The following is a report done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods Program, the capstone class for the Temple Journalism Department.
Recent data backs up estimates that more than half of Philadelphia households do not have access to broadband Internet.
According to a survey completed by the Knight Center and with U.S. census data, experts have determined that 41 percent of Philadelphia households do not have Internet and/or computer access. Most of these households are in North, West and some parts of South Philadelphia and include mostly low-income African-American and Hispanic families, according to the data.
The City of Philadelphia is working to close the digital divide and for good reason. In April of this year, the city’s unemployment rate hovered at 9.3 percent, nearly a half a point higher than the national average of 8.7 percent. As Philadelphia’s economy continues transitioning from manufacturing to information technology, closing the divide could be key to attracting new jobs to Philadelphia.
“It’s a workforce issue,” said Andrew Buss, director of public programs for the City of Philadelphia’s Division of Technology. “If we don’t have a trained, skilled workforce it will be difficult to attract employers to Philadelphia.”
Buss, along with Lindsey Keck, the program manager for the Public Computer Center Project, helped the City coordinate with a dozen partner community organizations to launch computer centers all over Philadelphia. These centers will offer public access to computers, the Internet and computer skills training.
“We recognize that in order for any Philadelphian or any American to compete in the 21st century they must have literacy skills and this includes verbal, written and computer literacy skills to survive,” said Mayor Michael Nutter during the press conference at the ‘wire-cutting’ launch ceremony of the People’s Emergency Center, located on Warren Street near Spring Garden Street in West Philadelphia.
“Computer literacy is no longer an option,” Nutter said. “It is a true necessity.”
“Without the Internet access we are leaving behind a whole segment of the population that doesn’t have access to computers or cannot afford broadband access,” Lindsey Keck said. “It’s about empowering people with information.”
But access to the Internet and access to computers are very different. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the majority of all African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics have access to the Internet through mobile devices, such as cell phones. The problem is that many computer-oriented tasks such as creating a resume or searching for jobs, cannot be done using a mobile device. Plus, many jobs require that employees possess at least some basic computer skills.
“These centers will help people get basic word processing skills and give them the ability to search the web,” Keck said. “It’s a part of Philadelphia’s initiative of making Philadelphia smarter, it’s about creating a more competitive workforce.”
The City of Philadelphia is most recently working to bridge the divide with its Freedom Rings Partnership. The partnership is comprised of a number of grass roots organizations, government entities and universities. This partnership includes the Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia FIGHT and Drexel University. All of these partners will work together to open 77 centers across the city, creating 177 full-time and part-time jobs.
So what makes the Freedom Rings Partnership effort to bridge the gap different from prior initiatives?
“Our other efforts were scattered,” Andrew Buss said. “Perhaps not unified that well. I think one of the things that sets the Freedom Rings Partnership apart from our other efforts is that we have done a really good job collaborating with other organizations.”
Another difference is funding. The Obama administration allocated $7.2 billion in stimulus money for broadband grants. The goal— to ensure that all Americans have access to high-speed Internet. Millions—$25 million to be exact—are being invested into Philadelphia.
“PEC “>received a $6.4 million grant from the federal government,” Lindsey Keck said. “All of this is geared toward bridging the digital divide.”
And PEC was not alone. The Urban Affairs Coalition, the lead partner in the Freedom Rings Partnership, received an $11.8 million Sustainable Broadband Adoption award. In addition, the City of Philadelphia, Urban Affairs Coalition and other grant sub-recipients put up another $6.9 million in matching funds.
Many Philadelphians are feeling the positive impact of the investment.
“We have a lot of success stories here,” said Hamidou Trare, a computer teacher for the past two years at PEC on Warren Street in Powelton Village.
“I had one student who when she got here, who knew nothing about computers. I had to train her on everything from keyboarding skills, and basic knowledge,” he said. “I helped her attain Microsoft Office skills training. Now she is a certified Microsoft Office specialist, and is out working for a nice firm.”
Rasheeda Manning, 27, started coming to PEC two months ago. She had some computer skills, but needed more for her job. Rasheeda Manning said she has big plans after she leaves PEC.
“I was already employed,” she said. “But I didn’t have enough education to keep my job so I came here.”
Manning worked at a nearby daycare facility. She said PEC employees have helped her develop her computer skills by helping her find key information, like health codes for children that she can take with her when she goes back to work.
“They taught me how to search for a job, what to wear, how to act,” Manning said. “Now I want to go back and get my associate [degree] and I want to own a day care of my own.”
For more information on the Freedom Rings Partnership or to locate a computer center, go to www.freedomringspartnership.com.