In an era of laptops and smartphones, Oakland residents battle the digital divide
on December 8, 2017
Nicole Rodriguez, 32, was scrolling down her Facebook feed when a post for an event caught her eye: “Free Computers this Saturday! Computadoras gratuitas este Sabado.” She couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so cool. Like free? Really free?’ So, I got out there super early. It started at 10. I got out there like 7:30,” Rodriguez said.
When she got to the American Steel Studios building in West Oakland, where non-profit Tech Exchange was handing out the computers, Rodriguez was about the tenth person in line. Most of the attendees were with their kids, and most were members of minorities: Latinos, African-Americans and Arab-Americans. Most of them had no computers at home.
Rodriguez’s friend Veronica Cortez arrived a little late. “I literally found out about this event like half an hour ago and I ran over here. All I know is that there are free computers at 10 o’clock at Mandela Parkway,” Cortez said. “I knew I needed to come down here, because I know I need it.”
Cortez doesn’t have an Internet connection at home, but was intending to get a subscription. She said it had become increasingly inconvenient for her kids to do homework on smartphones or iPads. And she had her own homework—she had been taking classes both online and on a campus—which was hard to do without a steady Internet connection. “The problems that I have, it would be buffering or I run out of my data or I have to go to somebody else’s house and see if I can use their Wi-Fi,” she said.
Saber Frikha, who was also standing in line, has an Internet connection, and an old laptop that he shares with his wife and three kids. He was at the event to get a free desktop for his 13-year-old daughter, whose coursework has been demanding more and more research. “It’s a bit inconvenient. Sometimes, we need it all at the same time,” Frikha said of trying to share one laptop among five people.
Rodriguez, her husband, and five kids have also only been accessing the Internet through their smartphones. They use them to do homework, write research papers, work and pay the bills. But Rodriguez had another reason for wanting a computer: She’s working on expanding her non-profit, Lee Youth Outreach, which was set up in honor of her oldest son’s best friend, Lee Weathersby III. Thirteen-year-old Weathersby died after being shot 13 times on his way home from the Boys & Girls Club. His death was Oakland’s first homicide of 2014.
After recently graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in Women and Gender Studies, Rodriguez is now setting up her non-profit in an effort to provide the kids in her community with a safe environment away from gang culture. She’s enlisting the help of Weathersby’s friends in the hope that they will become community leaders.
“I knew it wasn’t only going to help my family,” she said of receiving a computer. “It was going to help me do research and find funding and to make connections. It was just needed in so many different areas.”
For over 20 years, the Tech Exchange has provided refurbished computers to schools and low-income families at a low cost—and sometimes for free. At this event, they gave away 87 computers. “There’s a blind spot for many of us that have access to Internet, because we just take it for granted,” said Seth Hubbert, Tech Exchange’s executive director. “I think there’s a stark juxtaposition between families that we serve and a lot of wealthier families that are in Oakland that don’t recognize that this is even an issue.”
Rodriguez—like the other attendees—was eligible for a free computer because she meets several of the exchange’s requirements that assess the financial need of households: She lives in subsidized housing and she has kids enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. Students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, while those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.
A 2017 report by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, which was funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund, found that only 69 percent of California households have broadband-connected computers. Eighteen percent of households are only connected to the Internet through their phone, while 13 percent did not report having connectivity when surveyed.
Among the poor, access to broadband-connected computers is even lower. Only 48 percent of households with an annual income of less than $20,000 are connected to the Internet through a computer, 27 percent are connected through a smartphone, and 25 percent did not report having Internet connectivity.
In Oakland, 9.3 percent of households don’t have a computer at home, and 19 percent of households don’t have an Internet subscription, according to the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS), a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau that gathers national information on income, education and ancestry. Nine percent of households can only connect to the Internet through a cellphone. Moreover, only half of households with an annual income of less than $20,000 are connected to the Internet.
Researchers call this gap the “digital divide,” and it creates serious challenges for low-income households without access to the Internet or computers. Today, many transactions like banking, job applications, and government services are mainly performed online. Students brought up in low-income households face limitations in doing their homework, conducting research and completing college applications. People who are not connected to the Internet may face difficulty in accessing medical services, applying to jobs, keeping up with health records and paying bills. In 2016, the United Nations had even condemned Internet access disruption as a human rights violation.
