For Oscar Comunidad, the difficulties many families have in accessing the internet made him aware of the disparities facing his community. “I have two little brothers and during the pandemic they had to go through digital learning,” the El Puente digital steward said on a Zoom call, “We had to request tablets and tech equipment from the government. My family witnessed firsthand how important it was to have the internet.”
As the city continues to recover from Covid-19, one sector is often left out of the conversation — digital accessibility. A 2021 Community Service Society NY study says that almost three in ten low-income Latino New Yorkers did not have adequate access to tech devices in their home, compared to 19% of white New Yorkers. Compared to national studies, digital accessibility continues to affect Latinos in a disproportionate manner. Pew’s 2021 studies showed that only 65% of Hispanics in the United States have a broadband connection compared to White (80%) and Black (71%). This digital divide in the community is defined by three aspects: accessibility, affordability, and skills.
To address this gap, the New York City Office of Technology and Innovation launched Big Apple Connect this year in order to provide free internet access to NYCHA residents. However, with the proposal the mayor is aiming to remove community efforts towards connectivity in NYCHA housing in neighborhoods like the Bronx, as reported by VICE. These efforts have been overhauled with Adams’ plan, as residents in NYCHA housing can now only access Optimum and Spectrum provided connections. “We know what’s going to happen, the prices are just going to go up,” shared Troy Walcott, president of People’s Choice Communications, who has worked to provide affordable internet service providers.
In spite of these developments, community organized endeavors in Williamsburg and the greater Brooklyn area are working to connect the Latino community. Local networks like NYC Mesh have undertaken Spanish speaking outreach efforts with community space Mil Mundos, to get personal connections up and running. Williamsburg mainstay El Puente has launched a Tech Lab for digital learning with Community Tech NY. Lastly, St. Nicks Alliance has been offering tech training courses in order to meet the demand of the evolving workforce.
Understanding digital equity
According to The Digital Inclusion Alliance, digital equity can be defined as a condition in which all individuals must have the technological capacity to participate in society, democracy, and the economy. “Our problem with digital equity is also an urban one,” shared Russell Weaver from Cornell University, “You look at any major city or zoom into any metropolitan region and see that there are certain pockets where access to broadband at home is not a very common thing. We see that the most deficient areas are often neighborhoods or sections of cities that have the highest poverty rates.” Russell’s observations come from his work on the New York State Digital Equity Portal, a map that tapped a number of organizations to show internet accessibility across different communities.
Moreover, Community Service Society NY documents that among low-income respondents, Latino New Yorkers were more likely to lack home internet access than white New Yorkers. Off of Moore Street in East Williamsburg, Borinquen Plaza residents have also expressed difficulties in paying the cost of internet service. Found outside one of the buildings, the granddaughter of one resident said her grandmother now pays, “up to $220 for cable, Wi-Fi, and phone every month.” She also shared that a few years ago prices weren’t that expensive. The same survey shows that nearly half of affordable housing residents had difficulty accessing online education, vocational training, or telehealth visits.
NYC Mesh knows community-based solutions are nothing new. The community network has been offering fast, affordable, and fair internet since 2012. Set up through a series of wireless routers that can be installed on rooftops, the mesh forms a network that can be used accessing an IXP connection — or a not-for-profit access to the internet via a database center. Mesh’s prices are determined by how much an individual can cover the cost of installation for their own connection. Once installed, all they ask is for a recurring monthly donation to keep their donations going.
One volunteer, Daniel Heredia, said he became involved in the project after he lost his own connection when a bus accident knocked down connection cables in his neighborhood. At that point, he decided to take matters into his own hands. “I found the ‘mesh’ by accident, and was impressed with the fact that there were all the instructions for doing your own installation.” He recalled how he bought all the materials from Amazon, and was able to get his connection set-up in just a few days. “From there, I got involved helping with installations, organizing, and strategizing on how to grow the network to reach more areas.” Williamsburg and Greenpoint have over 80 NYC Mesh networks today.
Through the pandemic and conversations with residents in Bushwick, Mil Mundos saw there were many families that lacked an internet connection at home and couldn’t access education or social services. They already were familiar with Mesh’s work, and decided it was time to join forces to promote their services in Spanish.
Regarding the collaboration with Mil Mundos, Heredia said, “we specifically wanted to help navigate Hispanic families who do not speak English how to set [the connection] up. For example, can we have a Mesh volunteer at the facility, and a person from Mil Mundos to translate? I feel very passionate about helping them.”
Lucía Cozzi, a member of the Mil Mundos collective and organizer with Mil Mundos en Común, shared similar sentiments. “Outreach in Spanish is essential,” she said in an audio message, “The community reaction has generated lots of interest. We have more internet requests than we can handle. That’s why it’s so important to highlight that there’s this necessity.”
Similarly, El Puente partnered with Community Tech NY (CTNY) in July 2021 to raise awareness on the abundance of technology. Luis Munive, staff member of El Puente, explained the need for this education. “By exposing more people to the internet, we hope this can expose them to other careers and more digital learning in the future,” said Munive. This year, the partnership has launched the first Community Tech Lab in Williamsburg, a new space for residents to have access to digital learning. Grounded in empowerment through education CTNY shared on Instagram that, “the lab will support community members to build awareness and confidence around internet networking concepts, learn vital technology skills and develop collective agency to inform larger policy changes.” The lab found at El Puente’s Williamsburg headquarters, just next door to Los Sures Senior Center, will be a destination for generations young and old in the neighborhood to bridge the digital gap together.
With a demand for jobs in the tech industry, St. Nicks Alliance saw this shift as an opportunity to offer residents new ways of expanding their skillset. Larry Rothchild, the director of workforce development, recognized a need for this learning. “We embed digital literacy training into everything we do,” shared Rothchild, “in this way, community members have access to basic levels of technology.” The non-profit organization has been providing opportunities in technical training, with their latest Latinx in Tech initiative representing the growing number of Latino students. Their training on data and Google Analytics work towards technology certifications, and hopefully for many a job in the evolving digital business. Annually, they teach approximately 1,500 adolescents and adults.
When asked about the importance of digital learning in Latino communities, Luis Munive had some closing thoughts to share. “This is one of the main reasons that we chose to pursue that work. Black and brown folks — we deserve the right to make our decisions in how we live our digital lives.” In Williamsburg, evident solutions like a community network, digital learning, and the neighborhood’s first Community Tech Lab share an ambitious vision to harness technology.