Bridging the Digital Divide

We take an inside look at the innovative and ingenious ways in which two social entrepreneurs are continuing to bring the tech world to underserved women in Austin.

By Shelley Seale, Photos by Dustin Meyer

The world is in the middle of the technology revolution, and the United States is at the forefront of its progressive developments and change. Yet, in some underserved communities, one may not even know or have heard of the incredible innovations shaping the tech scene today. In low-income neighborhoods and schools, homeless shelters, senior-citizen centers and among other populations, including veterans and people with disabilities, access to computers and other modern-day technology is sorely lacking.
 
According to Austin Free-Net, one in five American adults still do not use the internet because they either do not know how to use it, lack access to it or are not convinced of its value. At the same time, some 5,000-plus tech jobs, many of them entry-level positions requiring no college degree, sit unfilled in the U.S. due to a gap in technical expertise. 

This is what’s known as the digital divide, the gulf of economic and social inequity between those who have access to information and computer technologies and those who do not, often most divided along lines of income, race and gender. Although Austin is known and applauded for being a tech-forward city, shockingly, this gulf exists here too.

“The digital divide is arguably the single largest segregating force in today’s world,” Janice C. Sipior and Burke T. Ward wrote in a Villanova University report titled The Digital Divide: A Case Study of a United States Community. “If it is not made a national priority, a generation of children and families will mature without these tools that are proving to be the key to the future.”

The divide is something that not only hurts one person or affects one family; it’s an issue that impacts the entire surrounding community. It’s a downward-spiral-like domino effect. Fewer people working means less tax revenue for a city while, at the same time, increased pressure is placed on social-services providers. A family might need an older child to quit school and go to work, which means the cycle of low-paying jobs is continued for yet another generation. 

Investing in Austin’s brain trust and improving the education and technical acumen of residents is a winning game plan to draw more businesses to town, increase the city’s tax revenue and reduce unemployment numbers. In short, a computer-literate and tech-savvy population equals a citizenry that makes a city stronger economically and makes Austin more attractive to new industry.

Austin Free-Net
Tinesha Durr was one of those whose life fell into the crevasse of the digital divide. After her son was born, Durr thought about enrolling in an internet-technology certification program. She loved tinkering with computers and had taken some college courses in the past, but was frustrated by the endless administrative jobs she held and the obstacles facing her. She was dealing with not only the challenges of single parenthood, but also a life-threatening health issue, both of which temporarily derailed her dreams.

A few years later, however, Durr saw a posting for Austin Free-Net’s Techno-Women program. The 34-week course, which prepares women for the modern-technology workforce, began in March 2016, and Durr knew it was the right fit for her. She applied for one of 11 available scholarships and was awarded financial aid. Soon after, Durr became the first student to complete all three of Austin Free-Net’s IT certifications.

“The course teaches you to become an independent thinker,” says Durr, who was offered a tech position in Las Vegas that paid an annual salary of $45,000.

 Her next goal is to earn her certification in the Linux Operating System and help others wanting to launch careers in tech by becoming a network-administration trainer.

In retrospect, Durr’s career trajectory is exactly the kind of result those at Austin Free-Net want to see for all its students. Austin Free-Net’s mission, after all, is to bridge the digital divide by providing technology training and access to the community, fostering skills that enable these citizens to succeed in a digital age. 

“Our vision is a world without digital barriers,” says Juanita Budd, AFN’s executive director, who thoroughly understands having internet access is directly correlated to a better quality of life, a more equal economic playing field and upward mobility in one’s career. “We are a trailblazer in promoting a digitally engaged society. We specialize in free, public computer access, training and workforce development for the underserved populations in metro Austin and surrounding counties.”

Founded in 1995, AFN is the only nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one training and computer access to programs free of charge to clients. While there are a few other organizations through which the public can access the internet for free, most of them, including libraries, require proof of residency and limit online time to one-hour sessions. 

