By Meg Hogan
In Pittsburgh, significant movers and shakers are joining forces to do something about the digital divide.
“It really is a joint effort between the Sprout Fund, the City of Pittsburgh – specifically the Office of the Mayor, City Parks and the Office of Innovation and Performance – and getting it recognized that Pittsburgh needs to prepare its workforce for high scale tech jobs, through STEM and STEAM education,” Sprout Fund program associate Ani Martinez says.
“Unfortunately, access is still a problem for a lot of our neighborhoods. That means access to the internet, access to high-quality training for adults to provide those experiences,” she says.
That problem creates a barrier between the potential of Pittsburghers and their actual career tracks.
“So the question remains: How do we take the open, public, municipal access that we already have and help them address this issue?”
Pittsburgh’s Digital Divide
There are parts of Pittsburgh thriving in the digital age, attracting successful startups and technology companies and building homes with access to high-speed internet.
And then there are other parts that are being left behind by not having access to essentials tools to connect, create and innovate with the rest of the city.
The digital divide is a term that refers to the two broad groups of populations: the haves and have nots. This is a problem because it can lead to barriers in productivity and the ability to connect to upward opportunities.
As President Obama says, “Today high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
The number of households left behind in the digital divide in Pittsburgh is surprisingly high. “According to the Pittsburgh Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, which was published by the Office of Innovation and Performance, more than 23 percent of households lack access to the internet or a computer,” Martinez explains.
“Now, that’s a huge number when we consider how much of a necessity a computer is in modern life. It’s holding us back from tapping into the talent of our city,” Martinez says.
“I mean, could you imagine if all that creativity is untapped and it’s in places we don’t even look? And think about how many Pittsburghers are left behind and what access to digital training could do for them and our workforce.”
Sprout Fund and the Evolution of Initiatives
The Sprout Fund manages the Remake Learning Network, which is a professional network of anyone who educates and innovates in Pittsburgh for the purpose of improving learning in the region. It represents more than 250 organizations tackling learning, problem-solving and philanthropy from unique perspectives.
The organization also helps launch initiatives that improve access to education and skills for children and youth in the region. About three years ago, the Sprout Fund was looking for a project manager for an initiative called Digital Corps. “It’s a program that helps train digital literacy mentors,” Martinez says.
Those mentors are trained and then sent out into the community to teach the skills they now know.
Martinez explains, “Any caring adult from every walk of life can come and have professional development on becoming a great mentor for middle school youth, project youth development, diversity training and then specializing in digital literacy.”
“Digital literacy” is an umbrella term, meant to capture the ever-growing technology space and all the opportunities within.
As Martinez explains digital literacy, “We see that as tools, materials, habits of mind, dispositions that lead toward futures – or at least academic interest – in computer science, the internet, robotics, building websites and making apps.”
Digital Corps’ goal is to activate digital literacy in out-of-school settings, which includes a wide range of locations and organizations.
“We worked with everything from the Carnegie Library to church groups to YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and after-school programs within a school building. Just so many different organizations and we learned a lot from those experiences,” she says.
Working with the different populations across the city’s 90 unique neighborhoods gave the Sprout Fund a never-before-seen perspective of what the city could use – and what it needed.
“From there we talked to this entire community of practice that we had built up over the course of two years, managing Digital Corps, to think deeply and intentionally about what we need here in Pittsburgh,” Martinez says.
“And out of that came this notion that, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was continuous access [to internet and technology] in every neighborhood?’”
From there, the seeds for more initiatives were planted, such as the upcoming Rec2Tech. This program is turning Pittsburgh’s recreational centers into technology centers for a week. It’s meant to be a resource, free to the community thanks to its major sponsor, Comcast, so that anyone and everyone can learn skills to make ideas into reality.
— Remake Learning (@remakelearning) July 26, 2016
What this Means for Pittsburgh
Martinez, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, says “Having those roots here makes one feel empathy and a deep responsibility to our young citizens.”
Martinez, everyone that’s part of the Sprout Fund and the Remake Learning Network and sponsors like Comcast NBCUniversal and the MacArthur Foundation, all do these projects to contribute to the ongoing evolution of the city.
These programs equip more people with knowledge and skills to contribute to the industries thriving in the city, here and now. It’s the tech startups, the healthcare giants, the banks and the schools that need all the help they can get to continue their climb to – or reign at – the top of the industries they’re in.
“We try to see it holistically. I’m interested in catalyzing potential in young people, citizens and mentors and schools, and making sure that whatever it takes to get us into the jobs of today and into the future, we are providing those experiences,” Martinez says.
Learn more about the ways small organizations are doing big things in the ‘Burgh.