Study Highlights Importance of Community-Based Digital Equity Leaders

Last year, nearly two dozen community leaders in Baltimore were brought together with national experts for a five-week crash course on network engineering, federal policymaking, community broadband networking, and grassroots organizing.

It was an online program called “The Digital Equity Leadership Lab (DELL)” – an initiative created by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation in response to “other digital inclusion programs across the U.S. that have failed to consider the technical aspects of the Internet and social inequalities alongside broader Internet policy and advocacy goals.”

It spawned a case study led by Colin Rhinesmith, Faculty Associate and Director of the Community Informatics Lab at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and a Senior Fellow with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Released earlier this week, The Digital Equity Leadership Lab (DELL): A Case Study of Community Leadership Development to Promote Digital Equity and Justice highlights the importance of developing community-based leaders around digital equity, gifting rising and next-generation digital equity advocates with important insights for their work.

Through interviews with 15 of the 25 DELL participants, and with the input from a range of national experts and Deutsch Foundation staff, the study set out to answer the question: how might DELL serve as a community-based leadership training model to develop the next wave of digital equity leaders?

The analysis surfaced three key findings:

  • Bringing national policymakers and advocates together with community leaders is powerful and transformative.
  • Digital inequality is a social, not a technological problem. 
  • Community leaders need access to a shared platform and each other to create change. 

But the study didn’t stop there. Rhinesmith (with research assistance from Jie Jiang and Malana Krongelb) offers three recommendations in light of the study’s findings:

1) It is necessary to broaden the understanding of how the Internet works and how this knowledge can be used to advocate for policy changes. Community leaders can affect change and engage politicians as empowered citizens when able to use vocabulary, identify problems, and articulate comprehensive solutions on their own.

2) Community leadership development programs to promote digital equity and justice must provide support systems for community leaders to come together through a shared infrastructure, including both platforms to share ideas and spaces to convene, to continue the work after the training is over ... These interactions, or relationships, need to be cultivated and sustained over time. Identifying organizations, resources, and support within these ecosystems are vital to the success of the work.

3) Digital inclusion work is vital to help those without access to computers and the Internet. However, this work must be rooted in an understanding of how power, privilege, and oppression shape digital inequality, as well as how this knowledge can be used to address systemic barriers to social and racial justice.

Deutsch Foundation Vice President and DELL program creator Amalia Deloney noted the early success of the effort.

“The program has already brought residents together across age, race, gender, ethnicity, language, zip code and more. By bringing a very diverse set of residents together to co-learn about this powerful technology, we hope to seed new visions for digital equity and justice that are community centered, determined, and led, understanding that closing the digital divide requires community-powered problem solving,” she said in a press statement when the case study was published.

And Rhinesmith spoke to the potential that was revealed in the process of putting together the case study.

“The Digital Equity Leadership Lab represents what is possible when a community foundation brings local leaders together with national experts in the digital equity field,” he said. “Through my research I learned that DELL participants left the program feeling more empowered to create change with others in their communities.”

Read the case study executive summary here.

Read the full case study here.