This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer, Arizona State University, one of the driving forces within the ShapingEDU community, and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview will be available on the ShapingEDU blog.
Arlene Krebs, during our recent interview/conversation about efforts to foster universal broadband access throughout the United States, mentioned your longtime interest in the topic. What first drew you to broadband access as a challenge you wanted to help tackle?
In 1987, I helped my friend Rob Borland from the University of Zimbabwe establish MangoNet, an early FidoNet network in Southern Africa providing connectivity to rural healthcare providers in Zimbabwe through GreenNet and WorkNet—all part of the pre-commercialization of the Internet. My wife and I managed to bring in 1440 baud modems which were installed at the Swiss Embassy in Harare. For four years, from 1990-1993), I took a group of students from across Canada and the United States to Zimbabwe for intensive study and non-governmental experiences. We continued our work with MangoNet, which eventually became HealthNet. Thereafter, I realized how important connectivity was both for health and wellness, as we were working on the detection of tuberculosis (TB) as an early indication of AIDS, but also AIDs education using early Internet protocols. When I started working in California in 1995, I took my learnings from Africa and began thinking and working on connecting parts of Pomona, which were on the “wrong side of the tracks,” with poverty, low education attainment, deteriorating public housing and little to no Internet. That marked the beginning of my 25-year effort to contribute to Connecting the Unconnected.
Any other early lessons you, Rob, and those students learned about the advantages and challenges of broadband access from the experience you just summarized?
The most important lesson I learned was the importance of designing and building coalitions of the willing. MangoNet was built with support from both Canadian and Swedish International Development agencies, donations from volunteers like me and my students, and trusted relationships in communities being impacted.
Watching your TEDx talk from 2011, I was struck by themes that seem to run through much of your work, not the least of which is the need for community and the “building of coalitions of the willing” you mentioned. How are you seeing broadband access—or lack of access—support or hinder the strength of the communities in which you work?
There is a mixed reality facing unconnected communities. During my time in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, I worked with homeless shelters, public housing families, low income housing projects, and groups of returning vets. For some, there was a deep interest and desire to take advantage of the Internet access we working on with OneCleveland, that begot OneCommunity, and then/now DigitalC. For others, there was an equally deep suspicion and profound distrust of all things digital and Internet. Many individuals believed that the Internet was part of the surveillance state, to be avoided at all costs. We worked on reducing the well-placed fear and distrust by partnering with those individuals and organizations that were trusted by those involved. We brought doctors to the community members to meet and then invite them to continue remote doctor visits online. We brought community financial literacy volunteers to the community and invited them to do the same online. Most profoundly, once we provided Internet access to those in our service area, without any promotion on our part, their kids or grandchildren found their way to visit. We traced packet routes and found that the first wave adoption in public housing, for example, was from grandma’s public housing kitchen to the local school district. These are important elements in building the foundations of a sustainable approach to netizenship.
That really takes us to the heart of what Arlene described—rethinking our approach and making a transition from referring to this as a “digital divide” and, instead, looking at it as a “social justice divide,” and so much more. Building upon what you just said, let’s humanize this even more: can you tell a specific story about how someone in Cleveland was positively affected by the work Digital C was doing or continues to do in Cleveland?
There are hundreds of stories, Paul. Custodial staff at the Cleveland Clinic found themselves with digital skills after completing classes, working themselves from minimum-wage jobs to medical-records-entry positions. This upskilling represents a profound change in the arc of both the worker and their family’s life prospects. We worked with workforce development teams to take young people who had timed out of the justice system and provide them with certifications for digital technology skills, which supported job placement opportunities with great success. We worked on pathways through coding camps to new economy jobs. Men in some of the largest homeless shelters in Ohio learned how to use the Internet to apply for public housing and began to regain their way forward. We worked with men and women re-entering society from prison to provide them with Internet access to prepare them for relevant skills for workforce opportunities. All of these efforts were about coalition building and supporting partners and partnerships in the community.
Anything else you want to add about Digital C in terms of how it serves as a positive example for anyone interested in promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States?
DigitalC is not only into workforce development. Under the leadership of Dorothy Baunach, who succeeded me as CEO (and who was on the Board throughout my time), [DigitalC] continues to expand broadband access, bringing network connectivity, to tens of thousands of households. She and her team have done a remarkable job, partnering with the Cleveland Council on Digital Equity and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, with a particular focus on providing connectivity during COVID in 2020.
N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).