Seattle’s Digital Equity Fund Boosts IT Literacy for Immigrants and Residents in Need

Written by Lindsay McKenzie

This month, Seattle officials distributed approximately $590,000 in grants to 19 community organizations across the city as part of its longstanding Digital Equity Grants program, designed to provide access to technology and Internet to the neediest residents, including many recent immigrants to the United States.

The program, which has been around for a quarter of a century, works with local communities that need public support the most, Jim Loter, Seattle’s acting chief information officer, said in a press release.

Among this year’s first recipients is the YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish, which received $25,000 to distribute laptops to local residents through a “loan-to-buy” program in which recipients are encouraged to go through the IT training stages promising they can keep devices for personal use as a reward.

The YWCA program focuses on the needs of local immigrant communities, including families from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Vietnam, among other countries. It also prioritizes families who don’t have computers at home or don’t have the digital literacy skills to use them. The city also considers large families who share a single device and older residents who lack computer skills.

The city’s YWCA award will support the distribution of approximately 70 laptops, digital literacy training and one-on-one business support.

“Our agency is rooted in the principles of race and social justice, so we focus on [Black, indigenous and people of color] members of the community, and with this grant in particular, immigrants and refugees who suffer from the digital divide,” Mike Schwartz, director of economic empowerment for the YWCA of Seattle, told StateScoop.

Without access to computers or knowing how to use them, residents can be deprived of vital information and services, Schwartz said. In addition to finding and applying for a job, access to a computer is increasingly necessary to access health services, education and housing.

The YWCA will use the digital equity funds to target White Center, a suburb of Seattle where about 40% of residents are foreign-born, Schwartz said.

“There’s just huge demand out there,” Schwartz said. “This digital equity grant will help us get there. I don’t think this will fully meet community demand, but it’s a step in the right direction.

He said the organization also relies on philanthropic support to fund its digital literacy program.

Schwartz said that after learning his team had won the $25,000 grant, he said he reached out to colleagues at Greenbridge Learning Center, a White Center YWCA facility that serves immigrant families. Staff there will help identify potential recipients of laptops and training, he said.

The YWCA has long offered training to help residents find jobs and learn to use computers, but the city grant will allow the organization to offer more personalized assistance and help it distribute more devices, Schwartz said. The organization receives funding from several sources and assists community members with housing assistance, eviction prevention, English classes, and other services.

Other projects that received grants from Seattle included technology classes for formerly incarcerated adults, the creation of new laptop lending libraries, the deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots and digital connectivity for people living in supportive or transitional housing.

A total of 52 organizations applied for funding this year. Loter, the interim CIO, said in the press release that it was a “heartbreaking part of this process” to narrow down the 19 winners.

Ryan H. Bowman