Bridging the Digital Divide

Apr 3, 2024

Photograph of Chase Barney, caucasian mail with short brown hair and beard, wearing black-rimmed eyeglassed, gray shirt under blue sweaterWhen I first stepped into the role of Digital Coach at Jewish Family Services in the summer of 2022, I was not familiar with concepts like “the digital divide” or “digital inclusion.” I was not aware of the rapidly growing and emerging field of Digital Equity and the thousands of people and organizations working to bring modern devices, digital skills training, and internet access to millions across the United States. Over the last year and half, I’ve had the opportunity to became embedded in a community of non-profits, government offices, and businesses working to bridge the digital divide in Franklin County, Central Ohio, and nationwide. This culminated in an opportunity to attend the national Net Inclusion 2024 conference in Philadelphia in February where I spent three days learning and networking in all things Digital Equity.

Before I was introduced to the world of Digital Equity work I was a history teacher. I spent five years working on a PhD in History at the University of Arkansas. I taught college history classes in Arkansas, Kansas, Zimbabwe, and Ohio before deciding that the rigors of academic writing and publishing were not for me. While I wasn’t sad to leave the pressures of publishing behind, I was sad to leave the classroom and the students and the process of teaching that I had grown to love. When I saw an opportunity at Jewish Family Services to combine a personal love of technology with the ability to continue teaching and helping others learn I jumped at the opportunity to make a career transition.

My first week as a Digital Coach at JFS landed me in a meeting of the Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition (DEC), a group of partner organizations from across the Franklin County area dedicated to addressing the gap between those who have and know how to use technology in their everyday lives and those who do not—the digital divide, as I quickly learned. Through the DEC I was quickly connected to other partners engaged in Digital Equity work and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance which connected to yet many others across the country.

These networks taught me everything I know about the work of Digital Inclusion and I was able to bring this knowledge back to my work at JFS helping clients learn to use computers and smartphones, find affordable devices, and get them connected to the internet. The wealth of resources made available to me through these local and national networks was invaluable to my ability to help my clients.

Partnerships and collaborations have also been key to several of the successful Digital Equity programs we have run at JFS over the last two years. We’ve run numerous Smartphone and Computer Basics training workshops for seniors at local temples and senior living centers. We are a partner organization in the Columbus Digital Skills Hub which enabled us to provide brand new devices and training to older adults. Most recently, our partnership with AT&T has led to the creation of the Digital Skills for the Workplace training program geared towards preparing job seekers for the modern, digital office. Over 160 people have attended JFS Digital Equity workshops or trainings, and we’ve conducted over 200 individual digital skills help appointments.

By the time I arrived in Philadelphia last month for the Net Inclusion conference, I felt I had been adequately introduced to the world of Digital Equity and involved in Digital Inclusion work enough to really enjoy the experience—but I became aware of how much more there is to learn and how much work there is left to do. Two years ago, the Net Inclusion conference hosted 300 attendees, this year in Philadelphia there were over 1300 attendees. The Chairwoman of the FCC was there. The Mayor of Philadelphia was there. And hundreds of others from across the nation eager to share and learn about how Digital Equity work was growing in their small corner of the country. I was fortunate to be there not only to represent and learn as a member of Jewish Family Services, but as a part of a delegation from the Frankling County DEC which included representatives from our partners at Smart Columbus, Goodwill Columbus, and the City of Columbus. While in Philadelphia, the Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition was honored by NDIA as one of 47 communities around the country doing visionary work in Digital Inclusion and awarded a Digital Inclusion Trailblazers award.

At the conference, I was able to attend several different panels and informational sessions based around digital inclusion work, from a three-hour workshop on collaborative grant writing to a panel of digital navigators talking about their work, to an informational session about state and local government collaboration. It was a lot to pack into just three days! For the rest of 2024, I am continuing my education and training by pursuing a Digital Equity Professional Certificate from NTEN.

Looking ahead, I think the future of digital equity and inclusion work at Jewish Family Services looks bright. Through our strategic partnerships, ongoing workshops, and the application of the latest digital inclusion strategies, I believe digital inclusion will become a cornerstone not only of our work at Jewish Family Services, but across human services in Franklin County and Central Ohio. My introduction to the work of Digital Equity is a testament to the enthusiasm and community in Franklin County around helping empower individuals through better access to technology. I am proud to be part of a movement that empowers individuals, ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital age.