Providing Internet Access to Communities of Color in Baltimore

Posted October 6, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Open WiFi point added to Baltimore community

As the world moved vir­tu­al due to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, Alexan­dria War­rick Adams — who runs the non­prof­it Elev8 Bal­ti­more — heard on repeat about fam­i­lies and youth who were strug­gling to access the internet.

In Elev8’s home­town of Bal­ti­more, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of these fam­i­lies live in Black com­mu­ni­ties and include young peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in remote learn­ing and pro­gram­ming. To bridge this dig­i­tal divide, the non­prof­it — which part­ners with schools to offer var­i­ous youth and fam­i­ly ser­vices — took mat­ters into its own hands.

In June 2020, Elev8, teamed up with local tech com­pa­ny Row­dy Orb​.it as well as the Inter­net Soci­ety’s Wash­ing­ton D.C. Chap­ter and oth­er part­ners to bring free and open WiFi hotspots to pri­mar­i­ly Black com­mu­ni­ties. With sup­port from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and oth­er fun­ders, Elev8 and its part­ners plan to add two more hotspots through­out the city.

This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to fill a valu­able need,” says War­rick Adams, Elev8’s exec­u­tive direc­tor. The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has brought a lot of stress to Bal­ti­more fam­i­lies — many of whom are fac­ing job and wage loss­es, threats of evic­tion and oth­er adverse cir­cum­stances. At min­i­mum, Bal­ti­more­ans shouldn’t have to wor­ry about access­ing the inter­net right now in our much more vir­tu­al world.”

Pro­vid­ing job oppor­tu­ni­ties for youth, com­mu­ni­ty members

As part of the project, the part­ners hired com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and youth who par­tic­i­pat­ed in local work­force and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams to help con­fig­ure and install the hotspots. Through this work, young peo­ple inter­est­ed in careers in tech­nol­o­gy have gained key expe­ri­ence and built up their tech­ni­cal skills,” says Jonathan Moore, CEO of Row​dy​Orb​.it. This will help them on their paths to gain­ing full-time employ­ment and key credentials.”

Some com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are also work­ing with Row​dy​Orb​.it to assist res­i­dents who need help con­nect­ing to the inter­net or have oth­er tech­ni­cal issues. As the part­ners expand WiFi to more areas, they’ll hire more peo­ple for these roles in hopes of estab­lish­ing work­er coop­er­a­tives to help man­age the ser­vices, says Moore.

A mat­ter of civ­il and human rights

It’s no acci­dent that Black Bal­ti­more­ans and oth­er res­i­dents of col­or are less like­ly to have inter­net access com­pared to white peo­ple in the city, says War­rick Adams.

We see installing these hotspots as an act of resis­tance to the sta­tus quo,” War­rick Adams says. We’re in a vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment, where tech­nol­o­gy is vital to access­ing employ­ment, edu­ca­tion, health care and oth­er key ser­vices. It becomes a human and civ­il rights issue when large seg­ments of our com­mu­ni­ties can­not access nec­es­sary tech­nol­o­gy to par­tic­i­pate in these key activities.”

The Casey Foun­da­tion has made a num­ber of invest­ments to help decrease the dig­i­tal divide in Bal­ti­more. For instance: Casey sup­port­ed the city school system’s efforts to expand stu­dent access to com­put­ers and the inter­net, since all grades are learn­ing remote­ly dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. The Foun­da­tion also com­mit­ted to fund­ing part of a direc­tor posi­tion for the Bal­ti­more Dig­i­tal Equi­ty Coali­tion — a net­work of 60 orga­ni­za­tions that aims to increase dig­i­tal access to city res­i­dents, espe­cial­ly those of color.

Even before the COVID-19 out­break, the dig­i­tal divide held com­mu­ni­ties of col­or back,” says Gena O’Keefe, a senior asso­ciate with the Foun­da­tion. The pan­dem­ic has under­scored the impor­tance of sys­tem and com­mu­ni­ty-led efforts to expand dig­i­tal access with an explic­it end goal of pro­mot­ing equi­table out­comes. We’re glad to see such efforts also help­ing young peo­ple gain valu­able skills that can poten­tial­ly lead to fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wages.”

Learn about a Bal­ti­more youth work­force pro­gram that went near­ly entire­ly vir­tu­al this year

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