One Economy: Bringing the Net to Those Who Need It

One Economy: Bringing the Net to Those Who Need It

Nonprofit provides Web access, content, and training to low-income communities

By: Brian Satterfield

July 13, 2006

A few months after Barbara Duty — retiree and longtime resident of San Francisco's Visitacion Valley neighborhood — purchased a refurbished WiFi-enabled laptop for $200 through the city's TechConnect program, she started having problems accessing the Internet. In hopes of solving this issue, Duty attended a free technology workshop held at the nearby Alice Griffith housing project, an affordable housing complex equipped with its own high-speed wireless Internet connection.

When she arrived at the Bayview Wireless Workshop, Duty encountered a group of high-school students who were helping local residents configure their computers and answering tech questions. One of them, 14-year-old Waqas Ahmad, helped Duty get back online by explaining that she needed to click a system-tray icon in order to enable her computer's wireless signal. "In just a matter of minutes he had me connected," said Duty.

The young people who assisted Duty and others at the workshop are involved in a program called Digital Connectors, founded by national nonprofit organization One Economy. Headquartered in Washington D.C., One Economy has been helping to bridge the digital divide since 2000 by providing people who live in low-income communities with the access to technology resources.

Besides preparing youths to provide hands-on technology training and support, One Economy also equips affordable-housing developments, like Alice Griffith, with high-speed Internet connections. The organization has also launched a number of regional Web sites called the Beehive, where users can find relevant content, such as local job listings and educational information.



One Economy: Waqas


"At the end of the day," said Liz Blacker, Senior Vice President of One Economy's Media Division, "our mission is to really give people the tools and information they need to improve their own lives."

Internet Access for All

At the heart of One Economy's mission is the belief that fast, convenient access to the Internet plays a key role in helping people from low-income communities enter the economic mainstream. Through its Access Services program, the organization works to ensure that affordable-housing residents have access to free or very inexpensive high-speed Internet connections by providing a combination of low-cost consulting services, donated hardware, and hands-on labor.

During the early days of the Access Service program, One Economy staff physically installed either wired or wireless local area network (LAN) hardware into a housing development as it was being built using discounted Cisco hardware it purchased from TechSoup Stock. But as the organization began to work with more and more housing developments, it realized that performing all of the physical labor itself was too time-consuming given its limited staff.

That's why in 2004, the organization began to place more emphasis on its consulting services, according to Bob Wendel, Director of One Economy's Access Solutions division. Although One Economy still physically builds networks in approximately half of the housing developments it works with, outsourcing some of the construction duties to a select group of low-cost contractors has allowed the organization to expand its reach. "We can touch more projects this way," Wendel said.

One Economy consultants like Wendel handle all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into bringing Internet access to public housing. He explains how the organization advises architecture firms during the building and planning phases so that they place the server closets in the proper locations and don't install too many Ethernet jacks in each apartment, for example.

The consultants also research Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the area to help the housing developer select one that's economical yet still provides fast bandwidth. Wendel said that while developments with fewer than 30 apartments can often utilize a central DSL connection, larger ones often require One Economy to find an ISP that offers a T1 connection

Wendel believes that providing public-housing residents with Internet connections in their homes motivates many — especially families — to either seek out an inexpensive refurbished computer or repair an old machine they might already have lying around. "The fact that they can get a free Internet connection is all they really need to tempt them to go get a computer," Wendel said.

Changing Affordable-Housing Policies

Besides its on-the-ground efforts, the Access Services program has also made an impact at the legislative  level. Over a two-year period, One Economy successfully lobbied 42 housing finance agencies (HFA) — state-run organizations that fund most public-housing ventures — to provide financial incentives to developers that include high-speed Internet access in their construction plans. Dave McConnell, Vice President of One Economy's Access Services, explained that affecting change in how states finance low-income housing has been one of the program's goals since its inception.

In most cases, participating states now grant-funding incentives to public-housing developers that are willing to build high-speed Internet connections into new apartment complexes, which encourages firms to include broadband as an amenity. In states such as California, where competition amongst building developers is fierce, McConnell said that drafting a blueprint containing provisions for Internet access has become almost mandatory for contractors wishing to secure affordable-housing contracts.