Hubbert said that this lack of access to a basic utility increases economic inequality. “Before, a disadvantaged person trying to get a job could still fill in that application. Now, almost all applications for jobs are online,” he said. Hubbert added that unconnected residents also face difficulties in keeping track of savings without the convenience of online banking.
Rodriguez and her family have been facing the brunt of these problems. Her oldest son, Diamond, is graduating high school this year, and has to juggle graduation projects and college applications without a computer at home. In order to apply for college, he took several prep courses, which required him to do online assignments, use Google Docs, and write papers that include a lot of Internet research. In addition to using his school’s computers, he borrowed them, made frequent visits to the library or used his phone.
“It’s a different interface; different way to interact with the documents online,” said Diamond of trying to accomplish this work on his phone. “It’s much easier when you’re typing long documents when you have a keyboard there and just jam out all the words you need, versus a phone where it’s easy to get distracted.”
Even though Oakland libraries allow residents to access the Internet for free, users have to reserve the computer beforehand and can only use it for one hour per day. Some computers are designated for “drop-in” use, but these are usually unavailable. Rodriguez points out that the limited timeframe for using library computers cut Diamond’s assignments short.
Meanwhile, her 10-year-old son, Jesus, was unable to take ST Math, a game-based program that builds deeper conceptual understanding of math. His school had recommended this supplemental program, in order to give students an edge in the subject. “He just didn’t have the same advantage as other students,” Rodriguez said.
Mustafa Ahadi, 37, moved to Oakland in 2013, fleeing war in his home country of Afghanistan. Even though he has a degree in medicine and worked as a medical translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, he was unable to apply for a master’s degree in public health in the U.S. without passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which must be taken by non-native speakers who wish to enroll in English-language universities. To provide for his wife and two children, he works as a laborer in House Kombucha’s warehouse in Oakland.
Ahadi had inquired about applying for a degree in public health at UC Berkeley, as he would like to move on to a pharmaceutical job.
“Unfortunately, Berkeley university told me you are not qualified because you have to pass the TOEFL test. And, you know, the TOEFL is very hard for us, because it’s very high-level English,” he said.
Ahadi and his wife, Meena, 26, are also currently enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Laney College, which helps immigrants and non-native speakers improve their English and develop reading, writing and critical thinking skills. Last year, the couple started their English courses, and now they also take computer literacy and math.
Their desktop computer at home broke, so they were only connected to the Internet through Ahadi’s phone. His wife told him that she desperately needed the computer for her studies.
“Every day she has a lot of homework to do by computer online, especially the math. Every day there’s like 50 or 60 questions with the answer she has to solve,” Ahadi said. “This is a big problem for us.”
They had previously bought a low-cost laptop from Tech Exchange, but it was stolen from Ahadi’s car. And relying on the computers at the library was taking too much time. “For one small thing, like check the email, we go to the library,” Ahadi said.
So in November, they bought another laptop from Tech Exchange.“In the store, it’s like $2,000. Here, it’s like $600 to $700. But, honestly, $700 is also too much money for us,” said Ahadi.
They ended up returning it within a few weeks—it was just too expensive for an old laptop, they felt, and the screen wasn’t working right. The Ahadis found themselves without a computer again. They’re now in search of the best device they can get for around $100 to $150.
On a night this winter in their Oakland home, Meena had managed to make her youngest daughter fall asleep, while her 3-year-old son was still playing games on his father’s phone. She had spent most of the day at Laney for her classes, but stayed an extra two or three hours at the lab to study for the math test she would be taking the following day.
Meena is particularly struggling with MathXL, an online program used by many schools, including Laney, to assign math homework online. Without a home computer, she has to print the assignments on paper so she has time to work on them at home at her own pace. The following day, she has to go to the library or the school’s computer lab to submit her answers online.
Ahadi, meanwhile, is struggling with his typing skills.“I need to practice. Just right now when I write my name, for example, ‘M – U – S,’” he says as he pretends to slowly type on an invisible keyboard with one finger. “Like that.”
“It takes me like in the morning up to night, maybe three or four page or six page,” he said. “Computer is not only good for one thing, but a lot of things.”
Tech Exchange, previously called the Oakland Tech Exchange or OTX, has been serving low-income households for the past twenty years. Bruce Buckelew founded the non-profit in 1995 after 25 years working as an engineer for IBM.
