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Hennepin County tackles the disparities in the digital divide

One mother wrote, “I’m thankful for the laptop so that I can help my three daughters and son with school distance learning. We don’t own a personal computer, and this will be so helpful. Also, my father-in-law was recently diagnosed with cancer and we constantly have virtual appointments with his oncologist. The laptop will be most helpful...”

A woman said the laptop is a critical piece for professional training. “My current laptop freezes in the middle of my work. With this, I will be able to complete all my coursework and apply to nursing school.”

One man said, “I have been down on my luck since I’ve been let go from my job that I enjoyed tremendously. I will use this to help me obtain a job and better myself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic sent thousands home for remote education and work and illuminated the stark reality of the digital divide.

Lower income families, many of whom are people of color, are more likely to lack connectivity and equipment needed to learn or work from home.

Hennepin County steps up

“The pandemic showed us that technology is critical to accessing services, connecting to health care and schools, and allowing people to stay in touch. Without technology, people are less likely to access vital services, are more isolated, and more likely to fall behind in vital areas, such as education, employment and health,” said Assistant County Administrator for Disparity Reduction Chela Guzmán-Wiegert.

Hennepin County launched Connecting Hennepin using CARES Act funds, to address three critical areas of the digital divide: devices; connectivity and digital literacy.

County staff and community partners helped identify people in need of technology assistance and worked to connect them to the available services. Although more work remains, thousands of county residents were helped through this collaboration.

1. Devices

Working with partners, such as schools and employment support organizations, more than 2,700 youth involved in distance learning received Chromebooks, and more than 5,800 adult job seekers and seniors needing tele-health access received Windows laptops.

Distribution events were coordinated by the county’s partner in the project, PCs for People, which also continues to provide technical support to families who received equipment. More than 80 organizations responded to a solicitation about the needs in their communities. Although not all requests could be met, priority was given to organizations serving seniors and Black, Indigenous and People of Color residents.

2. Connectivity

Hennepin launched pilot programs that connected residents with hotspots or subsidized internet offerings. Due to CARES funding restrictions and eligibility requirements, the county could not scale the pilots to meet the scope of community need. Hennepin continues to explore partnerships and program options that can be offered to clients and partners.

3. Digital literacy resources

Knowing how to use equipment and navigate the internet is important to ending the digital divide. Hennepin added a dedicated a webpage to promote available resources. Literacy Minnesota developed a training on Digital Navigation best practices for county staff and partners.

Results

Guzmán-Wiegert said that ending the digital divide is a long-term priority. “We know that continued investment in broadband infrastructure and advocacy for affordable internet rates are needed to eliminate the digital divide,” she said. “I believe Hennepin’s commitment to this effort is critical to move our disparity wheels, especially education, employment, income and health.”

Hennepin County wishes to thank all the school districts and community organizations that helped, and a special thank you to PCs for People for managing the distribution.

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