By Christina Quintanilla-Muñoz, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2022 •
Like other injustices, the digital divide is perpetuated through the intricate intersections of racism and poverty, particularly endemic in urban centers. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted with unabated honesty the systemic inequities impacting our most vulnerable communities, including families with low incomes, older adults, individuals with disabilities and students.
Access to digital technologies and the Internet was among the most pervasive equity issues as the trend toward online school, work, health appointments and other business heightened at the peak of the pandemic.
The pandemic roused coordinated efforts from public and private sectors through large investments, such as development of local and state digital equity plans and digital inclusion programs to increase patrons’ immediate access to devices and Internet. But it demanded swift responses that were often temporary or short-term.
Passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021 marked a momentous victory for digital inclusion champions as the “largest single investment in broadband and digital equity in the nation’s history” (Huffman, 2021).
This bipartisan law signaled a pivot to sustaining long-term solutions for bridging the digital divide. The law appropriates over $65 billion to state and local governments, community organizations and other entities for expanding access to reliable high-speed Internet and affordable Internet services, and other digital inclusion activities and programs.
Community Expertise Inspires Innovative and Sustainable Change
Grassroots digital inclusion advocates recognize the road to digital equity demands aggressive action led by impacted individuals – lived experts – in restructuring harmful institutions rooted in capitalism and racism. Such institutions consistently miss the mark in providing equitable solutions to bridge the divide and are often what created the issues in the first place.
Hence, sustainable efforts to close the divide can only be achieved when community members help design impactful solutions that address root problems, like digital discrimination, digital redlining and neighborhood disinvestment.
Approaching digital equity through a racial justice lens is necessary for closing the gaping disparity in digital access among racially marginalized communities. In order to target communities in the leading role of local, regional and national equity work, we must catalyze liberatory systemic transformation necessary for achieving digital justice for all individuals.
Many digital inclusion coalitions know well that the digital divide is “more nuanced than connectivity and adoption alone” (Hearn & Gates, 2020). The divide encapsulates the chilling legacy of discriminatory housing policies and neighborhood disinvestment practices, further marginalizing vulnerable populations and disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income households.
Thus, investments in programs to increase broadband adoption that would otherwise be funneled to corporations or institutions that have not previously served such communities with integrity would create a stronger impact if invested in grassroot initiatives that directly serve their community.
With the new federal law, states and territories will receive Digital Equity Act grant awards to support state digital equity planning with required input from various community members, including county and municipal governments, school districts, and nonprofit and community-based organizations (Schill, 2022; King et al., 2022). Collaboration across these entities is vital to producing digital equity plans that are inclusive, informed and impactful.
Digital Justice is Racial Justice
Community stewardship over digital inclusion can help ensure the roads to digital and racial justice run parallel. The digital divide at its core is a racial equity issue.
In the United States, Black and Latino adults are less likely than their white counterparts to own a desktop or laptop computer (69% and 67%, respectively compared to 80%) and to have a home broadband subscription (71% and 65% compared to 80%) (Atske & Perrin, 2021).
Moreover, Black and Latino Americans are more likely to experience insecurity about their ability to afford home Internet services (McClain et al, 2021).
When we reconceptualize digital equity work as a function of advancing racial equity, we challenge how a locally embedded ecosystem of partners allocates resources for “boosting digital inclusion, unifies parallel efforts” and focuses on the most vulnerable community members (Benton, 2022).
Applying a racial justice lens to digital inclusion emboldens an ecosystem to collectively rectify past acts of oppression and center reconstruction of oppressive structures in critical transformation (Williams, 2022).
This approach maintains that communities are not simply invited to the conversation space held by decision-makers but are actively creating avenues for increased understanding of oppressive mechanisms and deploying community solutions that benefit all residents despite their race, education level, socioeconomic status, age and ability.
The Benton Institute for Broadband and Society summarizes well: “Community members are valuable experts with the potential to become true change makers as they are closer to the issues and solutions than anyone else. Education is the most impactful tool in empowering historically disenfranchised communities to confront systemic inequities and develop innovative solutions for these challenges” (2022).
