Transcript: MMTC President and CEO Kim Keenan’s State of Broadband and Social Justice Address

by Kim Keenan on February 13, 2015

At the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council’s (MMTC’s) 2015 Broadband and Social Justice Summit, MMTC President and CEO Kim Keenan delivered the 2015 State of Broadband and Social Justice Keynote, highlighting MMTC’s work to promote first class digital citizenship and close the digital divide, the role of exorbitant prison payphone rates as a “tax on pain,” addressing the lack of employment diversity in Silicon Valley, and working for an open and accessible Internet for all. A video of Keenan’s full keynote, delivered during the Summit’s Congressional and Legislative Luncheon, is available here.

Keenan’s remarks, as delivered:

Kim Keenan BBSJ Summit Keynote

Although his official birthday was last Friday and my birthday was on the official holiday, this Summit is really the byproduct of the vision of a man named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And so, as we sit here today, as much as at any other time in history, his words resonate in our minds and our hearts. As we chart the course of MMTC to ensure a future where everyone is connected, we are ever mindful of Dr. Martin Luther King.

I thought I’d share with you, as I kick off my remarks, one of my favorite Dr. Martin Luther King quotes: “Cowardice asks, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’” And there comes a time we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but we must take it because it is right. 

And so, as a nation, we have a long, long way to get to a place where we look at the world based on whether it’s right. We must address the disparities that exist in our nation, and here at the Broadband and Social Justice Summit, we will not waver from our focus on advocating for what is right. What is right in media, what is right in telecommunications, what is right in broadband, what is right in terms of diversity, what is right in terms of access.

From the killings of African American men and boys by law enforcement to the extraordinary workforce inequities in Silicon Valley, we have work to do to fully achieve a dream of equality where everyone is judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. And as a nation, we’ve always relied on great communications infrastructure and technology to share images from around our vast and diverse nation. So whether it’s real-time news and response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, or the debate over how to best support and innovate our American Internet while eliminating the digital divide, or how to create a communications workforce, both technical and professional, it is that infrastructure that protects the depth and breadth of our nation.

Even more pressing: access to the Internet and digital tools are at the heart of bringing our nation’s children up to speed with the emerging requirements of STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics. As my mother would say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Communications technology drives a new layer of citizenship. This new component of our everyday lives is fraught with social justice challenges, whether it’s access to broadband, privacy, cybersecurity, extraordinary prison payphone fees, or diversity in the images projected by the media, social responsibility cannot be separated from the benefits and privileges of multicultural representation in every aspect of media and broadband, including ownership and employment at every level.

So, I submit to you just a few things today, because we will be making our vision strategic. We can’t do everything all the time, but we can focus in a number of areas and take those steps that will lead us to the bigger areas.

First: MMTC will work to advance first class digital citizenship and net equality for vulnerable populations. 

Too many Americans do not benefit from broadband. They do not have Internet access, and they have not adopted broadband in their home. This problem is particularly acute in many communities of color, and especially among economically disadvantaged seniors and less educated citizens, contributing to a persistent digital divide. Although there have been some improvements in recent years, African Americans and Hispanic Americans are still not getting broadband connections at home. This is especially true for elderly people of color with low educational attainment.

Recent Data from the Pew Research Center found that older African Americans age 65 and older have especially low rates of Internet adoption.  This is very important because this is the group most likely to benefit from access to broadband.

Whether it’s for information, telemedicine, or to obtain basic services, one has to think in the society that we live in today, “How many of these grandparents have lots of grandchildren in their homes? How many of them have grandchildren who can’t do their homework because their grandparents don’t have Internet?” And so, in the homes of people of color without broadband, these limitations extend to job searches, access to online information and services, and the ability for the children to get their work done. And if their children are not using the internet to do their homework, that’s a whole ’nother divide.

Non-Internet users perceive a lack of relevance, affordability, and lack of Internet-capable devices, namely personal computers, as the reason they are not connected. Closing the digital divide is a vital goal for thought leaders, policymakers, activists, and legislators, because everyone gains when historically disenfranchised communities join the Internet ecosystem.

At MMTC, we must solve the digital literacy crisis because we cannot actively engage our communities in the benefits of telemedicine, distance learning, and open government if they are not online. Let me focus on a key issue that we have been talking about, and just in the short time I’ve been here we’ve filed our Comments at the FCC, and that’s on prison payphone calling services.

You know, as I’ve been in this new position I’ve actually traveled across the country once, and every time I say to someone, “Did you know that if you had to call from a prison payphone, that it costs you 500 percent more than it would cost if you made that same call from any other phone?” And people just look at me and say, “Really? I didn’t know that!”

We have to do something about that, because why are we taxing people’s pain? That’s what we’re doing. We’re taking the people who are most impacted by the criminal justice system, who are already destitute in their resources, and we’re charging them a premium, a tax. A tax on their pain. A tax on a system that, once they become involved in it, if they don’t have access to their loved once, they are doomed to return to it. It is the number one thing that keeps a prisoner from returning to prison, and that’s the ability to connect.  To connect to their families who are not in prison.

