Community Foundation Tampa Bay expands program to bridge digital divide

On Valentine’s Day 2020, the St. Petersburg Innovation District and the Deuces Live nonprofit organization brought together about 20 community groups to discuss launching a local version of Tech Goes Home, a national program that bridges the digital divide by bringing computers, internet access and training to students and families

The next month, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the newly formed working group’s effort took on urgency as we began to rely on the internet for work, school, shopping, accessing benefits and services and other significant tasks in our daily lives.

“It was prophetic if you think about it,” says Veatrice Farrell, the former executive director of the Deuces Live. “We had already met and talked about what we wanted to do. The focus was going to be on Tech Goes Home. Then COVID hits. We already had a group of people together and it was this big pivot. What can we do right now to make sure people in the community have access to the internet?  What was important was the network of individuals and organizations who were engaged. Because it’s one thing to have a program. But if you don’t have a mechanism to get it to the people who need it, then the program isn’t really effective.”

Their coalition of community groups launched Digital Inclusion St Pete to expand internet access, distribute laptops and tablets and provide technical assistance to residents, with a focus on the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, where 44.4 percent of households with income less than $20,000 and 27 percent of households with income of $20,000 to $75,000 do not have an internet subscription. The program put free Wi-Fi hotspots in the Deuces neighborhood at a time during COVID when the libraries that many people without home broadband relied on for internet were closed down. Their coalition launched a Gadgets for Good donation and distribution drive to get repurposed tablets and laptops to people who need them, worked alongside community groups to establish neighborhood tech hubs, connected residents with training programs and technical support and built the Digital Inclusion St. Pete website into a clearinghouse of community resources.

In the fall of 2022, Community Foundation Tampa Bay, the regional charity organization that supports and funds philanthropic work over a five-county area, took over the administration of the Digital Inclusion initiative, a move intended to open the door to additional funding opportunities to sustain and expand the program across Pinellas County and possibly into Hillsborough. Before the move, grants from the City of St. Petersburg and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg have been the primary funding sources for the program.

“We are very excited about this opportunity to become the backbone organization for this in our community because we know how important digital literacy is,” says Community Foundation Tampa Bay Senior Vice President, Community Impact Jesse Coraggio. “It’s a basic need in today’s society. People need access to the internet to do important things in their everyday life- access services, apply for a job, have a telehealth check with a doctor. When we looked at the digital literacy gap that existed pre-COVID, it was an issue. It’s been exacerbated during the COVID experience. Folks have relied more on technology so that’s eliminated opportunities for folks who can't access the technology.”

To take the digital inclusion effort to the next level, Community Foundation Tampa Bay has hired Farrell, who had co-led the initiative with St. Petersburg Innovation District Executive Director Alison Barlow since Barlow first proposed the program, as its director. 

“We wanted to be able to bring instant credibility to the initiative,” Farrell says of the move to the Community Foundation. “We already had credibility with everybody we worked with but, in order to start seeking nationwide grants and increase our profile, the decision was made to use the Community Foundaton Tampa Bay as our stand-up organization.”

The program is now also known as the Digital Inclusion Project, a name that reflects the plan to expand its impact and reach in the region. Already, it’s had a positive impact in South St. Petersburg. Numbers collected in fall 2022, show the Digital Inclusion program had collected 13,600 pounds of old computers and distributed computers to more than 120 people in the community, including seniors and a young woman who needed a laptop to participate in a summer program at the Stetson University College of Law. The program has established free Wi-Fi hot spots and four neighborhood tech hubs and donated laptops and desktop computers to the Community Tech House, a nonprofit that provides technical training and commuter access to community members.

Farrell says the need will only grow as the internet becomes so vital to our daily routines that some argue it should be treated as a public utility, just like water or electric service.

 “It’s so foundational we don’t really realize it,” she says.

For more information, go to Digital Inclusion St. Pete.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.