Finally! Thousands of Oakland Youth Will Have Computer Access

Finally! Thousands of Oakland Youth Will Have Computer Access

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey donated $10 million towards the Oakland Undivided project, Oakland’s recent push to provide all Oakland Unified students access to a computer and comprehensive internet access at home. This donation is part of Dorsey’s $1 billion initiative, called the Start Small Initiative, to help fund global COVID-19 relief. 

While Oakland Undivided is in its early stages, it aims to provide 25,000 under-connected or disconnected students with internet access by the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. This means purchasing computers, hotspots or broadband networks, outfitting them with the appropriate software and distributing them across Oakland.

YR Media’s Lucy Barnum talked with David Silver, the director of education for Mayor Libby Schaaf, about how Oakland Undivided will unfold over the coming months and its goal to achieve sustainable internet access throughout the city of Oakland.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Lucy Barnum: Can you give me an overview of the Oakland Undivided project?

David Silver: We analyzed what would it take to ensure the 25,000 students who are in need are able to have three things: one, a computer, two, consistent internet, and three, the tech support to be able to utilize it. We estimated the cost to be approximately $12.5 million. 

Fortunately, thanks to the support of many local community organizations, foundations and individuals, we were able to raise $1.8 million towards our $12.5 million. After we launched our initial press conference, we were able to get to a $10 million investment from Jack Dorsey and his Start Small Initiative to support COVID relief. Mark Pincus, from Zynga, came on board and gave the remaining $700,000.

We’re implementing phase one. We're assessing how we can get as many computers by August or September — when we start school — so that they're ready to go. We’re also considering how to get these hotspots or internet providers set up.

For phase two, we want to not just initiate closing the digital divide, but also sustain it. And to sustain it, we need a $4 million investment every year. Our next focus is to raise that four million.

LB: When do you plan to start distributing computers to students?

DS: We would like to make sure that these computers are in place for the vast majority of the 2020-2021 school year. So ideally, by September 30, we’d like to have at least 90 percent of those 25,000 kids, if not 100 percent, able to access the internet at home. We're going to take a very equity-based framework and focus on students from East and West Oakland — students that are traditionally underserved — so they will be the ones to get the computers and the internet support first. 

LB: Why is the city of Oakland just now taking action to close the digital divide? 

DS: The idea of the digital divide is not new. There have always been inequities where kids and families that are traditionally underserved are not having the same access to computers and the internet. And that just has only been highlighted by COVID. Because what was implicit is now explicit, in that you can't do distance learning if you don't have a computer. So when COVID hit, you know, we realized, oh my goodness, we really need to get more computers and the internet into kids’ homes. And frankly, we want to utilize this moment to have a silver lining for this massive challenge that COVID brings to raise up the inequities and actually solve this for good. 

LB: Do you have any idea of what the greatest challenges will be at this point, moving forward and implementing Oakland Undivided? 

DS: I think there are a couple things. When you have an exciting thing, people like to be a part of a launch. But are people going to want to stay in it to sustain it? How do we make sure that this inequity is actually addressed for good? And how do we ensure that not only students, but also families are able to get this technology? Because a lot of times for families, this internet and computer is a lifeline. It has a ripple effect towards economic opportunity. It's not just about education and educational equity, it's about opportunity and equity in general. And that's what closing the digital divide is. That's what the Oakland Undivided campaign is about. 

LB: This project seems like just the beginning for the city of Oakland. How do you see Oakland Undivided growing in the future?

DS: I think that this is a moment that we as a community can come together and put a stake in the ground and say, "You know what? Enough is enough. Every kid needs to have a computer and internet connection." And the technical support — that's an important part of our program. It's not about just dropping a computer in someone's home. We haven't created what exactly that is going to be, but ideally, when the computer doesn't work or someone's trying to troubleshoot, there's some kind of resource to provide that tech support. 

I do want to emphasize that this is a collaboration. It's not just a Jack Dorsey gift — while we're deeply appreciative of that — or one funder or one mayor or one superintendent. This is a community coming together. We've had over 20 people invest in this already, and there will be likely many more. We’re working with nonprofits like The Oakland Public Education Fund and Tech Exchange, the school district, the mayor, unions and labor partners, other educators and other CEOs.

This is something that is not going to happen overnight. But this is the spark to flame a movement to actually have educational equity across our city. 

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