Minneapolis bridges the digital gap

The Digital Inclusion Fund awarded $200,000 in grants to help provide technological access to low-income families.

As part of its contract to build a citywide wireless network, US Internet Wireless agreed to help bridge the "digital divide" in Minneapolis.

Last month, the Digital Inclusion Fund awarded $200,000 in grants to nine organizations working to improve technology access and education. The fund, which is part of a community benefits agreement financed by the wireless company, was designed to support programs that work with new users of technology who historically might not have had access, such as immigrants and low-income families.

The company will give an additional $300,000 to the fund once the wireless network is completed sometime this year.

The Patchwork Digital Divide initiative at the Church of St. Philip received a $30,000 grant from the Digital Inclusion Fund. Ken Nelson, who manages that project, said the money will go toward wireless cards, software and refurbishments for used computers that the program donates to low-income families.

"I really see this as a way to level the playing field, in a sense, for those who didn't really make it in the normal educational system or are having a hard time," Nelson said.

The program allows people to do four hours of community service in exchange for a four-hour computer training workshop, which ends with participants taking the computer home, he said, adding that many parents do the community service to get computers for their children.

Ward 8 Councilwoman Elizabeth Glidden, who initially suggested the community benefits agreement, said people without computer skills miss out on other opportunities as well.

"It's one of those fundamental things now that's just part of life in the United States," she said.

Tenika Wells, 30, participated in the project at the Church of St. Philip, but said she wanted the computer for her three sons.

"We didn't have a computer in our house at all," she said. "I don't think we would have gotten one if that service wasn't provided."

Although Wells doesn't have Internet access yet, she said her computer skills have improved. Her 5-year-old son also uses the computer to play games and learn Spanish, she said.

Frederick Riggins, assistant professor of information and decision sciences at the Carlson School of Management, said sometimes providing access to computers isn't enough. People need to understand how to use the technology and have more than just basic Internet access to really take advantage of their computers.

"Just giving access might only be part of the story," Riggins said.

The other eight organizations that received Digital Inclusion Fund grants are the Minneapolis Public Library, Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, Plymouth Christian Youth Center, Project for Pride in Living, the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, the Bridge for Runaway Youth, TVbyGIRLS and the Twin Cities Media Alliance.

Glidden said the grants were awarded to programs based on how well they addressed the fund's goals and whether there was a way to measure success.

"They were all just fantastic programs," she said. "We tried to make those decisions that would assist programs that could reach a large number of people."

Glidden also said this is the first time there has been a community benefits agreement in a city contract.

The Digital Inclusion Fund's advisers evaluated about 45 project proposals. This year, the fund will seek more applications for more grants.

Rebecca Richards Bullen, associate director of TVbyGIRLS, said her organization will use grant money to pay for staff, technology and supplies for media workshops for girls.

The workshops would focus on media literacy and technical training for the participants, girls from diverse communities across the city, she said.

"This is a way that they really can access each other and really introduce and share ideas," Richards Bullen said.

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