So far, Tech Exchange had provided more than 43,000 computers to students and families in Oakland. They also sometimes provide free phones to eligible families, as well as connect them with low-cost Internet providers. Tech Exchange has diverted over 700 tons of e-waste from landfills, as a result of refurbishing old computers that are donated by companies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Electronics Environmental Benefit Calculator, reusing a computer is 12 times more environmentally efficient than recycling it.
After leaving IBM, Buckelew felt a strong urge to venture into a philanthropic path, as he became aware of the rising inequality in his community. He pursued a master’s degree in educational technology, while simultaneously volunteering to set up computer labs in high schools in Oakland.
“I felt extremely lucky in my life. I went to Cal when it was free. I’d become an engineer and made money when I was working for corporations,” he said. “I had a strong desire to do something. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I started, so I started hanging out in this high school [to] learn more about young people and what they needed.”
He was immediately taken aback by the state of technology at the schools. “When I started, [schools] were actually teaching typing on broken typewriters. So, just the unfairness of the whole situation really got me. College was starting to cost more money. The economy was changing. Being tech-savvy was becoming more important,” he said.
He said that a lot of Oakland students who came from low-income households were struggling with their coursework once they entered college, in comparison to richer students who owned computers at home. “The divide was the hugest because there are the hills and the flats. There’s such a wide divide between the haves and have-nots in Oakland,” he said. “Professors didn’t seem to appreciate the divide.”
That inspired him to start Tech Exchange. He refurbished surplus computers that IBM had given him, installed software on them and gave them to schools across Oakland. The first computer lab he built was in the basement of Oakland Technical High School. “It was a mess. We hauled out 26 dump trucks full of trash to create our first OTX,” he said.
Tech Exchange has depended solely on donations to collect their old computers, mainly from corporations such as Gap, Inc., and Sutter Health. They are currently funded through a grant by TJ Long Foundation, a Walnut Creek-based non-profit that supports charitable organizations in the East Bay. Tech Exchange is currently in the final year of its three-year funding cycle, and is funded to provide services to Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
While Buckelew believes that great progress had been made in closing the digital gap since he started in the mid-90s, it is still not fixed. Now that he has retired, his successor, Seth Hubbert, has found new challenges in tackling the issue. Up until now, Hubbert said, “We have been working with and helping families connect that are, I think, kind of in the middle of the bell curve. They’re low-income, but they still understand the importance of Internet and computers at home. For many of them, it’s a cost issue.”
“But now,” he continued, “We’re entering probably the most challenging time, where there’s a good 20 percent of the population that aren’t connected but they are the hardest to reach. They’re the ones that may not take advantage of offers and services out there.” Many people might not see the benefit of having a desktop computer or a laptop at home, and are satisfied with just using their smartphone.“To them, what’s most important is kind of the basic needs of life—of housing and food and clothing. Anything above that seems to kind of be outside of where their primary goals are,” Hubbert said.
Hubbert added that smartphones are a step in the right direction, because they provide access to email and social media. But, he added,“From a student’s perspective, try doing STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] homework on a smartphone, or a college application on a smartphone. I mean, to be really creative and develop online content requires a more robust device than a smartphone, which is directed to consuming content.”
“I can’t write a paper on my phone. I can’t do real research on my phone,” Buckelew agreed. “A phone is good for communicating and passive work, but you don’t create on a phone. You consume on a phone.”
Eli Kennedy, CEO of the Level Playing Field Institute, a non-profit that runs programs focused on STEM fields for minority students, said that this lack of awareness of the importance of technology prevents them from participating in a “tremendously wealthy job market.”
“There’s a stigma. There are reasons why even when we had really talented students in low-income communities, they’re not gravitating towards computer science. And some of that is the stigma and belief that ‘I don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day typing in code. That’s a dead-end job,’” Kennedy said. “It’s not a dead-end job.”
Computer science is actually a very lucrative field in the Bay Area. According to salary aggregator website Glassdoor, entry-level salaries for programmers average around $71,000 a year, while computer and software engineers earn an average of $130,000.
But ethnic minorities are underrepresented in programming. According to the 2014 data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whites make up around 63.5 to 68.5 percent of employees in the high tech sector, while African Americans make up 7.4 to 14. 4 percent and Hispanics make up 8 to 13.9 percent.
Kennedy believes that tech companies need to address biases in the workplace. “We are constantly reading about how people of color are treated in those companies,” he said. “The environment is still largely homogenous. There are still lots of assumptions about a person’s intelligence based upon their name, based on what school they went to, based on all different factors that can make it a really unwelcoming environment for a person of color.”
