digital divide — not as an intellectual concept but a real-world problem for families trying to find employment, manage their finances, stay connected with their children’s schooling, find out where to vote, or perform a number of life’s necessities now done chiefly, if not exclusively, online.

It’s not a stretch to argue that digital access and capability represent a new building block of self-sufficiency, just like access to stable affordable housing and a living-wage job. But not enough priority has been placed on policies to address the digital divide or public and private investments to close it, hence the importance of the upcoming gathering.

Speakers at the forum will include Seattle’s community technology director, St. Paul’s Library Director Kit Hadley, and several local and national practitioners who are doing cutting-edge work creating true access for employment, education and community engagement purposes. Some of PPL’s work is illustrative of what is needed.

  • At a time when finding work is difficult and hiring is increasingly Internet based, PPL’s computer-access labs and workshops take a “high touch” approach to helping people improve computer skills, conduct online job searches, create resumes, set-up email accounts, and much more. Use of these resources is up 65 percent this year.
  • Our service coordinators are using laptops that enable faster response for, and hands-on involvement of, program participants as they work together with staff who can model behavior needed for success.
  • Our mobile technology labs (computers and Internet) bring digital access into PPL community rooms in apartment buildings across the Twin Cities, and to our after-school sites. This allows parents and children alike to engage in school-related activities that they would otherwise miss and develop skills for future use.
  • Through partnerships with the University of Minnesota’s Digital Divide Initiative and the Geek Squad, several hundred families have received refurbished computers for their home use and on-going instruction on how to safely use and maintain them. In exchange,  these families agree to perform several hours of community service.
  • Programs developed jointly with leaders in immigrant communities have helped hundreds of Hmong, Somali and Latino citizens find employment and education resources and become fuller participants in the life of the Twin Cities, which they now call home.

The dizzying pace of change in the ways we communicate and access information essential to daily life isn’t a new issue, but the practical implications of being behind that curve are growing more and more serious. Consideration of means to drive meaningful digital access, literacy and use deeply into disadvantaged households as an essential element of economic, education and social equity must also become more serious, lest the digital divide become another gaping disparity in the Twin Cities separating haves from have-nots.

Steve Cramer is the executive director of Project for Pride in Living, Inc., Minneapolis.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/30/2010 - 09:46 am.

    What many folks who have not had to use it that way may not realize is that dependable, affordable access to high speed internet, something that was once more a tool than a toy is now completely necessary, especially for those seeking employment.

    Not to mention the fact that, now that our nation’s richest, most conservative citizens control the vast majority of the mainstream media and are even able to coerce, through the threat of de-funding, public media into spreading at least some of their misinformational propaganda, the internet is often the ONLY source of accurate information about what’s really going on in the world.

    The internet is no longer a toy. It is a necessary tool for successful living. It is as necessary and useful a part of life as were gas, electric and telephone utilities back when the government supported their spread throughout cities and states across the nation.

    Although many local rural telephone networks (where they had not previously been bought up by the Bells) have taken advantage of the same old government programs that were set up to assist them in providing phone service to rural areas in order to provide high speed internet to their customers, such programs do not exist in the metro areas. We need to create them.

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