Digital Inclusion Must Be Liberatory
We must ensure a racial justice lens is applied to initiatives championed to close the digital divide. This means ensuring the path toward digital justice is liberatory in nature. Digital justice seeks to bridge the divide for all individuals regardless of their identity through three main strategies:
- Democratizing the knowledge of digital inclusion within our community by increasing access to educative materials and tools,
- Leveraging community assets to advance innovative solutions, and
- Activating the community through digital inclusion initiatives designed to promote greater autonomy within the shared digital ecosystem.
Robust education resources are an important gateway for inviting non-expert community members into their digital equity ecosystem. Strong community power tools can increase the knowledge of digital inclusion within a community and can build capacity across an ecosystem through shared storytelling, materials and best practices.
For example, just as federal entities, including the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) work to bridge the divide by promoting federal data that inform where under served populations are (King, 2022), community entities – like community-based and non-profit organizations and digital inclusion coalitions – can assess, evaluate, use and share local data to better identify specific community needs. Having a local data repository can encourage knowledge-building, alignment and coordination across the ecosystem.
A community-produced asset map is another example of an equity-based, community power tool that accentuates the strengths within an ecosystem. Asset maps have a two-fold purpose: to identify service gaps within a community; and to aid community members with locating digital inclusion programs and services related to access to affordable devices or Internet services, and digital skills training or technical support.
Atske, S., & Perrin, A. (July 16, 2021). Home Broadband Adoption, computer ownership vary by race, ethnicity in the U.S. Pew Research Center.
BIBS. (July 12, 2022). The Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship: A Participatory Action Research Project. Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.
Hearn, K., & Gates, J. (2020). Healing the Digital Divide with Community Equity, Not Corporate Extraction. Detroit Community Technology Project.
Huffman, A. (November 16, 2021). The Infrastructure Act and Digital Equity Act Passed… Now What? National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Huffman, A. (May 13, 2022). The IIJA Money is Finally (Almost) Here. National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
King, H., Martin, M., McArdle, S., Goldberg, R., & DeSalvo, B. (May 13, 2022). New Digital Equity Act Population Viewer Shows Broadband Access and Demographic Characteristics. U.S. Census Bureau.
NTIA. (2022). High-Speed Internet for All. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Schill, A. (September 19, 2022). Calling All Coalitions: This Is Your Chance to Contribute to State Digital Equity Plans. National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Williams, C. (April 6, 2022). A Universal Equation for Understanding Racial Health Inequity Reproduction: A Basis for Discussion. Public Health Liberation.
Christina Quintanilla-Muñoz, M.Ed., is an IDRA research analyst. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com.
Digital Inclusion Community Power Tools
- The Digital Inclusion Resource Library by the Institute of Museum and Library Services & NDIA
- IDRA Online Technical Assistance Package on Digital Equity
- Digital Skills Librarymanaged by EdTech Center @ World Education
- State Digital Equity Scorecardby NDIA and the National Skills Coalition
National Telecommunications and Information Administration Resources for Communities
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will administer $48 billion of the investment allocated to digital equity and broadband through four programs and as part the “Internet for All” initiative.
The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program provides $42.45 billion for expanding access to high-speed infrastructure in high need areas through the support of funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs.
The Digital Equity Act Programs provide $2.75 billion to establish three main grant programs aimed at promoting digital equity and inclusion through skills, technology and capacity building and supporting the development and implementation of state, territorial and tribal digital equity plans.
The Enabling Middle Mile (MM) Broadband Infrastructure Program provides $1 billion in funding for reducing the costs associated with servicing unserved and under served communities with high-speed Internet though local networks.
The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program provides $1 billion to tribal governments for adopting high-speed Internet across tribal lands. (The application window for this program closed in September 2021.)
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has published numerous articles and hosted various webinars that examine the latest detail and updates concerning the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and its digital inclusion grant programs.
[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]