And the digital divide exacerbates this difference. According to the 2017 Institute of Governmental Studies report, income levels and ethnic backgrounds play a big part in determining whether a household has Internet access. California households with an annual income of less than $20,000, Spanish-speaking households and first-generation immigrants are especially susceptible to being without computers and Internet. In Oakland, according to the American Community Survey, households that are predominantly white and Asian have the highest rates of computer ownership and Internet subscriptions, while African-American and Latino households have the lowest rates.
According to a 2015 report by Level Playing Field Institute, California schools with the most students of color offer computer science courses nearly half as often as schools with the fewest students of color. Kennedy added that many of the schools in East and West Oakland don’t even offer Advanced Placement (AP) exams and courses in computer science, which creates a significant barrier to high-paying jobs in the Bay Area.
Today, Kennedy said, there is now a new layer to how the digital divide is defined—it has to do as much with education as with technology. “The baseline conversation about the digital divide was really about sort of access to hardware and access to connectivity,” Kennedy said. “Those are still issues, but I think we’re now moving on to second order issues that are about literacy and kind of what’s available in schools.”
In 1986, Fremont High School in Oakland’s Fruitvale district introduced one of the most innovative school programs in the city: the Media Academy. At the academy, students learn practical skills such as blogging, taking photos, shooting videos and editing their work using Adobe Creative Suite.
While many of these students are honing their technical skills using high-end technology such as MacBooks and Canon cameras, Jasmene Miranda, the academy’s director, says that students are still struggling to become competitive in the job market because they’re not as tech-savvy as students who have these technologies at home.
“During the summer, our students intern with different private and public organizations. When we do evaluations like get feedback from [supervisors], I was consistently hearing that they didn’t have computer skills,” she said.
Miranda said that she noticed the lack of digital skills in the classroom, as well, adding that some students do not know how to use search engines or how to access their documents through Google Drive. She attributed this to the fact that some of her students still lack home access to computers, and, in some cases, Internet connections as well.
According to a 2014 study by Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), 14,097 students do not have computers and/or high-speed Internet access at home, which represented about 40 percent of the student population in Oakland. The study had also found that there was a correlation between a higher level of poverty, and a higher percentage of students who don’t have a computer and broadband in their homes.
According to the latest data from the ACS (2016), around 18.9 percent of Oakland residents live below the poverty level, with 30.8 percent of Oakland children under the age of 18 living under the poverty line.
Jason Muniz, digital technology lead at Fremont High School and an ethnic studies teacher, said that the entire school currently has around 15 or 16 Chromebook carts, each with around 30 to 35 of the devices. While he thinks that this is a stark improvement, it still does not reach the ideal ratio of one Chromebook per student. He estimates that of the 120 freshmen he teaches, around 40 to 50 don’t have a computer at home.
“A lot of times, they’re not as aware of how regular computer functions … as opposed to your phone, in terms of web surfing. The way certain websites appear on mobile devices appear much differently on actual computers,” he said.
Seniors at Fremont usually have to submit a capstone project to graduate. Students have to write a 10 to 15-page research project, to be presented to a panel using slideshows. A component of the grading is how well the students incorporate technology into their project. “You’re going to have to provide evidence and bookmark links and the entire thing is hypertext. It’s a lot of rigor for a research paper, as much as you might have for a college research paper,” said Muniz. “A lot of students find that amount of rigor overwhelming. They’d rather wave their hands and say, ‘It’s too much. I give up.’”
Both teachers point out that their students are often dealing with problems more serious than tech access. According to Muniz, 98 percent of students at Fremont are enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs, which means that most of the population is at or below poverty levels. “We know our students don’t have computers or Internet, because a lot of our students are homeless,” Miranda said. “People don’t realize that, either, because their parents send them to school clean, and we don’t share our business that way.”
Students may also be struggling with safety or mental health issues, Muniz added. “There are a lot of places in our community that are not as safe as this school building. This is a shelter for a lot of people for 8 hours a day,” said Muniz. “For a lot of people that we serve, this is the safest place that they’re going to be. That’s an equity issue.”
Both Miranda and Muniz worry about the gap not just in digital access, but also in wealth between Oakland and Silicon Valley.
