opinion Newport Rhode Island

As we approach the one year mark of the pandemic shut down here in Newport, I’ve been thinking about the many shifts and changes it’s brought, especially around digital reliance.  Before the pandemic, I worked in the Florence Gray Center in the North End.  My colleagues and I experienced poor cell reception and internet that dropped out regularly.  While that was frustrating, most of my work involved in-person interactions so it wasn’t a huge barrier.

When the shutdown happened and the Center closed, my work became almost entirely online.  I had to buy home internet service and work from my home in the Third Ward of Newport.  For the past year, I’ve been Zooming, emailing, and using online chat systems during the work day.  After work, I used online platforms to host support groups, make purchases, play board games with friends, attend church, see art performances, attend lectures, and read books aloud to friends at bedtime.  The digital connection also helped me stay up to date with the ever-changing COVID info on restrictions, relief efforts, quarantine, testing, and vaccine distribution. 

However, I know for many people, the above world is not possible.  The digital divide is very real and is a major justice issue.  It is a lack of access to technology, lack of computer skills, and lack of funds to pay for internet service amongst populations like low-income, people of color, seniors, and people who live in rural areas.  I see the effects of Newport’s digital divide every day in my work since the inequity especially affects low-income, Black, Indigenous, people of color, and seniors in Newport.  Those in the North End are still living with poor internet and cell service.

Bridging the digital divide means having affordable, controlled, quality internet available to everyone.  It means having affordable and quality devices.  It means having easy and affordable ways to learn to use the device and the internet.  It means ensuring everyone can earn enough money to have basic needs met, and internet (as this pandemic has emphasized) is a basic need.  It also means ensuring that people who are not digitally connected can still stay informed, be engaged, and navigate the world.

I’m very grateful for the internet, smartphones, and computers to stay connected during the pandemic.  It speaks to my privilege as a white person with money and computer skills, and that I live in a part of Newport with a stable internet connection.  I hope we can find a way to bridge the digital divide in Newport; that we find a way to end this injustice.

Rex LeBeau

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