One Economy's approach was to persuade HFAs to view an Internet connection as an essential utility, just like a phone jack or a washer-dryer hookup. McConnell said that most states quickly saw the value of encouraging high-speed Internet access in public housing, at least on a conceptual level. Some rural, traditionally less-connected states were among the first to change their HFA funding policies, as they saw the Internet as a vital tool for bringing low-income individuals into the mainstream.

"For example, Kentucky was extremely early and whole-hog into it, and the reason was that [the state] wanted to create a competitive edge for [its] people," said McConnell.

The A Buzz with Helpful Information

In addition to bringing broadband Internet access to low-income families, One Economy also provides them with online resources via its Beehive Web site. The Beehive offers a wide variety of diverse yet essential information — such as advice on writing a resume, helping children with homework, or banking online — all from an easily comprehensible site that's available in both English and Spanish.

Since its official launch in 2001, more than 8 million visitors have been to the site. The Beehive has also expanded to include about 25 local editions in cities and regions across 15 states. Though some of the Beehive's content is relevant to people living in any location, much of it is geared toward specific communities. For instance, kids living in Atlanta can use the Beehive to quickly find after-school computer classes while someone residing in Los Angeles could locate a free computer-training workshop near their home.

In 2006, the Beehive helped more than 27,000 users learn about the Earned Income Tax Credit ( EITC), a federal tax program that helps subsidize low-income working individuals and families by giving them a tax refund. Blacker points out that many who are eligible for the EITC may either be unaware of the program or unsure if they qualify for it; as a result, billions of EITC dollars are left unclaimed each year.

In late 2005, One Economy launched an EITC information portal on the Beehive and began promoting it across the various local Beehive sites and posting bilingual flyers at community organizations across the country. The organization explained to Beehive readers how the EITC works and provided them with an interactive quiz they could use to find out if they were eligible for the tax credit. Through a partnership with Complete Tax, a Web-based tax-preparation service, Beehive users who met the EITC requirements were able to file their taxes online through the Beehive at no charge. More than 1,400 low-income users filed their taxes on the site, most of whom received the EITC. When all was said and done, the EITC campaign put a total of $1.8 million dollars back into Beehive users' pockets.

The Beehive site gave Snow Hill, N.C. resident Lisa Johnson something money couldn't buy. Not only does she use the Greene County edition of the Beehive to obtain information on local issues, but also to seek voting advice. When Greene County recently held elections to determine who would serve as County Commissioners, Johnson visited a special forum at her local Beehive where candidates provided answers to four questions. "I found this particularly helpful in seeing how they viewed issues that I know were currently affecting the county," Johnson said.

On a more personal level, the Beehive has provided Johnson with a quick, helpful source of health information. Diagnosed with a high white blood cell count, Johnson uses Greene County's Health Chat message boards to ask questions and find out more about the condition. The answers she receives help her talk to her doctor in a more confident manner.

"This chat gave me the confidence and ease to be able to ask my doctor things that I wouldn't have dreamed of," Johnson stated, adding that this portion of the Beehive has had a profound impact on her and has helped put her mind at ease.

Youths Help Close the Digital Divide

Besides its efforts to bring Internet access and relevant information to economically disadvantaged families and individuals, One Economy provides technology training and education to local youths, ages 14 to 21, so they can return that knowledge to their local communities. Known as Digital Connectors, these teams of young people serve as their neighborhood's high-tech evangelists and support staff, all while learning skills that help prepare them for the job market or college.

The organization founded the Digital Connectors program because it believed that young people could play a key role in connecting low-income communities to the world of technology, according to Marta Urquilla, One Economy's Director of Youth Initiatives. The initial Digital Connectors project — a five-week program funded by The Leonsis Foundation and the eBay Foundation — occurred in Washington, D.C. in 2001, when a team of five youths trained nearly 100 local families on basic computer and Internet usage. Urquilla called this pilot program "an incredible success," noting that it showed the true potential of involving youth who had both technical skills and a desire to play a meaningful role within their neighborhoods.

