To address multifaceted issues like the digital divide, a diversity of tactics is required. That’s why programs like the American Connection Corps (ACC), which trains and funds leaders across the country to work with their communities to increase internet connectivity, have such potential for shrinking the divide. ACC fellows are service-oriented and dedicated to addressing local challenges.
This month, I got the chance to interview one ACC fellow, Grace Clucas, who talked to me about the connections between broadband, aging, and education. Though Grace is based in Peoria, Illinois, her insights can apply to many regions across the nation. The following questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity purposes.
Arin Yost: Tell me about your work.
Grace Clucas: My organization, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, represents five counties, so right now I am helping lead three steering committees focused on building out rural broadband infrastructure in different parts of the region. I am also heavily involved with PCs for People and trying to hold six to ten events this year in Peoria; we just successfully completed our first! I am heavily involved with around seven libraries in my area in helping them address disparities in digital access and literacy. I am also attempting—attempting is the keyword here—to run an Illinois Broadband Instagram account for outreach and a Facebook account for storytelling and sharing resources.
While serving with ACC, I really want to do something involving the homework gap, and I am hoping to curate a program that connects all public service people in the area, local college students, and potentially nursing home residents to help students with homework, college applications, job applications, etcetera.
AY: Wow, you’re tackling a lot in this position. What brought you to ACC?
GC: I’ve always been interested in government and how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work. When thinking about my career, I really wanted to start at the ground and get a picture of the foundational pieces of what makes service.
As an ACC fellow, I’ve realized that service is about learning with and growing with the community. I’m not an IT specialist, but my lack of knowledge is very relatable to the broader community. It’s sad that the pandemic had to happen to highlight broadband as an issue, but it’s been ongoing. Now that there’s a huge interest from funding partners and other networks, I want to help my community seize that opportunity to solve the gaps we see in internet access.
AY: I imagine that, when trying to reach people without broadband access, it can be difficult to use conventional outreach strategies like social media. What successes and/or pitfalls have you had with doing outreach for this work?
GC: I’m not reinventing the wheel. Churches, service organizations, businesses, and other community partners have been essential for me. With social media, my main goal is to connect those partners that do have social media. I follow all the libraries [on social media]; I follow all the soup kitchens… the information that I share can go out to service agencies who can then share with someone who needs it. Plus, a lot of people who may not have a computer or home internet access do have a cell phone with social media. It can be a great tool to reach partners with social networks that I don’t have, but it’s certainly not the only way.
AY: With that in mind, I know you’re working with a lot of service organizations. How do you see digital inclusion tied to providing inclusive communities for people of all ages and abilities?
GC: That questions starts for me with how I grew up. So many things were relatively easy for me because I had internet access at home, but I remember the frustration of driving through a remote area, for example, and not having service. Though these were relatively isolated incidents for me, it got me thinking about the implications for people who lived in those areas and aren’t able to connect. This has only gotten more urgent since I was a child.
Now, broadband is a quality-of-life issue. It’s a right, not just a privilege anymore. In particular, I see internet access tied to education and healthcare, though it impacts everything. Broadband is at the center of so many issues – it affects so many aspects of life, so improving access has the potential to improve people’s lives in multiple different ways.
AY: I know you care a lot about bridging the homework gap through intergenerational connection. Talk to me about what this issue is and how you got interested in solving this problem.
GC: Sure! Reports released last September stated that over 1,000 school-aged children in my region didn’t log on to their online school for two years. (Author’s note: data from the American Pulse Survey released last summer shows that, out of 1.3 million households, at least 55,000 Georgian students never or rarely had access to a device for digital learning, while over 23,000 never or rarely had access to Internet.) As kids go back to in-person learning, there aren’t a lot of resources to catch these kids up.
I knew I wanted to create a sustainable initiative that would outlast my fellowship term and help make a difference for students who had fallen behind and were unable to complete homework due to a lack of digital access or knowledge.
GC: I was really inspired by the program in my hometown, as well as my own experiences reading with nursing home residents when I was in elementary school. While working with Seniors Teaching Seniors, I realized that anything to do with teaching or upskilling has to be really adaptable and flexible to people’s needs. I also realized the value of intergenerational relationships and skill sharing. A key part of my goals for the next year of my fellowship is to bridge the digital divide for students by working with local organizations to provide a space for them to do homework with an older adult volunteer.
While talking with Grace, I was inspired by her approach to connecting older adults and students. It was wonderful to learn more about local strategies being used in her region that can be adapted for other localities across the country.
If you are looking for information about how to acquire internet at home, obtain a computer, or learn to use technology, check out the resources shared in “Older People & the Digital Divide 101”. In addition, Tapping Into Technology to Stay Connected and Engaged provides an overview of the various platforms, devices, assistive technology, and resources and shares tips to help you engage with others using technology