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By Miguel Leon

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everyone began to shelter in place, time stood still in communities such as City Heights, Watts, and Boyle Heights. Too many families in historically marginalized communities lacked the infrastructure, tools, and knowledge necessary to access remote learning, apply for public relief benefits, schedule telehealth appointments, and search and apply for jobs. Digitally redlined for decades, these communities relied on non-profit organizations to help them navigate the challenges of the pandemic–challenges further exacerbated by digital inequity. 

Trusted non-profit leaders and advocates sprang into action, learned about digital inequity, organized their communities, and are now at the forefront of impacting broadband policy in our state. Their actions were the focus of The Power of Advocacy: How Nonprofits Are Shaping Broadband Policy in California, the recent installment of our Connecting California: Solving the Digital Divide virtual learning series.

The Battle for Digital Equity

Michelson 20MM Founder and Co-chair Dr. Gary K. Michelson began the conversation by reminding us that we’re in an asymmetric battle with goliath internet service providers (ISPs) that continue to prioritize profits over people. Dr. Michelson noted that the stories and lessons learned from the current wins of grassroot leaders should be incorporated into all of our work. Cindy Chavez, Supervisor for the Second District of Santa Clara County, continued the conversation by emphasizing that in this battle, there are both unserved and underserved households who either have no internet service or unreliable service. Such households, she reminded us, are at the mercy of a monopoly, which inevitably leads to higher prices and poorer service. She went on to underline the importance of a public option for internet service in the form of a municipally owned internet service provider and reminded us that if the private sector ISPs were going to close the digital divide, they would have done it already.  

Nonprofit Heroes

Our moderator, Efrain Escobedo from the California Community Foundation, grounded the conversation in equity by reminding us that “This is a civil rights and a human need conversation… There are historic investments being made in California by our policy makers but in order to advance equitable outcomes for those policy wins, it is always critical that the voices of those most affected—both unserved and underserved—lead the charge and really drive the changes that need to happen.” 

In recent history, internet access went from being a luxury to a basic human need, Gabriela Sandoval from The Utility Reform Network shared. As a result, we are facing digital discrimination, which is unacceptable. Gabriela went on to underline the urgency of this moment stating, “There [is] more than $6 billion right now that the Public Utilities Commission is debating upon how these funds will be distributed. We don’t want business as usual—we don’t want the same situation that left so many of our communities behind 25 years ago. We know that if we do not center equity, and especially racial equity now, then this opportunity will get away from us.” 

In response to the urgency of the past two years, Ana Teresa Dahan from Great Public Schools Now described how her organization “organiz[ed] the organizers,” who then submitted letters to their local school boards, to their city council, and to their county supervisors demanding the implementation of innovative solutions for bridging the digital divide. GPSN partner and Executive Director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles Elmer Roldan went on to describe the indignation that he and his colleagues felt seeing the inequity experienced by the families they serve: 

“How is it possible that in a place like L.A., which is a major urban city… less than a mile away from the central hub of where the western hemisphere gets its internet, kids in South Central, Watts and Boyle Heights weren’t able to access their own school work because they didn’t have enough internet?”

In response, Elmer and his non-profit colleagues organized a “Death to Internet Monopolies” march, which implored decision makers to take bold action. As a result, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is exploring municipally owned broadband for their residents—a significant victory for L.A. County residents in the fight for digital equity. 

Alexis Villanueva from the City Heights Economic Development Corporation described how her community took matters into their own hands, fundraised for small businesses, and enlisted a group of promotoras to connect community members to COVID-19 resources and other wraparound services. Alexis stated that their promotoras are “talking about small business development grants, showing residents how to get online, and are teaching people to use WhatsApp to stay connected and find food banks.” In the coming months, they’ll launch their own community broadband pilot program because they know they can’t wait for their local government to take action.

Uplifting the Voices of the Community 

The critical role nonprofits have played and will continue to play in the fight for digital equity is clear; however, the need to collect stories to uplift the voices of the community, to demand better data from ISPs, and provide ongoing non-profit advocacy endures. Ana Teresa Dahan emphasized the necessity for ongoing advocacy around implementation stating, “As non-profit advocates, we’re used to chasing the win, getting the win on the board, and moving on to the next issue. Then we wake up five, 10, 25 years later and ask why certain things didn’t happen… it’s because we took our foot off the gas… and we didn’t hold our government—our leaders—accountable for implementing those policy wins.” That ongoing engagement is now the focus of GPSN, CISLA, City Heights CDC, and countless nonprofits throughout the state who continue to be the tip of the spear in this asymmetric battle. They continue to fight because, as Supervisor Chavez said, “The best time to close the digital divide was 25 years ago, the next best time is today”

If you would like to learn more, we invite you to view the recording, read the full transcript, and access additional resources mentioned during the event. 

If you’d like to engage in the digital equity policy conversation taking place in California,  visit the California Public Utilities Commission to submit public comments on the state’s broadband efforts.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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