‘Digital Rights Are Civil Rights’: Dallas Fed Inclusion Summit Aims to Close the Digital Divide

From building digital workforce skills to providing broadband access to students in low-income families and impoverished areas, a number of organizations and stakeholders are working to close the digital divide in Dallas and across the country.

A one-day Digital Inclusion Summit gathered experts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas this week to examine the digital divide and discuss how to collaborate on various approaches to achieve digital inclusion and equity in underserved Dallas communities.

The conference convened local government officials, people in education, nonprofits, tech companies, and STEM orgs, to discuss infrastructure and financial needs in communities with limited digital resources, including broadband access, mobile phone affordability, and digital workforce skills.

Dallas Fed hosted the event in partnership with the City of Dallas, Dallas County, Dallas County Community College District, Dallas Innovation Alliance, Paul Quinn College, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, and Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas.

Susan Hoff, of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, opened the day with a keynote titled “The Digital Divide and Economic Mobility.” 

United Way, she said, is focused on lowering the entry barrier to upward mobility for people in the North Texas area. In some cases, that means equipping teachers with digital resources to ensure students are on track with curriculum and reading programs. In others, it means providing educational resources for parents to advance to middle-skill jobs, creating financial stability.

Hoff highlighted the story of Kiana, a mother who recently completed a workforce training program through United Way. Because of the program, she was able to progress from a low-level job and launch a career at Parkland Hospital.

“She wouldn’t have been able to do that if she did not have connectivity in the first place, do that course work, be able to be online to study, and to be able to move forward at her job,” Hoff said.

The organization also works with local school districts to help students be more prepared to take on college courses or make informed career moves, according to Hoff.

“We know 87 percent of our southern Dallas ISD students are not college and career ready,” she said. “A lot of times, the challenge there is they’ve not had the opportunity to do their homework, their schools have been challenged in terms of connectivity, and the resources are not there. It’s a challenge.”

Public Assets and Infrastructure

A panel of three experts in digital infrastructure tackled the topic of accessibility for residents in low-income areas or regions with limited access to high-speed internet. Panelists were:

Gabriel Garcia: Director and Senior Counsel of CPS Energy, the City of San Antonio’s municipal electric utility.

“My task this morning is to provide you a framework of how to look at the issue of infrastructure from a local community, local government perspective,” Garcia said. “And based on that framework, we will have further discussions and just also kind of frame up the discussion for the rest of the day.”

Dwight Thomas: Broadband Network Engineer, City of Mont Belvieu. The city is home to Texas’ first municipal-owned and operated fiber-optic broadband network.

“What we have now fully fiber, completely underground, offering gigabit services to our local community. Since then, our community has grown substantially,” Thomas said. The city’s population is “approaching 10,000 people, we’re proud to say that we are serving more than 60% of our community, and it’s growing.”

Hugh Miller: Chief Information Officer, City of Dallas. Miller aided the City of San Antonio in building a government internet system and is working to bring a similar solution to Dallas.

“We’re looking at our community centers and different avenues like that for training purposes,” Miller said. “We’re working with nonprofits and other entities; the city also has what they call the City Store. Devices that we pull out of the City Store—we’re working with them to potentially offer those up as devices that are accessible for those who need this inclusion program.”

Private capital goes to certain places where it can make the most money. How does government fill the gaps in infrastructure for things that don’t return a profit, like free public Wifi?

Garcia: “We’re building a new public safety radio system because the current radio system for the city and the county are end-of-life. When it comes to public safety, these networks really need a level of reliability that many times the private sector cannot provide. In this particular case, CPS energy will be providing enough fiber connectivity for 28 towers that will make up this radio system.” 

Thomas: “One of the biggest things that we have on our docket is that we want to use this as a platform to be the catalyst for developing a smaller city. What that really means from a citizen perspective is that if you have a retention pond behind your home, and it’s flooding, you want to know when it’s at capacity. Since our community is kind of nestled around infrastructure such as oil and gas, we want to know when there’s a leak. These are things we’re looking at to leverage our investment, to be smarter.”

