Western Washington Gets Real: Tackling the digital divide

Western Washington Gets Real about the digital divide plaguing many communities of color.

And that could affect those kids and their communities for decades into the future.

By one estimate, communities of color are at least 10 years behind white communities when it comes to internet access.

The pandemic and online learning have exposed just how wide that digital divide is.

There are efforts now to bridge that gap.

This is likely the image most of us have of what it looks like for any  Western Washington child in this most modern of technological ages.  But for many children of color, this is but a dream.

“It’s real,” says Katoya Palmer. “It’s real.”

Palmer knows just how real.

She graduated in 2018 from the fully online Western Governors University - Washington of WGU..  She had her own challenges obtaining internet access; she has seen the digital divide up close as some kids struggle to attend school on a single cell phone.

“We have families whose mom is working all day  ... and there may not be a smartphone in the household,” says Palmer.

The problem doesn’t end even if the child has access to a computer if the internet connection is weak.

“So within that, if there are two students or three students in a household,” she says, “they may not be able to attend their digital classrooms as well due to glitches and all the things that happen when you don’t have a solid internet connection.”

And all of it has real-world consequences.

“We are seeing a larger proportion of people of color, in our black communities, our LatinX community, and our Native communities who are at least 10 years behind as far as their access to the digital divide,” says Dr. Tonya Drake.

The state’s first Native WGU Washington Chancellor, Dr. Drake is working to tackle the divide.

How did we get so far behind?  “Well, I think a lot of things have contributed to it,” she said.

For one thing, individuals of color are not being steered toward the lucrative careers in tech.

“Secondly,” says Dr. Drake, “I think that there is an economic issue around providing access to individuals through that last mile of broadband access.”

She says the state Department of Commerce is working on “that last mile.” But the need for so many is right now.

So WGU is setting aside $1million to create what they are calling “online access scholarships,” money to help students in need pay for equipment and internet access, providing an educational lifeline that could pay dividends long into the future.

That future is now for Katoya Palmer and her newly formed Toy Box Consulting and Management company.

“Newly launched this last August solely to provide virtual enrichment to companies and businesses of color,” said Palmer. "So that they can increase capacity and their economic stability.

Helping others take a step toward an internet future so that this is no longer an unattainable dream for anyone.

WGU’s Doctor Drake says she envisions the day when those in education, technology, and government work together toward bridging the digital divide.

Our future may well depend on it.