North Carolina

Free laptops, digital equity come to Charlotte families

DJ SIMMONS The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — Tina Day recalls a time in college when she didn’t own a laptop because she just couldn’t afford one.

Years later, Day and her neighbors are still short of money at Evoke Living in Westerly Hills, an affordable housing complex in West Charlotte.

It’s challenging enough to make ends meet. But since most public services or access to jobs are only available online, they and most people cannot afford to be without connectivity and a laptop.

That’s why four Charlotte-based organizations recently joined Evoke Living to begin a three-year effort to enable more digital access and improve equity by giving away hundreds of laptops to families in affordable shared homes.

At the forefront of the public and private collaboration is E2D, a non-profit organization that refurbishes laptops for families to bridge the digital divide. Her efforts are joined by the Center for Digital Equity at Queens University of Charlotte, Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), a community development organization, and investment firm Barings, which funds the program.

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“I think it’s great what they’re doing by providing laptops,” said Day, 42. “It’s serving people who can’t afford it.”

With the overall goal of delivering more than 1,600 laptops to additional affordable housing locations, approximately 150 laptops were distributed to families at Evoke. Residents were also enrolled in the state’s affordable connectivity program, computer classes and connected to digital navigation devices.

“We know families that aren’t connected won’t thrive in 2022, Charlotte,” said Pat Millen, executive director at E2D. According to Digital Charlotte, up to 55,000 households in the Mecklenburg district still have no access to fast internet. This digital divide is a barrier for families today, Millen said.

High-speed Internet lets families stay connected, people can access online banking, and students can learn virtually.

“It’s more than just a tool that enables jobs and education,” Millen said. “It’s a tool that makes everything possible.”

Gov. Roy Cooper has said as many as 1.2 million North Carolina residents don’t have broadband or digital access. He made his remarks at Microsoft’s Charlotte offices to highlight the nationwide programs being developed to bring more digital justice.

The Office of Digital Equity and Literacy opened earlier this year to administer federal dollar-funded digital inclusion programs. In September, the office launched the digital equity grant program and will use $24 million of American Rescue Plan funds. This could help increase broadband across the state, he said.

The effort is part of Cooper’s plan to bring high-speed Internet access to 95% of North Carolina homes. Telemedicine, remote work and virtual learning are aspects of the pandemic that show the importance of having access to a high-speed internet, he said.

“We have to look at that holistically when we talk about connecting,” he said.

Bruce Clark, executive director of the Center for Digital Equity, attended Cooper’s press conference and appreciated having a dedicated office to bring broadband and digital access to many in need.

“The fact that there’s that kind of attention and focus is really crucial,” Clark said. Coordinated efforts like what’s being done in Mecklenburg County with the laptop giveaway are also just as important to addressing these challenges, Clark said. Those who are directly affected by digital injustices must be included in solutions.

“We need to center, value and nurture their experience because the solutions to solving this problem are right here in our community,” he said.

“WE ALL NEED A COMPUTER”

Ralphine Caldwell, executive director of LISC Charlotte, which manages the Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment Fund, said her organization is thrilled to see the resources being made available to communities in need and those in whom her organization invests. Caldwell said there are adverse effects on families who lack fast Internet access or laptops. Ensuring families can stay connected digitally was just as important today as providing safe spaces for them.

“We want our families to be able to connect with their own families, apply for jobs or take classes online,” Caldwell said.

Barings donated $250,000 to support the giveaway, a company spokesman told the Charlotte Observer. Elizabeth Cooper, head of Social Impact, added that brainstorming with partners to find ways to help the community has boosted these efforts. Symone Littlejohn, an Evoke Living resident, said it was great to see an event that brought out the community and provided a much needed resource. This is Littlejohn’s first laptop. She plans to use it for the family’s Christmas shopping.

“That’s important because technology controls everything,” she said. “We all need a computer.”

Littlejohn added that there are many single parents who need help and that in the heart of the neighborhood the event is open to all.

“If you go to computer classes, you might be able to get a job,” Littlejohn said. “It’s definitely helpful because the world is (ruled) by technology.”

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