Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice (EYEJ) works to close the digital divide
by Colin Murnan
(Plain Press, September 2020) The EYEJ (Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice) is hard at work trying to close the digital divide in Cleveland. Founded in 2013, the organization works to give voice to the youth and promote change for the greater good in Cleveland.
As the EYEJ press release states, “Of the 38,000 students and 27,000 families in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), 40% of those families do not have access to broadband internet in their homes and 3⁄4 of students do not have access to devices, according to CMSD Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eric Gordon from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.” [Editor’s Note: To address this issue, CMSD CEO Gordon said last school year the district distributed 16,000 devices with the goal of having at least one device per family. Gordon said the goal this school year is to have a device for each student.]
The enormity of this problem has become increasingly evident now that Cleveland schools are making the switch to all online, and students without internet access are facing an uphill battle for education.
Diamond Bottoson, an incoming high school senior and member of the EYEJ youth council, talked about the problem.
“The first nine weeks are online, completely remote,” Bottoson said. “If you don’t have Wi-Fi or anything, how are you going to be able to attend class, stay up to date on everything?”
The problem has been acknowledged by several organizations in Cleveland, but so far there hasn’t been an urgent enough plan to provide these students with the connection they need for the Fall.
“A lot of the proposed solutions involve installing hotspots or giving CMSD family homes a hotspot, which is a step in the right direction, for sure, but it’s a temporary, band-aid solution,” community organizer Delaney Jones said. “Hotpots are not meant to be long-term connectivity solutions . . . they’re not a reliable, long-term solution for connectivity for entire neighborhoods.”
The current timelines for hotspot projects are around 2-5 years, much too long for students that need internet now.
“We really can’t wait,” Bottoson said. “We need more of a sense of urgency because 2-5 years is a very long time and we really don’t have that much time.”
It’s important to look at how neighborhoods in Cleveland arrived at this predicament, with some neighborhoods having full internet access while others are left behind. The term digital redlining has been used as a way of explanation.
“[Redlining] refers to housing policies that started way back in the 1930s. Basically, banks mapped out neighborhoods and decided which neighborhoods were deserving of good loans for their houses and which neighborhoods could not get loans for their houses,” Jones explained. “And this was largely based on average income of the neighborhood and the racial makeup of the neighborhood. It was intentionally discriminating against low-income, African American communities.”
“Those policies . . . had really lasting impacts on the way neighborhood makeups were shaped. And we see a lot of the effects of the redlining policies today,” Jones said.
The old redlining has evolved into a modern form, which Jones talked about.
“When we talk about digital redlining,” Jones said, “we’re talking about similar intentional policy that has to do with internet connectivity and these big name internet providers intentionally discriminating against low income, usually African-American neighborhoods in terms of the speeds that they’re able to get on their internet.”
But there are achievable solutions to the current problem. The answer would involve looking at internet in a new way, much different than the usual profit-driven method.
“There’s other models of internet connectivity that make sense,” Jones said. “Normally the way we think of providing internet, the way that it’s been done before in the United States, is with routers . . . we’re advocating for a shift in which we view internet as a public utility, as a municipally owned utility that is community-owned.”
The solution would involve constructing internet nodes on top of community buildings that give connectivity to the entire community.
“Something more communal, that’s treated like a public utility, is really what’s needed, and it needs to get done quickly,” Jones said. “We can’t wait two years, which are what these other proposals timelines are.”
Diamond Bottoson talked about the importance of getting education to the youth.
“It is very important to have leaders within the youth today, because we are the generation that is going to lead once the current people are out of power,” Bottoson said. “I think it’s very important to have somebody that has good intentions for the world.”