The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t create the digital divide, it only exposed how deep it is. It didn’t make our systems fail, it showed us where our systems desperately needed to improve. Over the past year and a half, American families from all backgrounds — but especially communities of color — have faced tremendous economic challenges and personal hardship.
Between last December and March 2021, there was a steady decline in the unemployment rate for white workers, from 6% in December to 5.4% in March. While Black men saw their rate drop moderately from 9.9% to 9.6%, Black women actually experienced an increase in unemployment from 8.4% in December to 8.7% in March.
Amidst these economic challenges, we have seen an unprecedented level of commitment to racial justice and equity from a diverse range of stakeholders. This includes the tech industry, where HP and other companies have pledged to change the way they approach racial equity within the digital economy.
We hosted the PATH Summit, in partnership with HP and SXSW, where a group of influential experts and community leaders shared what it’s going to take to reach digital equity in the next decade. Here’s what struck me most.
The Digital Divide
“Before the pandemic, I felt like Chicken Little running around trying to convince people why this matters,” said Amy Huffman, policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, referring to digital connectivity. “It’s not just about pipes and wires to people’s houses, we need to make sure that broadband is affordable, and that households have a computer to use and the skills to navigate them.” Today, 10% of households across the country don’t have a computer in their home and many rely on smartphones only.
These problems existed long before the pandemic. But then… the sky fell. “Covid showed us people weren’t paying enough attention prior to the pandemic. The digital divide is wide and vast, and it inhibits the ability to thrive in today’s economy. This is not about when AI takes over; it’s happening right now,” noted Huffman.
Huffman said the pandemic did bring about a positive response, with communities coming together in ways never seen before. She also referenced the bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed in the Senate—with $65 million earmarked for high speed internet. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be enough.
“Right now we have 12 million kids with no broadband, of which two million are Black. Research has shown if a child engages in internet activities during elementary school, they will do it in their career. If you don’t expose them in these younger years, the game is over. We have to place our best foot forward,” shared Dr. Dennis Kimbro, author and professor at Clark Atlanta University.
Entrepreneurs Are Our Future
“We need new types of jobs that don’t require four-year programs,” said Zaki Barzinji, program director at Aspen Digital. When Barzinji worked for the Governor of Virginia, he said they saw underemployment in the cybersecurity sector, with many jobs requiring only an associate’s degree or certificate to qualify. “The jobs you used to rely on that your father, that your grandfather did…those are going away.” How do we help communities realize there is a new set of jobs in the digital economy?
“As a professor at an HBCU, I see it first and foremost,” said Dr. Kimbro. “Right now, there are between 90 and 95 HBCUs in 19 different states with over 330,000 students. Those 330,000 students produce the Black middle class. So if we’re talking about losing 40% of jobs in 20 years, we’re going to put a dent in all the dreams and hopes of 13% of the economy.” He believes entrepreneurs are key to the path forward.
Cleve Mesidor, a Howard alumna, entrepreneur and founder of Nat’l Policy Network and WOC Blockchain agreed — and noted that the average age of an entrepreneur is 45. “Emerging technologies offer entrepreneurs opportunities like never before. Especially with Blockchain and cryptocurrency where you don’t have to have a degree.”
Mesidor urged the private sector to embrace entrepreneurship by investing in startups, and to diversify their recruitment efforts by casting a wider net. “If you’ve invested in the same groups the last five years, you need to get out of your comfort zone.”
Huffman referred to the internet as the great equalizer because anyone can create a business right now. She urged us to pursue progressive pathways that go from teaching someone how to type to teaching them how to code. “We have the opportunity to close the divide, and entrepreneurs can help. How do we get the internet to rural areas? There’s lots of room here for the startup world!”
It’s Up to All of Us
A salient question popped up in the chat: Whose responsibility is this? It’s all of ours. The digital divide affects every facet of our economy, from state to local to federal government.
Earlier this year, HP announced the PATH accelerator to help pave the way for digital equity in underrepresented communities. They also announced a goal to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030. “Digital equity brings to life three major forces: education, healthcare and access to economic opportunity,” said Karen Kahn, head of corporate affairs at HP. “Brands need to put a stake in the ground and put their money where their mouth is to drive meaningful action.”
She shared four core elements to creating the equity everyone, everywhere deserves: “Access to hardware, connectivity, content and training.” And she made it clear that no single organization or company can solve this alone—government, education, healthcare, NGOs and more need to come together.
How to Close the Divide
We need to listen to people on the ground and lead with that information, said Huffman. “Transform it into policy. Government has a special role to play, it is incumbent upon our elected leaders to work on our behalf to close this digital divide. Technologies change every day and we will always have a skills gap. We need sustained leadership and funding so we have systems in place to address these issues…and so we don’t get stuck again where students are waiting outside Taco Bell to get online.”
If you’re interested in doing more, here are some actionable steps:
Get involved in your local inclusion community. Speak with your government reps. Ask your library about laptop rentals. If you work for a startup, volunteer to teach basic skills. Get connected at NDIA.
Be informed about digital equity issues and policies, and educate others. Storytelling is an impactful way to accomplish this, and HP’s Garage docuseries shares short films of changemakers, like that of Jay Jay, the Coder.
Provide the tools. Earmark funds to buy and/or donate used laptops and computers. While a high school diploma used to be a predictor of economic success, today, the number one driver is access to technological tools.
Find out more about HP’s PATH initiative.