And so, we must raise our voices where they have not had the opportunity to raise their voices. Every chance we get, we’re going to lift that issue up, we’re going to file our comments, we’re going to make sure that people know that we’re not going to tax pain.

Can I just tell you, to me, voting is the most essential civil right you can have; it always will be because if we don’t do something, if we don’t let people know what we want them to do, then they will do something – and it’s probably not going to be what we wanted them to do. That’s why we have to lift up our voices. But of all the true, pure social justice issues, the prison calling system is one that stands above them all. Because who can even explain why you would want to do that? Why you would single out a population that’s already been singled out in the most negative way and create an additional burden on their being able to connect back to our society?

Second: We must collaborate to address the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley.

The media and telecommunications industry comprises one-sixth of the global economy. I was talking to our favorite economist today, and as we all know, the economics are clear. When you are one-sixth of the global economy, that’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of jobs, that’s a lot of resources. In some families, that’s the difference between people having jobs and people not having jobs.

In 1996, the Internet wasn’t even available in several countries. And yet today, we have Google, Amazon, eBay, some of the most amazing technology companies that you could even imagine.  But how can we let them revolutionize our communications, our transportation and energy sectors, but lack any, in some cases, representation by people of color?

It is not acceptable to give a 1960s answer to these problems. We can’t say “we don’t know where they are” anymore. “We don’t know anybody who has an engineering degree, we don’t know anybody who has a law degree or a marketing degree or a public relations degree.” They’re tech companies. They make the impossible possible every day. So we know it’s possible. The question is why it is not a reality.

And so, how can we promote adoption and net equality when the products and service providers do not hire people of color? And to the extent that they do hire people of color, they pigeonhole workers in mid- or lower-level positions. How can we support tech companies when they do not value multicultural consumers in their supplier diversity and procurement chains?

I was in New York last week, and it’s hard to go to somebody else’s conference just before you have your own. Every minute you’re like, “I should be there. I should be here.” But it was really important to me to see Reverend Jackson introduce the President and CEO of Intel. To see him commit to spending $300 million over the next five years – $65 million a year – to create a workforce that looks like America. Not just buys America, but looks like America.

I started my column for NNPA [the National Newspaper Publishers Association], and I’ll give you the first sentence of it: This is a revolution that will not be televised. Because how many of you here heard this for the first time today? How outrageous is that? That a company steps up in the face of what is egregious numbers – no people of color on the board. There’s a company where diversity means you came from Canada. I know lots of ways of thinking of diversity, but I never thought that being Canadian would make me go, “That’s diversity at our company!” And we have to speak out about that.

I do applaud Rev. Jackson because sometimes when advocacy doesn’t work, you do have to agitate. And he is a master at agitation. But you know, in addition to making that groundbreaking announcement, Intel also announced that they will be the first Silicon Valley company to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. And I believe that that was groundbreaking in and of itself because it was an acknowledgement – and can I tell you, it was so funny when he said it, I felt this – it’s not a black holiday. Again, it’s my birthday and I’m black and it comes on the same day and that’s really nice. But can I tell you, it’s not a black holiday. It’s an American holiday. He would not be who and what he was if he were not a great American. And his day is a day that stands for service.

How many holidays do we have that represent service, that represent going out and sweeping streets the way Picasso painted paintings, doing the best that you can to help somebody else, and in that, gaining meaning in your own life, always taking away more than you gave? And so when people say that they don’t celebrate it, I’m like, “But why not?” Because I can’t think of a holiday where your whole goal that day is to do something for someone else.

And so when Intel celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday, they send a bigger message. They send a bigger message that America doesn’t just look one way, that a holiday isn’t just one thing. And so, I salute them. And yes, we will be part of the agitators, we will be part of the advocates who shame the other companies not to step up and make their workforces more reflective of the America that we live in. People need jobs in every color. And people don’t want to be pigeonholed.

I was out in Silicon Valley, and I had a young Asian man say to me, “You know, we only get to mid-level because the word is that we’re not leaders.” Well, who says that? Who says that? Well, that’s what we’re telling people. If you never get past the middle, something is wrong. How is it that they can never get past the middle? And that’s what the statistics show. I guess that’s why it was so hard to get them released.

So, at MMTC we will be joining with our partners to ask this question about accountability. In fact, we are working to make what Rev. Jackson and what Intel did a tangible reality. I’m very excited about the work that’s going on in Silicon Valley, and I guess we will be more of a bicoastal organization as we work to work that out.

Third: We will continue to work for an open and accessible Internet.

Now, I want to spend a deeper moment on this because this is really important, and now that I’ve had my economics chat of the morning – I’m a lawyer, but my undergrad degree is in International Economics – and we support an open Internet built, of course, on the principles of preventing blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, as well as offering increased transparency to consumers.

