As we enter a new year, the staff at EveryoneOn has taken some time to reflect on exactly what brought us to work on the issue of the digital divide and what continues to drive us in our work. This post is by Vin Menon, our chief operating officer. Find posts from other staff members here.
Eager to learn. Hardworking. Curious. These are some of the characteristics of my students that stay with me as I think back on my time as a volunteer computer skills instructor at Bridges to Independence, or b2i (formerly the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless).
b2i is an organization that offers transitional housing and support services to homeless women and families in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia. I lived just a few blocks from this center at the time, and decided to teach on Monday nights as a way to give back to my community.
I tried to impart to my students a basic knowledge of Microsoft Word and Excel, but I often feel that they taught me more than I taught them. I learned about how hard it can be to find a job once you’ve been displaced from a stable home. I realized that being hardworking and putting in long hours aren’t always enough when you live in one of the most expensive areas in the country. I also saw firsthand how we’re leaving some people behind as our world becomes increasingly digital.
I thought my first lesson would involve an introduction to Excel and maybe a simple personal finance budget if things went really well. Instead, I found myself meeting my students where they were. For one student, that meant clarifying the purpose of certain buttons on the keyboard. For another, helping create a free web-based email account for us to communicate. For a third, understanding how to right-click, and what that’s generally used for.
The issue here wasn’t a lack of ability. My students were very bright; most picked up my lessons quickly, despite the new-ness of the material. It wasn’t a matter of work ethic, either; most carved out time for the class amid busy schedules filled with work, family needs, and self-improvement activities through b2i. They just hadn’t been shown how to use computers and the Internet. Moreover, since they couldn’t access this technology in their homes (usually due to cost), this was bound to remain foreign territory to them.
I came to EveryoneOn to help others like my students experience the benefits of technology. I believe that your ZIP code shouldn’t determine your future, yet too often it’s a predictor of long-term outcomes. Technology can be an equalizer by providing the means to share information, educate people, and voice opinions.
By joining EveryoneOn, I have a chance to scale up the scope of my impact from my classroom in Arlington to unconnected Americans nationwide. I’m also fortunate to contribute to this issue beyond digital literacy, by working to raise affordable access to the Internet and computers.
Vin Menon is the chief operating officer at EveryoneOn.