Austin Free-Net continues addressing digital divide
By Omar L. Gallaga, Tuesday June 23, 2013– courtesy Austin American-Statesman
Everyone’s plugged in, right?
The digital bubble that so quickly formed around our culture, not unlike that big shell surrounding the town of Chester’s Mill in the summer TV hit “Under the Dome,” got here so quickly it’s hard to remember a time before. Look around and cellphones appear permanently affixed to people’s hands. Faces glow against ever-brighter screens. We’re one nation under competing 4G wireless networks.
Inside that noisy bubble, it’s very easy to miss that cheap smartphones, million of apps and the so-called “Post-PC era” of Internet-connected devices have not solved the problem of the digital divide. In fact, they have created new problems and assumptions that make it harder for some people to harness technology and use it to improve their lives.
It’s a problem that the nonprofit Austin Free-Net works on, often with no fanfare, every day. The organization has been around since 1995, making the case for equal access to the online world at a time when many were still unaware that the Internet existed.
In the past few years, Austin Free-Net has pivoted and grown rapidly with the help of a 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program federal grant and the leadership of executive director Juanita Budd, a nonprofit veteran who joined the organization in 2011.
Since that time, Free-Net has expanded from less than a dozen computer lab locations to 27. They include city of Austin sites, a busy East Austin location at the DeWitty Center on Rosewood Avenue, two homeless shelters and several senior community centers.
Budd, whose office is located at the DeWitty Center, said the grant money has allowed the organization to invest in equipment and infrastructure but that the key change has been Free-Net’s staffing, from 1.5 full-time positions to 17.
“We could put a million brand new computers in a room, but if there’s no one there to do training, we just have a million systems sitting there unused,” Budd said.
Austin Free-Net has been changing its offerings from formalized computer classes to more practical, hands-on instruction. “We shifted our priorities and asked ourselves, ‘What do people want?’” Budd said. “They want to know how to use the tools on our computers. ‘What’s a web browser? I want Facebook. How do I get to my kid’s school website?’”
What goes on at these centers? There are computer literacy classes, job skills training (everything from Microsoft Word and Excel to learning how to put together a resume and send it online) and lots of hands-on help. Budd and other workers at Free-Net say they frequently help people who have either never used a computer before or, in the case of some young people, have only used cellphones to access the Internet and find themselves lacking computer skills they need for office jobs.
Some jobs, including those for the city of Austin, require a job application to be filled out online but are not mobile-device friendly.
On a recent Wednesday morning at the DeWitty Center, a jobs traini
ng computer lab was filled with eight people being assisted by program director Meredith Sisnett. She guided one man through the process of creating a login and password for a jobs site, explaining how to enter information for a “CAPTCHA,” a scrambled word image.
“They want to make sure you’re a person and not a computer,” Sisnett said. She chuckled. “It’s like abstract art.”
Sisnett, the daughter of the late Free-Net executive director Ana Sisnett, has been on staff for two years but was teaching Word and basic Internet classes 10 years ago. The jobs program has filled a need in the community for people who have nowhere else to seek computer help, she said.
“You have to know how to use the computer to navigate to the different job sites. You have to not only have email but you have to know how to use a login and password and be able to attach a document and then respond to employers,” Sisnett said. “These rooms are filled every day. I see at least 20 people a day if not more. People really need help.”
Jason Hopkins, one of those Sisnett has been helping, said that in three weeks he was able to put together a resume that resulted in multiple job offers.
“I just got out of prison,” Hopkins said. “A lot of us have been down 10, 15 years. We don’t have email addresses or knowledge at all of these computers. Meredith here has been a huge help to me, having someone to walk you through it.”
Shortly after we spoke, Hopkins got a call on his cellphone from an employer with an offer for more work. “It’s really a wonderful place, and I’m thankful that they’re here,” he said.
Some visitors, Budd said, simply want to check their Facebook accounts, look up movie times or play games. Others have used Free-Net computers to set up websites for small businesses. Free-Net sometimes partners with organizations like Mobile Loaves and Fishes to provide meals to visitors. Recently, Free-Net helped a young couple look up food pantry locations.
The concept of digital inclusion, taking steps to bridge the digital divide between techies and those who don’t have access to ubiquitous Internet or computers, is more than just about throwing iPads or wireless Internet at the problem. Though the organization is growing, Budd says, it still needs more bodies and money to pay for additional staff. The mission for Free-Net and the makeup of its clients keeps expanding. It has provided computer services for parents who have special needs children and, increasingly, services in Spanish.
The organization is trying to raise its profile. Austin Free-Net participated in an April Digital Inclusion in Texas Conference and Colloquium at the University of Texas at Austin and in June held its second Broadband Across Texas, a weeklong open house spotlighting its community work. Budd says that week’s efforts drew more people to Free-Net facilities than ever.
Leonard Freeman, who moved to Austin from Chicago, has been visiting Austin Free-Net locations for four months. He learned how to find websites and set up email. It’s been slow so far for Freeman without a car, but he’s been able to find several temporary jobs via the web.
“I ain’t gonna give up,” Freeman said. “As long as I have a place to come and get access to the Internet, I’m going to hang in there.”