The goal is to protect an open Internet while also achieving investment, infrastructure deployment, and universal adoption for all Americans. It has been the light touch of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that provides this solid foundation from which to ensure open Internet while allowing some flexibility and room for the experimentation and development of services and business models as the broadband ecosystem develops.

This [Section 706] is the Bill Kennard FCC. This is the Bill Clinton Telecommunications Act. And it’s like people have forgotten all of that as they claim that organizations like ours are taking the side of ISPs. No, we’re taking the side of the legislation that created an Internet that has the capability to be even bigger and better and faster than what we have now. No, we’re not there yet, but we won’t get there if we turn around from where we were going.

Now you can hear my NAACP – we’re not going back. We’re not going to turn around. Ever forward, never back. And a lot of what people are talking about is going back. Telephone industry was never meant to be able to do what we already do in the internet. And so it’s how broadband has developed. And its development should be encouraged, and we should remember this history as people strike out.

People think that when you’re a multicultural organization, you have to do it the same way you’ve done it, the same things, the same way, every time. But the truth is, we’re smarter than that. And if the economics say that we can get where we all want to go, and we have legislation that will take us there, we have to be true to that. It may not be popular some days in some places. It may not be politic. But it’s been the right thing to get us to where we are now, and it can take us where we need to go.

Finally, I want to say that we are an MMTC that matches a horizon that looks like America, that looks like each of us.

I want to tell a story, because as you know, I don’t look anything like [former MMTC President] David Honig. But what I told people earlier today is that David is the very first communications lawyer that I ever met. And there I was, a volunteer, at a conference very much like this one – and we won’t use time periods or ages because now it sounds like I’m a lot younger – but, when I met him, I just remember thinking, “He’s so intense. It’s always a new deal; he’s always trying to buy a radio station and sell a radio station.” But he’s always trying to make sure that those stations reflect all people. So that when people turn on the media, they don’t just see one example.

Let me give you one of my favorite examples. I was watching Meet the Press’s ‘In Memoriam.’ And they were showing all the people who had passed in the last year, and they were showing everybody, just one picture of each person. They showed James Traficant. They showed him in Congress, and he was wearing his pin, and he was at the height of his career.

But then they showed Marion Berry.  Did they just show one picture? One still picture, like they did everybody else? Because everybody else, the other 20 people that died this past year, they just got one photograph. But Marion Berry got sound. He got “I got set up,” he was in the hotel room, the police were bursting through the doors, they had enough time In Memoriam to show this clip and then two pictures.

When I see stuff like that, you know what I think to myself? I think, “There were no people of color [in the room] when they thought that they would put this in the In Memoriam.” Because whoever thought this is clever, “We’re going to do this sound byte, and then we’re going to do these pictures” – they didn’t think, “But James Traficant was a felon.” He went to jail for many years for stealing from people. Stealing the people who elected him, who gave him the public trust.

And this is why it matters. This is one of the, and you know it’s just a blip on the screen. You know what’s really funny? You see so much stuff like this everyday you don’t even notice anymore. You’re not looking at it through the filter of, “What does this do to the young people who are seeing these messages? What does it do to them? And so it’s so important that we work tirelessly to make sure that there is diversity, that there is access.

And so I pledge to you, and I’ve had numerous talks with [MMTC Vice Chair Erwin Krasnow] about this, that we will walk the talk. We have a mentorship program, but I have pledged that we will make it more of a professional development program, because we need to train people. You know, I keep teasing people, I was teasing [MMTC Research Director] DeVan Hankerson today, they’re millennials, and I’m a boomer. You know when a millennial and a boomer get together, there can be really great things that happen, but there can be disconnects. And so it’s really important that we are transparent with each other. Right? You meet a young, brilliant person like that and you want to make sure that they see that the cues can be different across generations.

And so we’re not just going to mentor people anymore, we’re going to give professional development. And we’re so excited, we’re talking about it throughout – over the 28 years, we’ve trained over 50 stellar leaders [at MMTC]. Some of them are here now. But it’s important that we don’t just pick people who look like us, who think like us, who don’t share this philosophy that everyone in this room shares.  We need to train a pipeline of people who look like America.

As we talk about all of MMTC’s work and goals, there is one more announcement I’d like to make.  As we transition as a nation into a new age and space and era, MMTC has changed our name from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council – you’ve seen it on your program books and on the signs behind me – as we move forward, we will now be known as the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, to better reflect the broadband and social justice landscape in which we advocate.

But we’ll still be MMTC because, like all of our work, the “I” is silent.

  • Kim Keenan, Esq., is President and CEO of the Multicultural Media, Telecom & Internet Council. Prior to taking the helm at MMTC, Keenan served as General Counsel and Secretary of the NAACP. She is a Past President of the 100,000 member District of Columbia Bar and the 60,000 member National Bar Association network, the largest network of African American lawyers, judges, and law students in the country.


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