Bridging the Digital Divide

Comcast Program Helps Low-income Students Become Computer-literate
Bridging the Digital Divide

From left, high-school students Esther Njeri, Shemron Ross, Melissa Philogene, and Tevin Jones work together on a community-service project.

It’s called the Digital Connectors Program, and, as the name implies, it is designed to help connect young people, specifically those in low-income areas, to digital technology. In Springfield, the program is opening eyes — and also opening doors to opportunity.

It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and several teenagers are intently focused on computer screens at the Urban League in Springfield.

They are researching violence and its causes, studying the consequences of smoking tobacco, visiting college Web sites, and creating and editing public-service announcements and films.

Several months ago, the majority of these teens used the computer only to network with friends via Facebook and MySpace accounts. But today, thanks to the Comcast Digital Connectors Program, they have become proficient in broadband technology and are using their newfound knowledge to pursue personal goals and make a difference in Springfield.

The purpose of Comcast’s program is to help young people in low-income neighborhoods become computer- and broadband-literate and develop leadership skills that will allow them to become ambassadors and share their knowledge with their families and community.

“My friends told me about this, and it sounded fun and interesting,” said 15-year-old Gladys Kibunyi. “I wanted to become involved in something that could help me build my future and help me figure out what I want to be when I grow up. This will help me get ready for college and choose what college I want to attend. In this program, I can do community service or do volunteer work, learn how to get scholarships or grants, and meet important people and make the right connections.”

Kibunyi’s sentiments mirror those of other program participants. “I didn’t know much about computers before I became part of this program,” said 16-year-old Esther Njeri. “I want to become a computer engineer, and this will help me with my future. It has also taught me about teamwork and how to work well with others.”

The group recently used flip video cameras donated by Comcast to film themselves passing out informational packets to people in the downtown area. The packets contained a list of community resources and were provided by the Shannon Foundation’s Anti-Youth Violence Campaign.

They are also promoting the Urban League’s Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program and developing a TV show, which they hope will air on Comcast’s Springfield access channel as well as the Digital Connection’s Web portal.

“It’s a talk show about violence prevention,” said Leon Cosby, director of the Urban League of Springfield Digital Connectors Program. “We want to get them active in areas where they want to see change. We also hope to get some local radio stations to air their public-service announcements.”

The program was set up for 25 students, but word of mouth has made it so popular that about 40 teens have become involved. Comcast provided the computers they work on as well as broadband service at the Urban League.

“Each teen has their own Web page where they post videos and talk to students in other Comcast groups in the country,” said Cosby. “Leadership skills are built into the program. These teens could be anywhere, but they are here doing something constructive and building relationships with each other.”

Classes began last April, but the program’s curriculum has expanded and was recently finalized. Cosby has adapted it to their needs, making sure to focus on the core areas of competency.

The majority of program participants are from New Leadership Charter School. The Urban League was instrumental in its establishment in 1998 and continues to be involved with education and leadership and development programs there.

“Our goal is to have these students become ambassador advocates,” Cosby said. “Once they have this knowledge they will be in a position to help others, and will also be on a level playing field with other teens.”

National Initiative

Comcast has made a national $1.2 million commitment to sponsor its Digital Connectors initiative for three years, beginning in 2009. The company plans to implement the program in 22 cities across the nation, but chose Springfield, Washington, D.C., and Houston to launch its pilot programs.

“The Comcast Digital Connectors initiative began with our desire to promote the importance of digital-literacy skills that are necessary for students to realize their potential,” said Doug Guthrie, senior vice president of Comcast’s Western New England region. They took action by forming a partnership with One Economy Corp., which began a Digital Connectors program in 2002, which identifies talented young people, immerses them in technology training, and helps them build leadership and workplace skills.

One Economy’s program is active in more than 20 rural and urban areas across the country. But since Comcast is the largest residential broadband provider in the country, combining resources will allow the program to grow quickly.

Its new curriculum, which was just released, has expanded the subject matter to be mastered from four to 12 areas of competency. Participants will be educated in leadership and diversity, personal development, workforce development, financial literacy, community mapping, digital literacy, hardware and networks, software and programming, media production and civic journalism, the environment and sustainability, service and global engagement, and teaching and facilitation.

The program, which contains testing to ensure that students are meeting benchmarks, is aimed at address what experts call the ‘digital divide.’

“For cities like Springfield, the digital divide is not about access to broadband service. It’s about the adoption and the development of digital-literacy skills that will be necessary for these kids to realize their future potential,” said Guthrie.

Henry Thomas, Urban League president, agrees.

“Knowledge is power,” he said. “Being connected digitally is critically important to the quality of people’s lives and gives them an advantage. Although digital connectivity is almost essential for work or college, the digital divide is very substantial.”

A recent national study showed that 80% of Caucasians have computers and are connected to the Internet, while 55% to 60% of Latinos have those resources, but only 46% of African-Americans have the same advantage. “We are the ethnic population that is the least connected,” Thomas said, adding that inner cities are heavily populated by African-Americans and Latinos, and 85% of Springfield’s Mason Square residents are African-American.

Thomas cites two reasons for the digital divide. The first is affordability, while the second is that many people aren’t aware of the value computers and broadband can add to their lives. Unfortunately, childen in these families often fall behind.

“Children in families who don’t have computers or haven’t adopted broadband lack a major source of information and technology that they need to be competitive in the academic arena,” he said.

Local Partnership

Thomas was delighted when Comcast approached him and proposed using the Urban League as the setting for its pilot program. Comcast has provided funding and support for the league’s programs in the past, including a computer-skills training program that took place about three years ago.

“They were familiar with our mission and understand the impact we are having in the community,” he said, adding that Comcast has relationships with many of the 101 Urban Leagues across the country. “We were honored to be part of the initiative.”

The students have done so well that Comcast made a DVD of their program for distribution to new markets. Thomas is proud of this and proud that students are sharing their new skills with others. “We will increase the collective functioning within the inner city to the extent that we can establish value in being digitally capable and proficient, so that people can be on even ground as it relates to educational and workforce-development issues,” he said.

The students are very appreciative of the opportunity and growth they have experienced since signed on as Digital Connectors.

“I haven’t seen any other programs like this,” said 17-year-old Ceeja Brice. “It’s been a very great learning experience and very valuable as our world is headed toward technology. I actually feel a lot smarter than I did before. Now I know what computers are capable of.”

He has gained knowledge about how to utilize the Internet to search for jobs. “The One Economy Web site has job-search tools, and I have shown the site to several people, including my mother,” he said. “She used it, and it was a new resource for her.”

Brice is editing a public-service announcement the teens are creating about violence. “It is never the answer to where you want to be,” he said. “People are being killed or sent to the hospital because of violence.”

His life goal is to own a music business, and he has learned that the Internet can be a useful tool for conducting surveys about new musicians and music. “This is making a huge difference for me,” he said.

Kibunyi is producing a public-service announcement about tobacco use. She has also taught her mother how to use the Internet and is excited about coming into contact with a whole world of new people and opportunities.

“She’s building her network,” Cosby said.

It’s a network that will continue to grow, city by city, across the nation as students in communities spread the word about the benefits of being a Comcast Digital Connector.

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