Attenuating the Digital Divide

5/4/21

On June 3, 2021, the Council of The District of Columbia held its first of five Budget Oversight Hearings for the Committee of Labor and Workforce Development. Led by councilmember Elissa Silverman, the hearing consisted of two panels, each hosting the testimony of five individuals representing organizations whose operations are subject to the decisions made by the Workforce Investment Council (WIC), of which Silverman is a member. Each advocated for their individual organizations’ needs and capacities, and insisted their contributions as vital to the greater workforce of D.C. . Silverman began the meeting citing the unique circumstances brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the opportunities undertaken amid funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act: 

“This is again a unique opportunity in which we need to make really strategic investments. For too long our city has had an inequality problem. The federal dollars that we are getting give us the opportunity to turn that around, to make course corrections and create opportunities for our own residents. So I really look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses today about how we can change the game and make our city more fair and equitable.” 

The first panel consisted of VP of Economic Development Policy and member of Coalition for Non Profit Housing and Economic Development Evette Banfield, CEO of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School Lecester Johnson, Director of HOPE project training program Ray Bell, Byte Back director of communications Evette Scorse, and public witness and D.C. native Soukaena Gueye. 

According to Banfield: “The path forward to eradicating persistent high unemployment rate and poverty associated with low-wage jobs is to upskill black and brown residents… Now is the time to advance innovative ideas to provide a fair shot for the district’s low-income long-term and newly unemployed black and brown residents and those in entry level skill jobs.”

Both holding chief positions pertaining to job training and workforce integration, testimonies from Bell and Johnson echoed Banfield’s emphases. Making use of their professional insight, they posited that funding for fiscal year ‘22 would be most effective if administered to maintain current infrastructure and support staff to ensure functionality and increased capacity to educate. 

By honing in on job training, digital literacy, and the digital divide, this first panel vehemently attested to the inequality Silverman described in her opening remarks. The panel outlined the tech field as a fruitful endeavor, ripe with the opportunity to uplift disenfranchised communities to attain living wage occupations in a self sustaining effort. 

Funding in this field is not only a requirement to ensure the advancement of these communities, but an obligation to ensure the disparaging effects of the digital divide that the Black community is disproportionately faced with, and were exacerbated amid COVID-19, do not persist. 

“We need digital equity in D.C.” attested Gueye, who is a recent Byte Back graduate, “as a D.C. Native, I’m grateful programs like Byte Back exist to support individuals like me and my neighbors in our effort to gain skills and employment. … Byte Back gave me the experience I needed to go further in my education. I now have the tech foundations I need to enroll at American University and continue to pursue my education further. All individuals should have this opportunity, whether their goals are to eventually pursue a four-year degree or to better understand how to use the technology they have… Without Byte Back, I wouldn’t have access to a computer. And without computer skills, I wouldn’t even know how to use a computer to apply for jobs or sign up for my COVID-19 vaccine”

A second panel, consisting of a coalition of healthcare professionals and related professions, advocated similar concerns, though specific to the sector of public health. 

Summarizing their concerns, D.C. Coalition on Long Term Care coordinator Judith Levy cited five pillars of direct care job quality that she and her fellow panelists viewed as pivotal to the budget hearing: “Quality jobs, means quality care, quality training, fair compensation, quality supervision and support, respect and recognition and real opportunities. Yet none of this will be successful without adequate funding of educational programs, opportunities, along with the attitude about these jobs. Not being valuable and not being respected.” 

Both panels found job training as a pivotal issue worthy of targeting by way of the allotted funding. Panelists await to see how these concerns are received and acted on going forward in the four remaining hearings. 

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