Digital Equity Agenda Gives Seattleians Tools to Thrive
When Nga Le immigrated to Seattle from Vietnam five years ago, she needed help finding work and developing her language skills. With the resources of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Le was able to use technology and educational programs to help him pursue these goals and settle in Seattle.
Looking for a job isn’t the only reason people need internet access and skills these days. From making doctor appointments to video chatting with friends, computers and the internet have become invaluable tools for modern life, especially during the pandemic. But these resources are not equitably distributed. That’s why Comcast partners with Seattle-based ACRS to bolster their mission with essential technical support.
The has used these resources at ACRS, an organization that seeks to empower and improve the well-being of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other underserved communities. The is currently taking the ACRS Ready to Work ESL course and a computer science course.
Through a translator, she said, when she moved to the United States, she did not know English. American culture also took some getting used to. She also wanted to learn English and acquire computer skills in order to get a job. So when a friend told her about ACRS, she decided to enroll in a computer class.
“If I want to apply for a job or want to do anything, I have to use the computer, which is really beneficial for me,” Le said.
Alexandra Olins, director of employment and citizenship at ACRS, describes the organization as a community hub, where people can grab a meal, connect with therapy services and access resources to support research. employment. The organization serves the community holistically, providing what are known as wraparound services – what CAHR Director of Development Martha Reyes describes as encompassing everything a person may need to thrive. .
The organization serves approximately 30,000 customers a year with offerings in more than 40 languages and a location in Seattle’s 98118 zip code, which is among the most diverse in the country, and two satellite locations in Kent and Bellevue to expand the reach of the organization beyond King County. .
Improving lives through digital equity
It was ACRS’ work in the community that led Comcast to partner with the organization more than 10 years ago. “We recognize that they [ACRS] meet some of the most vulnerable members of our community across generations,” said Diem Ly, Director of Community Partnerships at Comcast. Comcast’s support included a $158,000 investment, a state-of-the-art technology makeover, and free Internet connectivity.
The partnership between Comcast and ACRS is focused on using digital resources to advance ACRS’ mission by training job seekers in computer fundamentals and Internet skills, Reyes said.
This support has been particularly strong over the past two years. “Human services and social work is about helping others,” Reyes said. When social distancing measures were in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, ACRS services went virtual. Early in the pandemic, Reyes said, Comcast approached the organization and asked what it needed, and with the company’s support, ACRS stepped up its WiFi and distributed laptops to every member of its staff of 300 people. “By being able to connect one-on-one with clients, with our colleagues, we were able to help our clients and also the community heal,” Reyes said.
CAHR will continue to offer established virtual classes during the pandemic, and the entire first floor of the organization’s building is now known as Digital Empowerment Zone, housing virtual classrooms, digital literacy workshops and wellness groups. This digital space was made possible by Comcast Lift Zone.
“It’s a rare space where they have the full power of all this technology at their disposal, to be able to open doors for their own opportunities,” Ly said. ACRS’ Reyes envisions the Lift Zone to support young people engaging with ACRS.
These services are part of ACRS’ broader mission to strengthen digital equity. Although their programming is open to everyone, most clients do not speak English as their first language and may not have the economic resources to maintain internet access at home. ACRS also has a Digital Literacy Lab, which houses internet and technology resources as well as culturally appropriate training.
Providing resources through culturally appropriate programs and one-on-one support is key to building equity, Reyes said. Ly agreed, saying digital equity means providing internet connectivity and access to technology, but also education and training.
Pedagogy for success
As of 2017, Comcast has been the sole supporter of ACRS’ digital literacy program, Olins said. Four times a year, it offers courses that last ten weeks, three hours a week, and guide participants through setting up an email account, managing passwords and using social media.
Drawing on his experience as a digital literacy instructor and employment case manager at ACRS, Jeff Ng said that many students who take the digital literacy course are not native English speakers, from so that assistants who speak other languages are available to provide support.
In this stimulating environment, students grow and change. Ng said sometimes people are unsure of their abilities, but he always gives them the opportunity and encouragement to try. Often, Ng said, students don’t know anything about computer or internet use when they start, but by the end he watches them email their instructors, share photos online or search for jobs.
“It takes time and patience, and you have to encourage students to try a little, a little more,” Ng said. “At the end of the course, I can say that they are all improving in terms of digital literacy skills, and also their confidence, the most important.”
A student Ng taught virtually was reluctant to speak or ask questions in class. He could tell she might have something to say, but he was uncomfortable doing so. He encouraged her to ask questions, which she started doing through the chat option in Microsoft Teams. Soon after, she began actively asking him questions in class and even clarified with questions via email afterwards. She eventually shared a Google document with Ng containing her favorite recipe from her home country.
“It’s very encouraging, because now she knows how to express herself with the tools that I taught her during computer science class,” Ng said.
Seeing this improvement and empowering students is what Ng loves most about his job. With the Lift Zone lab, Ng said students will have more opportunities to use the internet, allowing them to engage with resources such as distance learning and job search.
“I believe with the tools we’re going to provide, we’re going to help even more clients become empowered and independent,” Ng said.
In each ACRS program, participants are assigned culturally competent case managers who often share a common language with the participant, Olins said. Working with the case manager helps students develop an education and career plan. Early in the pandemic, when resources went online, social workers visited clients’ homes to resolve connectivity issues, Olins said. In keeping with social distancing protocols, social workers would assist people from their front porches or direct younger family members with more digital literacy about accessing programs.
Even before the pandemic, Olins said it was clear that digital literacy was a crucial skill for many aspects of life, such as making medical appointments, checking children’s grades, applying for unemployment or even consulting a bus schedule.
“The focus is on people being full members of their community and you really can’t do that without digital literacy,” Olins said.
And once COVID arrived, digital literacy became even more crucial. “You couldn’t do any part of the classroom without digital literacy,” Olins said.
But the students learned quickly. “People overcame some of their digital literacy anxiety because they had to do things over and over and over again to get into classes,” Olins said. “And then they kind of took ownership and really moved forward at a faster pace than I thought they would pre-COVID.”
Le, the ACRS client, has come a long way. After taking the classes, Le said she was confident in her ability to use the computer. She uses it to send her resume and look for jobs. “Now I can [use] computer to email my friend and family in Vietnam,” she said, including her sons and other family members still living in Vietnam.
Through his training with ACRS, Le was able to overcome the initial difficulty of learning a new language and culture. She is able to use digital resources for purposes other than language learning and job seeking. Recently, Le has been using the internet to find recipes to cook for her family — and, she says, she’s made a lot of friends at ACRS.