The Digital Skills Gap in the Workforce

As each section of society becomes more dependent on technology, more jobs—even entry-level jobs—are requiring digital skills. Three Dallas-area experts are working to shrink that gap and strengthen the local workforce. Panelists were:

Laila Alequresh: Chief Innovation Officer, City of Dallas. Dallas is making investments to grow and train the workforce across the city, including creating programs to attract elementary students to STEM and teach the preexisting workforce new digital skills.

“In the past, we have about $1.5 million we allocate across four different providers. We traditionally focus on healthcare and construction sectors, but we’re moving into other sectors, including logistics, advanced manufacturing, and IT. Based on our current investments… about 280 completed certificates last year. About half of those are jobs now.”

Laurie Bouillon Larrea: President/CEO, Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas. The organization has partnered with companies like Penn Foster to provide online workforce skills training to people who make less than $25,000 a year.

“It’s putting people back to work with additional skills,” Larrea said. “All of these certificates are available at no cost to any and everyone who will sign up because it is privately funded. There’s no requirement.”

Pamela Luckett: Deputy Chief Innovation Officer, Dallas County Community College District. DCCCD educates not only recent high school graduates, but also adults looking to build new workforce skills or refocus their career goals.

“One of the [initiatives] that we are participating in right now… is the development of our Ascend Institute. The institute is a new corporate training initiative that works with several companies throughout the Dallas area to train both entry-level and incumbent workers in various IT related areas,” Luckett said.

“We’re redesigning our broadband connections, ensuring that students have access and connection as we are providing additional services. We have a lot of different other initiatives that will improve efficiency for students such as providing electronic resources to all of their textbooks,” she said.

How can a student learn more about the opportunities available to them?

Luckett: “The website will have all of the different programs, whether or not it’s a degree program, a training, or if it’s a certification program. We have about 41 schools set up participate in our Dual Credit Program. The leadership team works very closely to ensure that the needs are met, and that information is communicated out.”

How do you measure the success of your programs?

Larrea: “Since we are funded by the Texas Workforce Commission, all our activity is judged based on employer records. Ours is very finite. For the next two years after someone completes and leaves our program, wages are registered quarterly.”

Alequresh: “It’s not just enough to provide money for training; we’re really looking at long term outcomes providing stability and enabling people to have long term employment.”

Luckett: “With respect to our partnership with all the companies, we look at the end result of employment. So, once you actually go through the training or credentialing process, then what is that employment rate? And so we actually gather that information with all the partnerships that we have.”

How Cities Are Empowering Communities with Digital Inclusion Initiatives 

Francella Ochillo is the executive director of Next Century Cities. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the program supports community leaders across the U.S. in expanding broadband access and expanding digital infrastructure.

Ochillo focuses on technology and telecom issues and aims to assess the impact of policy proposals on marginalized communities, the bank said in a statement. Her work includes helping policymakers understand how broadband access can help revitalize communities and increase socioeconomic status.

“The community with ubiquitous broadband access to better educational outcomes, lower unemployment, and higher-end values,” Ochillo said in her keynote. “It is likely that the disconnected community will be locked out of the benefits of emerging technologies, which can improve education, safety, health, and economic mobility towards residents.”

Most Americans who lack broadband access, she said, aren’t sure how they’re impacted by inadequate digital resources. But, they know when their kids can’t finish their homework, they can’t apply for jobs online, or when they can’t access their health records.

“But one thing remains in either scenario: it’s that the Americans who are trapped in cycles of poverty will not be able to escape those cycles without the tools they need to survive,” she said.

A first-generation American, Ochillo said her family rose out of poverty only because of education. And, in 2019, career success is difficult to attain without a strong digital education.

“In my view, and in the digital society, digital rights are civil rights,” she said. “Access to the Internet has changed everything about the way that we communicate, the way that we learn, and the way that we connect with one another.”

Issuing a call to action, Ochillo implored attendees to raise their voices, enact change, and work to close the digital divide.

“I will use my power to elevate their voices and stand in solidarity with them,” she said. “We have the power to change people. Embrace it. My only question for you today is what you’re going to do with that when you leave this room.”

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