Budd points out that AFN clients usually take more than an hour to complete a job application, so, accordingly, the program allows free internet access for as long as three hours in one sitting. AFN has labs hosting a total of approximately 155 computers in 32 community locations, including health-and-human-services sites, homeless shelters, senior activity centers and low-income housing neighborhoods where residents are less likely to be able to afford internet access, let alone a computer. 

All members of the community are welcome to use an AFN lab and are helped on a walk-in basis, with no registration, appointment or identification required. Students get help learning computer basics by achieving the goals they set for themselves. AFN trainers teach students how to create resumes, look for jobs and find help online, create and use email accounts, connect with friends and family using social media, and more. This access is bridging the technology gap by helping people in the Austin community find work and health-care services, and complete many other necessary modern-day tasks. 

“AFN believes empowerment in the 21st century must include technology and digital literacy,” Budd says. 

The Techno-Women program is one of the key components of AFN that advocates for and supports women—a demographic that makes up 65 percent of its client base—preparing underserved women to enter today’s tech workforce.

“Most of these women have little to no experience with technology outside of the usage of their cellphones. They are low-income and 70 percent are minorities—black and Hispanic,” Budd says. “According to research, this group is least likely to engage in technology. Introducing them to potential careers in the technology space garners opportunities for jobs above the living wage and supports self-sufficiency.”

The expected outcomes of the Techno-Women program are that students will have enhanced their business acumen, know how to build their own computer, have learned the functionality of computer software and hardware components, and have earned marketable network certifications. 

“The skills the students learn will directly impact their family’s income and potentially lead someone on the path to entrepreneurship within the marketable technology field,” Budd says.

AFN is spearheading the tech-for-all charge by joining forces with crusades such as Unlocking the Connection, a homegrown initiative founded on a mission to help close the digital divide for thousands of people. Partnering with Google Fiber, Austin Community College and the city’s housing authority, the partnership recently completed the pilot year of bringing digital-literacy classes called Tech Starters to public-housing residents. So far, 122 students have graduated from the program, which now serves as a national model for digital-literacy training through the White House’s 2016 technology initiative.

Latinitas
As is true in any career field, and particularly within industries such as technology in which there is a high gender, racial and income gap, reaching young people is vital. One organization addressing this need—a need not only to achieve more female and minority representation in tech, but also to reach an underrepresented audience of young women—is Latinitas, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering Latina youth through the use of media and technology.

“Less than 1 percent of our technology industry in town is Latina,” says Laura Donnelly, CEO and co-founder of Latinitas. “It’s appalling in a city where 60 percent of our local school district is Latino, and 80 percent of our incoming kindergarteners at AISD is Latino. The segregated nature in Austin is making it hard for the influx of newcomers to see the bevy of human capital right here in the city borders, just east of I-35—[residents] ready for recruiting to our film, tech and startup sector.”

Donnelly adds Latinos come from a heritage that created the first human technologies. From drought farming to the invention of chocolate, Mayans, Incans and Tainos in the Caribbean were at the forefront of evolving ingenuity and human progress. Contemporary Latinos are also natural code switchers; many already think in and speak two or more languages, and modern technology is a real-life application of those honed skills.

“We are teaching Hispanic girls they need not ‘join’ tech. It is already in their DNA,” Donnelly says. “Their people were there first.”

In tandem with her University of Texas classmate Alicia Rascon, Donnelly founded Latinitas 15 years ago as an assignment for a Latinos and Media class. The ambitious duo approached their professor, media scholar Federico Subervi-Velez, to ask if they could do something off-syllabus for the final class project. The result was the first—and, to this day, the only—magazine made by and for young Latinas.

“Latinas in mainstream media are still represented pretty stereotypically, either as maids, feisty and angry, overly sexualized or just not there at all,” Donnelly says. “We were both adamant about using media and tech to create something that reflected positive, more accurate portrayals of U.S. Latina youth and women.”

