Expanding access to electronic devices and building up infrastructure to support high-speed internet are a start to bridging the digital divide, but the gap will remain if people are not taught how to use those tools, Baltimore City College senior and activist Kimberly Vasquez told Vice President Kamala Harris during a virtual White House listening session on Monday.
Vasquez, who is one of the lead organizers of the group Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS) at Baltimore City College, advocated for the creation of a national “DigiCorps” program, similar to Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, to train people how to use technology and, in turn, teach others in communities nationwide.
“I think we need to look at our young people as resources in solving this issue,” she said.
President Joe Biden in January announced the American Rescue Plan, which seeks to address the COVID-19 pandemic, aid economic recovery, and advance racial justice.
In Baltimore, SOMOS and a coalition of advocates are encouraging city officials to invest $1 million from Baltimore’s portion of the American Rescue Plan funds to establish a youth jobs program for “digital navigators.”
“This program would connect youth to technology and further develop their digital literacy skills,” Vasquez told Harris. “Just as my peers already help their families, they would guide residents of all ages on how to effectively adopt technology and internet benefits. This would bring the youth voice to the table and provide a pathway for marginalized students to high-quality jobs.”
She added that she believes these jobs should pay at least $15 an hour.
Vasquez shared that her family uses Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan, which provides internet with a download speed of 50 Mbps to low-income families for $9.95 per month.
But before Vasquez and her peers pushed Comcast to double their internet speeds from 25 Mbps under that plan, she said her family often had to make difficult choices about who would use the internet at any given time and who would have to be digitally disconnected from their online school or work.
“Many mornings throughout this pandemic, my family and I had to decide who got priority to use the internet,” she said. “Was it going to be me and my sisters’ education, or was it going to be my parents’ work that puts food on the table?”
Vasquez urged the Biden administration to work to keep sections of the American Jobs Plan that allow cities and states to build public internet, which she said would create alternatives to corporate internet providers.
In her prepared remarks before speaking with the six participants of the listening session, Harris said that before electricity was made more widely available, “many Americans were literally left in the dark.”
President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, and signed the Rural Electrification Act into law in 1936, sending crews to rural communities to wire homes and farms with electricity.
In the 21st century, broadband is “critical infrastructure,” Harris said, and the U.S. government must work to provide more people with access to digital resources.
“Literally, the government lit up America [with rural electrification],” Harris said. “Today, I believe we must act again and act in that way, understanding our capacity and our responsibility to connect America and to allow all Americans to have access to those basic needs that allow them to raise their families, allow them to educate their families, to do their work.”
Harris said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for reliable and accessible digital resources, as people had to go online to attend school, run their businesses, meet with doctors and work from home.
“Think about how many could not do any of that and missed out on these critical lifelines because they didn’t have access to high-speed internet,” she said.
The American Jobs Plan would help build broadband infrastructure and “make sure every American, no matter where they live, no matter how much they have in terms of income, would be able to access high-speed internet at home,” Harris said.
Harris said the U.S. currently faces three main barriers to closing the digital divide: lack of access, lack of affordability, and inequity.
About one in eight Americans live in areas without reliable broadband access, and one in three Americans who live in rural areas and tribal lands do not have access to broadband, Harris said.
Lack of competition between internet providers has also driven up the cost of high-speed internet and makes it less affordable, Harris said. More than 65 million Americans live in areas with only one high-speed internet provider, and more than 200 million live in areas with one or two providers.
Fewer Black and brown Americans use broadband in their homes compared to white Americans, and Americans who earn less than $35,000 per year are less likely to have high-speed internet at home, Harris said.
Vasquez cited a May 2020 report from the Abell Foundation, which found that 80.7% of white households in Baltimore have computers and desktops, compared to 60% of Black households and 47.5% of Latinx households.
In 2018, 40.7% of Baltimore households did not have wireline internet service from a cable, fiber or digital subscriber line service, the report found.
Racial and income disparities lead to other disparities as people are unable to access key resources online, Harris said.
“When people are cut off from high-speed internet, they are also being cut off from opportunity,” she said.
Vasquez highlighted how Harris, during her presidential campaign, shared how school busing was important to connecting her with her education.
“Like those buses, we need high-speed internet to exercise our own constitutional right to a quality education,” Vasquez said. “This is a critical civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
Vasquez said she was happy to share how Baltimore residents, especially young people, have been affected by lack of digital access during the pandemic.
“I’m glad that Vice President Harris is pulling stories from various backgrounds and giving them this platform to voice their experiences,” Vasquez said in a statement. “Centering community voice in policy is what is going to lead to effective solutions in digital connectivity and literacy.”
Vasquez’s fellow SOMOS members expressed their pride with seeing their friend share their message to the vice president and a national audience.
Sophomore Juan Rivas said in a statement that “It makes me proud to see Kim fight for what she believes needs to be done in order for everyone to have what we deserve.”
“It felt like SOMOS achieved what it was meant to achieve,” junior Samreen Sheraz said in a statement. “There is far more to our work and success, but this is a stepping stone and it is HUGE.”
“I just feel so proud of all of the things SOMOS has done as a group and Kim being an amazing leader,” sophomore Blanca Rosalez said in a statement. “It was just a great moment today.”
In addition to Vasquez, the listening session also featured Rev. Joan Ross, operating director of the North End Woodward Community Coalition in Detroit, Michigan; Amanda Schermerhorn, a federal legislative advocacy fellow with Lead Minnesota and a mother of four; Dr. Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan; Dr. William Gonzalez, a primary care physician and assistant professor at University of Central Florida College of Medicine; and Meagan Kaiser, a soybean farmer, soil scientist, and chief operating officer of Perry Agricultural Laboratory, Inc. in Bowling Green, Missouri.
Harris concluded the listening session by echoing Vasquez’s statement that “this is also a civil rights issue, and it is about equity and fairness.”