After its initial success in Washington, the Digital Connectors program quickly grew. Since then, the program has involved nearly 500 youths in 10 cities around the United States. In many cases, One Economy relies on its local partners to help recruit youths using flyers and in-person invites. Kids who are interested in becoming a Digital Connector must submit an application and undergo an interview — experiences that Urquilla thinks help prepare them to enter the working world.

The youths who comprise Digital Connector teams (which vary in size) come in with a wide range of technical backgrounds; some are extremely knowledgeable about computers, while others have little experience. Each team's training depends on the project it will be working on; for instance, if a team's job is to build a wireless network at a housing development, members will learn everything they need to know to get it done.

Digital Connectors Make a Difference in San Francisco

Since 2003, more than 90 young people in San Francisco have taken part in the city's Digital Connectors program and have provided a number of valuable technology services to disadvantaged communities. San Francisco Digital Connectors have set up computer labs in elementary schools, configured wireless networks at housing complexes, and provided more than 200 local families with the training they need to use computer hardware and software, as well as the Internet.

Youths entering San Francisco's Digital Connector program currently receive training at a computer lab located in Carter Terrace, a new affordable-housing development that was wired for free Internet service by One Economy's Direct Access division. Leonardo Sosa, San Francisco Youth Program Coordinator, explains that young people are taught basic Internet skills, including how to use the local Beehive site, and also learn how to take computer hardware apart and reassemble it.

Fifteen-year-old Lavonda Gray, a tenth grader at San Francisco's June Jordan School for Equity, joined the program in the summer of 2005 and has been involved in a number of Digital Connector projects in the city's Visitacion Valley and Bayview neighborhoods.

In the fall of 2005, Gray helped conduct weekly computer training classes for Carter Terrace residents, teaching them basic skills such as how to work with desktop icons and how to surf the Web. "That was my favorite experience," Gray said, "just helping them." San Francisco's team of Digital Connectors continues to provide technology training and support to residents of Carter Terrace, as well as to those who live in Britton Court and Heritage Homes, two other affordable-housing complexes with computer labs that received their Internet connections courtesy of One Economy.

Sosa believes that employing young people as technology ambassadors plays a key role in helping inexperienced persons overcome their initial fears about computers. "I think that when you have an energetic kid in front of you," Sosa said, "that changes the way you look at something." Duty agrees that it was refreshing to work with the Digital Connectors and was impressed with their level of technical expertise. "It's just so second nature to them," she said, "like breathing."

San Francisco's Digital Connectors are not only bringing people from their communities into the high-tech age, but they are also helping local schools sort out their technology problems. In late December of 2005, Sosa, Gray, and nine other young people set up a computer lab at Bayview's Bret Harte Elementary School.

First, the youths unpacked 30 brand-new Dell computers (which were purchased by the city) and tested the school's network drops to make sure they all had Internet connectivity. The Digital Connectors then equipped the machines with Windows XP and other necessary software — such as Norton AntiVirus and Dell drivers — before configuring each workstation so that it could share the network printer.

In addition to performing philanthropic work in their local communities, youths involved in the Digital Connector program gain non-technical skills that will help them later in life. Though Gray had a decent amount of computer experience before she entered the program, she was somewhat shy. She explained that her involvement in the program has helped her improve her communication skills, and she now routinely accompanies Sosa to Digital Connector events and talks to crowds. "I think I've become a better speaker," Gray said.

The Next Step: The Public Internet Channel

Most recently, One Economy announced plans to launch another Web site that will help those from low-income communities to easily access the resources they need to improve their lives. Like the Beehive, the upcoming Public Internet Channel will be a bilingual site offering information on subjects such as education, health, and emergency services. In a recent Washington Post article, Senator Barack Obama — one of the Public Internet Channel's honorary co-chairs — said that he believes that the site will allow the same level of access to social services as Yahoo does for entertainment options.

In its six-year existence, One Economy's various programs have allowed hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals and families to finally realize the promise that technology holds. Blacker sees the Public Internet Channel as yet another tool that the organization will leverage in its quest to put an end to poverty.

"We're looking at the Public Internet Channel as really an evolution of a lot of the work that we've done," she said, "and a lot of the work that we are going to be doing."


About the Author:

Brian Satterfield is Staff Writer at TechSoup.



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