'Little Miss Flint,' Other Student Activists Partner With Verizon To Help Close The Digital Divide

Breanna Edwards Sep, 28, 2018

The “digital divide.” It’s a phrase we’ve come across often in the early half of the past decade, describing the gap in internet connectivity and accessibility between groups of people.

In 2018, it is perhaps an issue that comes up less as many aspects of the digital divide have narrowed, yet it’s an issue that persists and impacts several underserved communities, the children that live in those communities and thus their quality of education.

RELATED: ESSENCE Presents 2018's 'Woke 100 Women' List To Highlight Black Women Change-Agents

RELATED: Little Miss Flint Just Helped 1,000 Local Kids Get New School Supplies

It’s a problem that even the kids notice, as they (more than anyone else) know what they are missing out on when they do not have the access to the tools and technology that have become so ubiquitous for many of us.

Mari Copeny, better known as Little Miss Flint, the precocious, young social activist fighting to bring clean water to her hometown of Flint, Mich., knows a thing or two about basic resources being taken for granted. The young activist has since partnered with Verizon and other student activists, including those from the nonprofit Student Voice, to join a new national youth campaign to end education inequality.

RELATED: Black Kids Matter: We Have to Talk About the Exploitation of Black Children in the Hart Murder-Suicide

“Tech is important to students because they can take tests, research, contact other teachers or students around the world,” Copeny told ESSENCE. “[They also] can save paper so they don’t have to waste it.”

“Tech in school for me is amazing,” the 11-year-old added. “It can do so much stuff…It’s important to connect with the world.”

Since 2012, Verizon, with its Innovative Learning initiative, 
has been working to provide underserved communities with the latest technology and resources that the students need to thrive and succeed in the world.

“Education inequality is a serious issue and it impacts underserved students the most. By providing Title 1 Middle School students across the U.S. with technology tools and innovative curricula, Verizon Innovative Learning is helping to close this gap,” Rose Kirk, Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer of Verizon told ESSENCE in a statement. “We are inspired by the young voices who are taking up the charge alongside us, to bridge this digital divide.”

The company is calling on everyone to make a pledge to help address the issue, and will then do its part by donating up to $2 million to help bridge the digital divide. The program is currently in 100 schools and is looking to break into 50 more schools by 2021.

Education Superhighway, a nonprofit dedicated to making sure every public school classroom across America, has high-speed internet access estimates that about 6.5 million students still don’t have the quality and affordable internet access they need to succeed.

Blacks and Hispanics are still less likely than their white counterparts to own a traditional computer or have access to high-speed internet, according to a Pew Research Center survey from fall 2016.

Access to smartphones, especially those that can come in at a lower budget, is helping bridge some of those differences, but anyone who has access to both can tell you that there are just some things that are more easily done with a full-fledged computer. Whites are also more likely to have a broadband connection at home, than their Black or Hispanic counterparts.

Then there is the persistent gap between rural and non-rural America in terms of having access to home broadband, smartphones, and other devices. Another Pew study from 2016 shows that about 63 percent of rural Americans say they have access to broadband internet connection at home, up from about 35 percent in 2007, whereas rural Americans are now 10 percent points less likely than Americans to have home broadband. Back in 2007, there was a 16-point gap between rural Americans and all U.S. adults.

And then there’s just plain old money. At the end of the day, zippy internet access at home and these smart devices cost money, and those who make less than $30,000 a year are much less likely to own a smartphone, have home broadband services or own a traditional computer.

These differences show up in the lives of our children and may harshly impact their academic performance. And this issue is only the tip of the iceberg, we haven’t even touched on educational funding, and the haves and the have-nots culture that pervades individual schools.

Seun Babalola, 20, another student activist that Verizon has tapped for its initiative, remembers all too well what it was like going through the first two years of college without a personal laptop.

“It made a lot of things difficult for me especially trying to navigate homework assignments that were online or online textbooks You have different things that you have to do that you need technology to use. When you don’t have access to those things it makes it very difficult to do that work,” Babalola, who is also the founder of the Men of Excellence project, which works to provide opportunities to young men of color, added.

“The change, not just academically, but in just efficiency I was able to see in between the first two years when I didn’t have a laptop and now that I do,” Babalola continued, “it was undeniable how much it helped for me to have a personal computer to be able to work on my own, when is convenient to me and when I needed to.”

And just because he noticed the impacts particularly as a college student, doesn’t mean that he thinks that young children should not have those benefits.

“One of the biggest things right now is that the world is constantly moving and now especially in 2018, we’re in an age where almost everything is computerized, everything is digitized,” the Penn State senior explained. “There’s a big learning curve that has to be instilled from k through 8, from 9th grade to 10th grade through high school to get students prepared for how the world is changing.”

Teachers, like Malika Upchurch, who works with Neil Armstrong Middle School in Bristol, Pa., one of the schools who is a part of the program noted this as well.

“Students with access to technology definitely have an edge in the learning community. For instance, when collaborating on a writing piece, students and teachers can comment on, edit, or view a document at the same time. The ability to provide feedback from anywhere, at any time enables me to give timely feedback instead providing feedback days later, when a student has lost interest in the assignment,” Upchurch told ESSENCE in an email.

“When completing projects at home,” Upchurch continued “students with access are able to reach out and send questions via email, while those without access lose time because they must wait until we see each other in person, which is sometimes days later. So much time can be wasted when a student doesn’t have access.  Without technology, tasks seem mundane, and students are limited to what they can create. With technology, the possibilities are cutting-edge and endless.”

IRVING, TX – OCTOBER 06: Students participate in the Verizon Innovative Learning program at Crockett Middle School on October 6, 2017, in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images for Verizon Innovative Learning)

Andrew Brennen, 21, another activist and advocate for education reform, who grew up in Lexington, Ky. and focuses on elevating students as partners to improve local schools, notes that investing in students sets a standard for future engagement as citizens.

“It is important that we make it clear through commitments like Verizon that [students] are valued, that we want them to succeed and that we are ready to invest in what it takes to put them in the best position possible to do so,” Brennan, a student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said. “And when we don’t do that it undermines every other effort that we could make. When students don’t feel as if they’re being invested in, as if they are valued, they’re not going to get the kind of engagement that we need.”

“If we want citizens that are engaged, informed and technologically literate…citizens that can tell the difference between fake news and real news and identify the difference between a Russian bot and a real person we have to start that at the beginning of their education. It can’t be an afterthought,” he added.

And the students don’t have to sit back and watch the adults decide their future for them, which is something that Brennen has advocated and backed up for most of his young life, first in high school as a co-founder of the Pritchard Committee student voice team, where students fought to have their opinions heard about the policies affecting them and now currently as the National Field Director for Student Voice.

“Often students will think to themselves, ‘well I’m no expert in education, I don’t have the fancy degrees that my teachers or my administrators or legislators do,'” Brennen added. “But students spend 35 hours a week in a classroom, if not more. They have the most the gain, the most to lose, they are on the front lines. They are not representing a political interest. They’re not representing a special interest. They are experts about their own experience and that experience is critical to any effort to improve education policy at any level in any state, anywhere.”

Or, perhaps, as Copeny, who is still so young simply put it, “No matter small, big, old, young, boy, girl, from Flint or even D.C….you can raise your voice!”