Decades after the term “digital divide” was coined, this systemic inequity persists, preventing too many people from living a quality life—and sometimes even to survive. In the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the gulf between those with internet access and those without, as necessary activities like seeking healthcare, education, and jobs have moved online.
For our Corporate Impact Leaders Forum (CILF) series, Strategies to Bridge the Digital Divide, Tides recently brought together four panelists, experts in the subject of equity and the digital divide, to identify challenges and solutions. Led by Amy Lesnick, chief executive and president of Pledge 1%, the panel included Jen Stredler, vice president of workforce development at Salesforce; Ellen McClain, COO of Year Up; and Caroline Barlerin, founder and CEO of Platypus Advisors.
Lesnick opened the discussion with sobering statistics that paint a grim picture: 43 percent of adults with lower incomes do not have access to home broadband and 41 percent don’t have access to a desktop or laptop. Nearly half of Americans without home internet are either Black or Hispanic. And while the Biden administration allocated more than $65 billion to broadband through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, broadband alone is but one small piece of the digital divide.
“It’s an enormous challenge, especially for vulnerable populations,” Lesnick said. “In many cases, the digital divide is not only a result of historical inequities, but also perpetuates them. And COVID-19 has only highlighted and in many cases exacerbated these inequities.”
Stredler, vice president of workforce development at Salesforce, acknowledged the enormity of the issue. “The problem and the scope of the challenge is vast,” she said, noting that the many factors causing this divide must be tackled by leveraging the unique roles and assets that different companies can bring. “We can’t all do everything, and we can’t all do it alone.”
Ellen McClain, COO of Year Up, focused on the root issue during the panel discussion. “The digital divide is deeply, deeply rooted in the systemic issues, including systemic racism, that have plagued our nation from its inception,” she said. McClain identified the global response to George Floyd’s murder as a catalyst, pointing to the “fundamental systemic unfairness” that continues to wreak havoc in our country.
In the face of a challenge so complex and embedded, what can companies do? A lot, according to McClain. “We operate with a fundamental belief that corporations can and do play a role in advancing equity and justice and the conditions for our communities and economy to thrive,” she said of her team at Year Up.
All panelists agreed that collaborative efforts are crucial in the face of these challenges. As Stredler pointed out, it’s “not sustainable for every company to support every need of every person. But,” she went on, pointing to the importance of partnership, “we’ve tried to mitigate immediate needs and then work with our partners to develop a more systemic and scalable solution.”
And while systemic and scalable solutions are absolutely essential to resolve these challenges, the need for hyperlocal solutions is also key to making progress.
Click here to continue reading about how place based solutions are crucial to combat the digital divide, and how it impacts jobs and livelihoods.