We use the internet every day to work, read, watch and play. But for residents of low-income neighborhoods, internet access can be useful for more than solving “first world problems”. It can mean a plan during disasters, better health, safer streets, a stronger community, and economic opportunity.
“But it costs $70 a month!” I hear you say. But, in some underprivileged communities around the country, work is already underway to provide free internet access.
In 1990, LIFE magazine named Red Hook, Brooklyn, as one of the "worst" neighborhoods in the United States, and the "the crack capital of the country”. Red Hook is also home to Red Hook Houses -- the largest public housing development in Brooklyn with over 6,000 residents.
Now, Red Hook is also the latest community to benefit from free WiFi -- with routers installed at churches, schools and other community spaces. But what the community is gaining goes beyond simple access at home, via mobile, and at neighborhood outlets; they have been given a platform for developing local services like access to employment information, community bulletin boards, an online guide to local social services, and emergency warning and coping, systems.
On top of all that, The Red Hook Initiative (RHI) is spearheading this community’s inclusion in the internet economy through exposure and education. At the Middle School level, RHI runs a daily program that focuses on “academic enrichment” and “life skills”; at the High School level, the program includes leadership and employment skills, STEM training, and the ability to work on a youth-run online radio show. Post graduation, local nineteen to twenty-four year-olds can join the “Digital Stewards Program” to
learn about computer development while helping to build the network and their community. Together with the school programs, the digital stewards are making a good first step towards new career opportunities that would otherwise have been unobtainable.
"This [WiFi project] will be great because it allows for people to look for online resources such as housing, legal aid, education and... [M]e helping the community is a good feeling" said Tiwan Burrus, a Digital Steward.
With access to information, the ability to build and maintain local services, and the exposure to new skills for a new economy, Red Hook is as an example of the positive impact of the internet on communities that have historically been socially, geographically and technologically isolated within cities.
Stay tuned for Engine research on the social and economic benefits of internet access.
Image from wikimedia commons.