“To me, closing the digital divide, that is important, because we want to make sure that the students survive and that they’ll thrive,” said Miranda. “But, the bigger focus is: Why is there all this money over there? The people that work over there and live in these communities, they are impacting us in ways I don’t think they’ll ever imagine. We cannot afford to live here.”
According to a 2016 report by the California Budget & Policy Center, over the past 25 years, income inequality has increased in California, and most income gains have flowed to the top 1 percent.
The same report states that in 2013 the San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City region has the widest income gap in California, and the Oakland-Fremont-Hayward region is one of the top 10 with the largest income inequality gap—the top 1 percent make around 20 times as much as the bottom 99 percent.
Tech companies in the Bay Area have made a habit of giving back to the community, including donating computers and supporting digital literacy. In September, Salesforce, a cloud computing company, donated $12.2 million to Bay Area schools to improve computer science education, with $5.2 million going to Oakland. Semiconductor chipmaker Intel made a donation of $5 million in 2015 to Oakland schools.
While Kennedy believes that these contributions are beneficial and commends the efforts of Salesforce and Intel, he said that more contributions should come from Silicon Valley. “We hear a lot from Silicon Valley about equity and I would like to see folks live up to that rhetoric,” he said. “We see these organizations, they do give money out and computers and these sort of things. But, if you look at how they spend their money, it’s absolute pocket change.”
Hubbert believes that corporations need to do more to push kids to learn coding, web development and entrepreneurship. He said that having employees volunteer and act as mentors and trainers for the students would be key in helping them climb the social ladder workplaces.
“Our strongest partner that we can envision on the corporate side is one that understands the need so they donate their technology. But then, they also have employees that are hoping to engage and be part of the solution to some of our community problems that potentially their company is a part of perpetuating,” he said.
Muniz agrees that just having access to tools isn’t enough. “The digital divide and the idea that technology is being shared with the masses will cure the masses of some of their ills is pretty utopian,” said Muniz. “Its just a tool, and having a tool doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to use that tool.”
Diamond and his friends are waiting for his mother to arrive home for their weekly Lee Youth Outreach meetings.
The new computer sits on a desk at the corner of the living room. Diamond has been sitting in front of it, working on an assignment for his English class. He has to write a 2,250-word analysis of a documentary using Google Docs, while simultaneously looking up articles online to find evidence to support his essay.
He’s relieved to finally have a computer at home.“It’s a time-saver, because I’m able to look for a lot of information more readily and accessibly, versus having to go to the library,” he says.
His friends agree that they use their phones to do schoolwork because they either don’t have a computer at home, or theirs is too old or broken.
“I’ve been doing this since 9th grade, so over time it got easier. But it’s hard, though. It’s hard to make the fonts and to make sure that you indent your paragraphs just the little details,” says Daija Bell, 17. “Especially on Google Slides.”
“This actually happened to me today. I was kind of confused working on the phone because it was smaller text. We got a website called Google Classrooms where we do most of our assignments on, and that’s how we get graded,” says Demond Turnade, 17.
Once Rodriguez arrives, they all gather in the living room and snack on the pizzas she has brought with her. They begin planning an event to discuss youth empowerment and gun violence in Oakland, with Rodriguez taking notes in her journal. They intend to invite Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African American man who was shot by a BART police officer in 2009.
They move on to designs for the t-shirts that they plan to sell at their event.“It’s going to be an L on the front and in the back it’s going to have our logo and it’s going to say Lee Youth Outreach. It’s going to be black,” suggests Rodriguez, holding up small t-shirt-shaped paper cut-outs. They debate which font to use, with each of them drawing their own designs on the paper cut-outs.
Realizing that there’d be more options online, Diamond calls their attention to the computer screen. They all huddle around the computer, and look through scores of font types that they could use for their logo. They finally make a decision to go for “Harley style.”
As for the logo itself, they choose two hands in a tight grip with the slogan “That deserves a hand-shake” under it. “That’s what Lee used to say, like all the time,” explains Kalijha Brown, one of Diamond’s friends. “Like whenever you say something good or funny: ‘That deserves a handshake.’”
There’s one last thing Rodriguez hopes her new computer will help the non-profit accomplish: gather funding. Rodriguez had used the computer to set-up a GoFundMe campaign to buy a van for safe transportation for the kids to go on college tours, and to leadership development events, retreats and camping trips. She wants to take them “out of East Oakland to see a world that is bigger than they know.”
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