While she, Rascon and their fellow UT students were the first volunteers to helm the direction of the magazine, they wanted Latinitas to offer authentic content that was written and produced by the very audience at whom it was aimed. They started holding workshops and after-school clubs, as well as camps and conferences to cultivate the next generation of writers, bloggers, filmmakers, podcasters, photographers and web and graphic designers. Later, they added a focus on app developers, game designers, virtual-reality producers and coders.

Today, Latinitas is a multi-city nonprofit organization providing digital-media and technology training—not to mention esteem-boosting services—to nearly 3,000 girls and teens throughout Texas each year, 2,000 of them in Central Texas and 1,000 more in West Texas. Latinitas’ presence at 112 Austin schools, libraries, public-housing sites, community and cultural centers has provided more than 25,000 young women from all backgrounds a suite of multimedia production skills and technology training, from digital photography know-how to robotics how-to. 

“You can’t just tell girls to ‘go code’ and [expect] they will,” Donnelly says. “You have to make tech connect to them in real and fun ways. We do this through fashion, such as wearable tech, and through ways in which tech can be used as a tool for community outreach and social justice. Media and technology are ideal delivery devices to teach Latina girls messages about identity, self-esteem, health and wellness, college attainment and much more.”

Latinitas is driven to connect the city’s fastest-growing youth population with one of its most lucrative industries, making it the only bilingual technology-education agency in Austin and one of only a handful of similar organizations nationwide. 

“We are bringing girls to tech spaces and connecting them with people there who look like them and grew up like them. That lets them experience that ‘you got to be it to see it’ moment,” Donnelly says.

The program, a movement of sorts, is working. Donnelly says 63 percent of the girls who attended Latinitas’ Code Chica Conference in 2016 had never coded before, adding that 93 percent of Latinitas’ program alumni end up graduating high school and 81 percent of graduates now identify as college students. 

“In respect to Latinas having the highest dropout rate of all their peers, this is immense,” Donnelly says of the telling statistics. “When we think of Austin youth now, we should be picturing Latino youth. Latinitas is about mining the talent right here in our own backyard.”


Get Involved With Austin Free-Net

Sign up: Subscribe to the newsletter at austinfree.net/donate/newsletter-signup
Donate: Monetary donations and in-kind donations are accepted through Amazon, Randall’s and hosted fundraising events. austinfree.net/donate
Volunteer: Computer-lab trainers, administrative support and outreach events are some of the areas in which volunteers can play a role. austinfree.net/volunteer
Fee-based training: AFN offers basic computer-literacy classes and advanced computing classes for group organizations.
Take part in Digital Inclusion Week, May 8 through 13: Raise awareness about digital inequities and nationwide efforts being made from California to the Carolinas to close those gaps. During the week, organizations from throughout the nation, including Austin Free-Net, will host digital-inclusion events and share digital stories that highlight specific inequities and the role digital-inclusion providers play in bridging the digital divide. 

Celebrate Latinitas’ 15th Anniversary Quinceañera

To commemorate 15 years of empowering Latina youth, Latinitas will host a quinceañera event June 10 at Gather, located at 5540 N. Lamar Blvd. Quinceañeras are a rite of passage for young Latina women, dating back to the Aztecs. They commemorate a girl’s spiritual transition to womanhood and empowerment. 

“Like the original quinceañeras, this event will focus on indigenous and mestizo empowerment with a photo exhibit and contest focused on transformation, but also [focus on] the more commercialized and familiar experiences of a modern-day quinceañera, including honoring padrinos [or godparents], five longtime supporters of Latinitas, including Spy Kids producer Elizabeth Avellan, a court made up of Latinitas’ board and current and past staff, and a full-out party driven by the international DJ collective Peligrosa All Stars,” says Vicky Garza, Latinitas’ director of development and marketing.

Patrons are invited to wear cocktail attire in bright quinceañera colors. Luxco distilleries will host a special tasting of its Exotico Tequila and Rebel Yell whiskey. Latinitas program alumni working in television, technology, education and more will be on hand to share their success stories. latinitasgala.com


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