Though the digital divide adversely affects the Northeast Central Durham community, who exactly it is dividing is diverse: the impoverished from the wealthier, students from schoolwork, and even parents from children.
When asked about the digital divide in Durham, the CommUNITY tutors at the West End Community Foundation pondered for a moment. The classroom they sat in had colorful tables set up with elementary-plastic chairs, bulletin boards, posters on the walls — and several desktop computers.
“Most (of our) kids do have access to the internet,” said Elnora Shields, director of Project FINE, a neighborhood partnership after school tutoring program.
She addressed DeWarren K. Langley, her fellow tutor, from across the room. “DeWarren, what would you say is the percentage of students we get who don’t have access to Internet?”
Langley looked up from the essay he was proofreading.
Outside the West End Community Foundation building, he said, he regularly sees a man sitting on bench with a laptop, and teenagers on the steps with their cell phones, using the community center’s WiFi connection.
“I don’t know,” he said in reply to Shields. “But there is definitely a digital divide.”
‘It’s always the kids that suffer’
For Sparkle Yates, an assistant teacher for exceptional students at James E. Shepard Middle School, dealing with Internet connectivity problems with her students is a regular task.
“You have to get creative with your assignments,” she said. “Some kids are homeless, some don’t have computers, some kids live with their grandparents.”
Yates said she tries to use resources that don’t require the Internet, like dictionaries or thesauruses.
“Some of them don’t like that. They’ll look at a dictionary and say: ‘Ew, I don’t wanna do that!’”
For assignments that do require computers, she will allow time during school hours for the students to work on their projects.
At this month’s meeting, she said, the digital divide was discussed in light of budget cuts that severely reduced the number of textbooks provided to students.
“A kid goes home, and he says: ‘We don’t have a textbook for class.’,” she said.
The only two options are for the family to access the textbook online, or purchase the textbook themselves — and for many families, she said, neither options are feasible.
“And if this is an issue at Jordan, oh my gosh, it’s going to be a problem everywhere,” she said.
Bringing families together
For James Johnson, executive director of the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club on Alston Ave., that divide is between parents and their children.
In a meeting with families in the community several months ago, Johnson said he asked the question: “Why is it so hard for people to connect with each other?”
For many, the answer had to do with children having access to technology while their parents didn’t. Communications were difficult between parents and their children, who had cell phones, Johnson said.
“(The children) don’t feel the parents are as smart as they are because they have the Internet,” he said.
So in May 2015, the Boys & Girls Club partnered with the Kramden Institute to bring 10 pairs of parents and students together to learn about technology. The program was called Bridging the Gap.
The program taught the family pairs the basics of using a computer, as well as software to help them with basic computer skills, the Internet, and financial safety.
At the end of the program, the families were given computers for free.
Johnson told the story of one parent and his son. The son had gotten into some trouble and had dropped out of school, but during the program, the pair got to learn how to use the computer to help with the family business.
“Now they’re building the business together,” he said.
But as for access to cell phones, most people have one, said Shields.
“There are people who don’t have food to eat, but have a T.V.,” she said with a laugh.
The statement was set in truth: access to cell phones was made easier by the Federal Lifeline Program, which provides cell phones through many federally-funded programs, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The Federal Lifeline Program provides free cell phones to those who qualify, including unlimited texting and 500 free minutes every month for the first four months, with 350 minutes allotted each month after that, according to their website.
Lauren Stephenson, communications coordinator of the East Durham Children’s Initiative, said most families she’s interacted with have prepaid internet or primarily access the internet through their phones.
“That’s not the best solution,” she said. “Especially for children who have to do homework.”
The EDCI did a survey in Spring 2014 of 85 parents and caregivers with children. According to the survey, only 59 percent of those families reported having computers at home, while 77 percent reported having access to an Internet connection, whether that was at home or another location.
For those who are in poverty and can only access the Internet on their phones, or in public places like libraries, daily activities are much more difficult, Shepherd said.
“(Being in poverty) almost like a different human experience,” she said. “Everything is much more arduous.”
She said she has friends and family who have difficulty applying for jobs, signing up their children for daycare, or even helping their children complete research papers — all of these activities require an Internet connection and a computer, or transportation, which is also difficult to access.
Shepherd said it’s a shame that companies are making a profit off of selling Internet connections to people.
“If (the Internet) is the way we’re going to be uniting our world, it should be free,” she said.
Google Fiber, a high-speed Internet and television service provided to three locations in the United States, is now poised to set up shop in the Triangle — but the divide could mean that it will have little effect on the Northeast Central Durham community, said Bob Newlin, a retired professor from Duke University and member of the Partners for Youth Opportunity Board of Directors.
In order for Google Fiber to be established in any “fiberhood” — a number of homes and businesses grouped together — a number of residents have to agree and each put a $10 downpayment on a Fiber package, according to the Google Fiber website.
There is also a Community Connections program that will provide free Internet service to public and non-profit organizations surrounding the fiberhood, as chosen by the city. The only catch is that the fiberhood has to have the customers established first, according to the website.
And at $70 a month for internet service, or an alternative of $300 upfront for seven years of service, Fiber is too expensive, Langley said, high-speed or not.
“The problem isn’t speed,” he said. “People just won’t be able to pay for that.”
Still, Fiber service will provide more competition in the area and likely lower the cost of Internet services in the area, Newlin said.
For the children in the area from low-wealth families especially, he said, the lowering of Internet costs could be pivotal.
He said, “It’s always the children that suffer.”