Rainbow PUSH’s Broadband Everything Panel Highlights Internet Impact on Seniors, STEM Education, and Economic Opportunities: Part II

by DeVan Hankerson on November 27, 2013

Part II of a two-part series.

Elderly African American Hands on ComputerOn November 15th, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition held its annual Public Policy, Media & Telecom Symposium, featuring an informative “Tele-everything” panel on the broad implications of broadband technology in the energy, education, and health sectors.  The panel focused on the main benefits and barriers to broadband adoption, as well as ways these barriers, such as a perceived lack of relevancy, can be overcome through programs and initiatives.

Panel experts included Maurita Coley, COO of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council; Debra Berlyn, President of Consumer Policy Solutions; Kimberly Marcus, Deputy Director of the Office of Minority Business Development (MBDA) at the Department of Commerce; and Dr. Nsenga Burton, Executive Director of the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs (NAMDE). Joseph Miller, Deputy Director at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, moderated the discussion.

Relevance and Cost Are Not the Only Issues of Concern When It Comes to Inclusion

Behind relevance, the second most frequently cited reason for non-Internet use in the home is cost, according to a recent NTIA report. Nearly 30 percent of all non-Internet households said cost was the primary reason they did not use the Internet.

Coley discussed some of the public-private partnerships aimed at reducing the costs associated with broadband use, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and Connect2Compete. Both of these programs provide low-cost Internet service and discounted computers to underserved communities.  While initiatives like these do not entirely resolve the issue of cost they are invaluable to seniors and others with limited financial resources, and they are a significant step in the right direction. However, increasing digital literacy and modernizing the nation’s broadband infrastructure continue to present substantial challenges.

Miller posed a question to the panel on the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields for the nation’s economic development. Marcus responded that communities of color must develop strong cultural supports that lead the younger generation toward developing STEM-related skills and expertise.

Entrepreneurship Impacts Participation of Minority Groups in Broadband Economy

Dr. Burton presented the audience with some interesting points on the economic impact of entrepreneurship, mentioning the rise in entrepreneurship among African American women. A new report by the Center for American Progress indicates that the number of companies started by African American women increased by almost 300 percent from 1997 to 2013. In 2013, African American women-owned businesses comprised 42 percent of all businesses owned by women of color and nearly half of all African American owned businesses.

It’s unclear why there aren’t more African American women in STEM fields, said Dr. Burton, but STEM is where all of the opportunities are going because it’s one of the few sectors where we see growth.

The relatively small number of African Americans pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities in STEM industries may be related to the underrepresentation of African Americans in these fields more generally. Fewer than three percent of African American women are represented in STEM fields, while women as a group make up close to 25 percent of the STEM workforce.

Culture of Entrepreneurship and Skill Development in STEM Necessary for Inclusion 

Dr. Nsenga Burton commented that communities of color must also develop a culture of entrepreneurship. It is important that young people come to understand that entrepreneurial opportunities are just as feasible as becoming an employee for someone else, she said.

Coley provided examples of programs like the Percy Julian STEM Institute, which is run through church sites like the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC. The Institute’s mission is to address the underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields by targeting middle school students and engaging their parents in the process.

Halfway through the session, Joseph Miller focused the conversation on solutions, asking what could be done at the grassroots level to guarantee that people of color have a voice for in the frontier of broadband and technology.

The panelists hailed entrepreneurship as a means for communities of color to develop their voice and create new opportunities in the changing economy. Dr. Berlyn commented that entrepreneurship is not only for young people; older Americans have the added advantage of being able to draw from a lifetime of work experiences.

Metropolitan areas like Washington, DC, house great communities of entrepreneurs, as well as strategic resources that help them grow. In addition to nonprofits like NAMDE, which is a trade organization for newer technology and broadband industry businesses, the Minority Business Development Agency is a national resource for minority businesses in all industries. Deputy Director Kimberly Marcus explained to attendees that the MBDA helps established minority-owned firms (that is, those that have been operating for three to five years) expand into new markets both domestically and internationally.

In her closing remarks, Marcus left attendees with a sobering example of the breadth and scale of the challenges associated with full engagement in the broadband world. She described a scenario in which a $1,500 Christmas budget purchases mandatory school supplies on a list with only two items—iPads for school use. The benefit for the family is access to the student’s educational life; it is easy to see why cost is critical in this case, as well as other scenarios.

A Harmony of Factors is Needed to Connect the Underserved to the Broadband Everything World

The broadband ecosystem is replacing all of the old standards; it transforms every aspect of American life. More attention should be focused on enabling each community to make the transition. This is one of the more important messages from the “Tele-everything” session and the Rainbow PUSH Telecom Symposium as a whole.

For seniors, minority entrepreneurs, and young students, accessing fundamental resources in the “broadband everything” world requires a harmony of several factors: New skills, new devices, and national cooperation. The full participation of all of these and other groups is necessary to guarantee the economic benefits and efficiencies technology offers.

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