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Building bridges at the “Department of Opportunity”

This week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (aka the Department of Opportunity) gathered national partners and local government and housing leaders from 28 communities to begin the real work of ConnectHome. Launched in July, the demonstration project aims to connect more than 275,000 households in 28 communities to low-cost internet, devices and technology training. It was my pleasure to participate on behalf of ALA and libraries (along with Metropolitan New York Library Council Director Nate Hill) and discuss the commitment and power of libraries and librarians in closing the digital divide and boosting creation/making as well as access/consumption.

Zach Leverenz, CEO of EveryoneOn, and Robert Greenblum, senior policy advisor to HUD Secretary Julián Castro, opened the convening and served as masters of ceremony throughout the day. “If you’re not digitally literate in the 21st century, you’re illiterate,” Greenblum said, recalling an early conversation with leaders at the 80/20 Foundation in Austin. Greenblum and other HUD officials highlighted the power of 28 communities working at the same time to build broadband connections and technology skills that boost educational and economic opportunity. At the national level, HUD is setting an agency goal around broadband adoption, including developing metrics for measuring progress on closing the digital divide.

ConnectHome Logo
ConnectHome Logo

“Empowerment” was the one-word description of the impact of digital inclusion work underway in Austin, according to Sylvia Blanco, executive vice president for the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA). In a city with 92% broadband adoption, only about 30% of public housing residents had some sort of computing device, and only 28% of these residents were connected to the internet. Blanco and local Austin partners in the “Unlocking the Connection” program will serve as “peer mentors” for the ConnectHome initiative. (Of note, I also learned that the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Building Digital Communities framework served as the template for Austin’s digital inclusion strategic plan.)

Besides meeting new and ongoing collaborators, a favorite thing about gatherings like this is when I make a presentation about the opportunities afforded by libraries, I am immediately approached by audience members who want to tell me about the great staff in their local libraries. In this case, I heard about the leadership of Denver Public Library Director Michelle Jeske and Rockford (IL) Public Library Director Lynn Stainbrook. While ConnectHome offers a new avenue for serving community residents, librarians have already made a mark through early learning opportunities, afterschool programs and technology training. This suite of programs and services is a hallmark of libraries.

At the risk of overusing the metaphor (I know, too late!), this week also is one of connecting the dots. Affordability is a key barrier for accessing the internet, and the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering how to address this through the Lifeline program. The ALA will file comments in this public comment period, joining with others in the civil rights and digital inclusion community to advocate for updating this universal service program to include broadband. Less than half of people with incomes under $25,000 have home broadband access, hobbling equitable access to information in the digital society and undermining economic and innovation goals.

But, as the ConnectHome effort clearly recognizes, broadband access must be married with robust adoption efforts. The Lifeline program is one part of a larger effort needed to scaffold digital opportunity, including relevant content, context and digital literacy training. We hope this message will be reflected in the Broadband Opportunity Council report that goes to President Obama this month.

And all of this activity is part of the concerted effort to increase awareness of libraries as part of the solution for advancing national policy priorities among decision makers and influencers. Digital inclusion and innovation is threaded throughout the National Policy Agenda for Libraries and The E’s of Libraries®.

The ConnectHome attention now turns to local convenings, which will take place in the 28 communities around the country through the end of October. We invite local librarians and other partners in this program to share their impressions and plans from these meetings so we can continue to learn from each other and move the country forward.

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Larra Clark

Larra Clark is the deputy director of both the Public Library Association and Washington Office’s public policy team. Larra received her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arizona and has a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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