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Queens students work with Google Fiber to empower a community

Students from Queens’ James L. Knight School of Communication are collaborating for the first time with Google Fiber on a service initiative designed to strengthen digital inclusion in Charlotte.

Called the Community Leaders Program, it marks the first time the company has integrated the national initiative with a university course.

Twenty-five students are serving as digital tutors, media producers, and community tech consultants during the spring semester at five Charlotte community organizations – the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Grier Heights Community Center, Hidden Valley Elementary School, and the Latin American Coalition. Staff members from Google Fiber, Digital Charlotte, and the Knight School trained the students in digital inclusion issues and educational outreach for four weeks before their deployment in the community, where they typically serve for four to six weeks. The program is a key component in senior graduation requirements.

“Digital literacy is all about helping people use digital technology and use digital tools to improve their lives and the lives of those around them,” said Dr. Daina Nathaniel, the Knight School professor leading the program. “That’s the whole point. It’s not to acquire technology or devices, but what we do, how we use it. As we’ve seen in different parts of the world, just a little bit of technology has empowered women and young people to change their communities in ways we can only dream of, in terms of water access, small business, and other fields. It’s not just about getting on Facebook.”

In groups of three to six, students answer questions for people new to the internet, demonstrate online technologies, teach the basics of word-processing and spreadsheet software programs, and serve as media coaches. The student team at the Latin American Coalition works exclusively in Spanish, and the group at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is creating video products to support the library’s upcoming digital branch.

Dr. Nathaniel said the Knight School emphasizes sustainability in service projects supported by students.

“So often we see in different parts of the world, people will roll in at the holiday time, or they roll in for one thing, or they roll in for one day with all their colleagues from their office and they give out stuff or whatever,” she said. “And while those kinds of service have a place, I believe that for communities who are underserved, those of us who want to help must be in for the long haul. Our students siphon out, because every four years there’s another group that goes through. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a solid process to ensure that there’s a continuous pipeline.”

At one of the five projects — Grier Heights Community Center — volunteer Leonard Russ said there’s a substantial need in among community members for a better understanding of how technology can help in their lives and vocations. More than 50,000 households lack internet access in Mecklenburg County.

“Requests for help range from not knowing anything about computers and wanted to become digitally competent, to wanting to correspond with grandkids, to people who have been entrepreneurs or have been working in businesses,” Russ said. “The Queens students have been one-on-one, grabbing hold to those challenges and supporting people. You can see the light in their eyes click, and I think they appreciate the youth and energy these students bring. It’s been rewarding to watch, as a former teacher and a former soldier, seeing missions grabbed and supported and completed to excellence. I give a high five to the whole crew.”


Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts made these remarks at the Feb. 7, 2017, launch of the Community Leaders Program — a collaboration among Google Fiber, Digital Charlotte, and the Queens James L. Knight School of Communication.

We’re reaching out to our young people, with Digital Charlotte, with Microsoft, other folks and trying to get coding into the classrooms, into afterschool programs. Kids, if they don’t have exposure, don’t know the aptitude they might need. And we need them to get that aptitude early. It’s like learning a language. If you learn before you’re age 12, you won’t have an accent. If you learn coding before age 12, you won’t have an accent.

You know when your phone goes off when there’s a weather alert? If you don’t have a phone and you don’t know what the alert system is, we have people in poorer parts of town who don’t get those warnings. We had a tornado that touched down lightly in southwest Charlotte. There was significant damage and a lot of those folks knew about it and some of them didn’t. There wasn’t a whole lot of warning, but even having a little bit of warning when it’s a tornado, it can be a matter of life or death.

This digital divide and the device, and the access divide — it’s real.

It’s about lives, it’s absolutely about workforce, being able to take care of your family, and being able to have a future, to live in the future.

I’ve walked in neighborhoods where hardly anyone has a smart phone. They certainly don’t have access to internet at home. You can see it in the simplest things like health care.

Ten years ago, we didn’t have social media managers. That was not a job description. Now, you have someone following the president’s tweets, 24/7. That’s an incredibly important job. There are so many examples of how we can’t see how much bigger that gap is going to be, if we don’t solve it now.

Again, these are basic things that everybody needs to have. Everyday we’re reminded of that, for those who have access, how dependent we are. We want to help accelerate, we want to help connect people, we want to bridge that opportunity divide. It is essential for our survival.

— reporting by Jayda Brown


Videography by Faith Anthony, Jayda Brown, Jonah Forte, and Bob Page.