Through United Way’s Digital Navigator Network, people and families are one call away from connecting to the internet, getting paired with devices, and being referred to digital literacy training.
Few things are more important than connection, and connections can take many forms.
Connection can look like two people meeting, identifying common interests, and building trust. It can look like a partnership between organizations working and learning from one another toward a shared goal. Or it can mean in the literal sense, connection to the internet, or to a device. For United Way’s Digital Navigator Network, it’s all these things.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, adaptiveness to a new way of life was experienced by all. Classrooms turned virtual, and fast, reliable internet became a necessity. Through PHLConnectED—a partnership with the City of Philadelphia, the School District of Philadelphia, Comcast, United Way, and other philanthropic partners—low-income and pre-K-12 student households without internet access could call United Way’s 211 Helpline to get support from those who are now known as Digital Navigators.
The initiative launched at lightning speed due in part to a grant from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance that helped form the City’s own Digital Literacy Alliance, a broad coalition of digital inclusion partners working to overcome the digital divide in Philadelphia.
“We used to think closing the divide was about getting technology in people’s hands, but the divide is wider than ever,” said Youngmoo Kim, director of the ExCITe Center. “Conditions change, and we know now that what is needed is guidance, training, and trust—an ecosystem that supports a broader range of opportunities. Let us not focus solely on the tech, but the human experience.”
SNAPSHOT OF SUCCESS
“Subject to discrimination from a very conservative society, a woman immigrated to the U.S. and came to SEAMACC for supportive services and ESL training. Eventually, she joined our Digital Literacy workshop and was paired with a laptop. After a while, and growing comfort, she wanted to get her driver’s license, which she self-navigated online. She also found and applied for a job online, and later interviewed via Zoom. Got the job. She also got a car to go with her driver’s license. The internet—and the program—opened her to these opportunities.” - Kahina Guenfoud, SEAMACC
Since its founding in June 2020, the Digital Navigator Network via PHLConnectED has supported 3,600 clients. Of that number, 10% were seniors ages 60+; 9% requested language interpretation (the Network is offered in 150+ languages) 24% were K-12 families; and 34% were from low-income households.
Since its founding in June 2020, the Digital Navigator Network via PHLConnectED has supported 3,600 clients.
Digital Navigators serve as vital guides. They provide one-on-one support, helping callers apply for free internet through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) delivered through Comcast’s Internet Essentials bundles, and they connect them to nonprofit Community Partners to receive equipment and, most importantly, educational trainings on usage.
“We launched not knowing if it would be a flood or trickle of calls,” said Ashley Pollard, digital inclusion manager of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology. “This has been a journey, and we continue to refine over time,” Pollard added.
Refine and grow, indeed.
Newly added and existing members convened in late September to launch a new era of the Network: one that extends beyond City limits to other pockets of the Commonwealth. Beyond Literacy, Drexel University’s exCITe Center, and the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) welcomed peer agencies ACLAMO, Chester Education Foundation, Esperanza, Goodwill of Southwestern PA, Literacy Council of Norristown, Literacy Pittsburgh, and Media Fellowship House to the Digital Navigator Network.
“This has been a journey, and we continue to refine over time."
“A network is stronger and more diverse than any organization on its own,” said Kate Houstoun, chief impact officer of United Way. “The Digital Navigator Network has been built by design, not by accident, to reflect the communities we serve. We asked ourselves, ‘How could we take this infrastructure and take it to other pockets of Pennsylvania?’” Houstoun added.
As announced on Wednesday, October 4, United Way’s Digital Navigator Network is extending throughout the region, covering Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties. With this expansion, the Network will be duplicated for Pittsburgh area residents in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette, and Westmoreland counties. The service expansion is supported by a $634,000 grant from Comcast that is part of Project UP, Comcast’s $1 billion commitment to advance digital equity.
In addition to the grant and to celebrate Digital Inclusion Week—running Monday, October 2 through Friday, October 6—Comcast donated 400 laptops—50 laptops to each of the eight in-network nonprofit Community Partners.
SNAPSHOT OF SUCCESS
“A woman came to Beyond Literacy. She had no internet, no laptop, no device. We helped her apply for Comcast’s Internet Essentials package, covered through the Affordable Connectivity Program—perfect for her needs. As we talked and built a connection, she mentioned that she had a computer—years ago she saved money for one but was intimidated by it, so it sat in her closet. We helped her navigate through different programs available including a free digital skills class in a library in her neighborhood taught by Beyond Literacy Digital Skills staff. I don't know if that would have ever happened over the phone or if we had not been sitting down with her one-on-one.” - Kieran Farrell, Beyond Literacy
At United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, our mission is to end poverty and expand opportunity so families can access the resources needed to improve their lives. In today's digital age, access to technology and the skills to navigate it are fundamental to success in school, work, and beyond.
The expansion of the Digital Navigator Network is a testament to our region’s unwavering commitment to empowering communities with the tools and knowledge needed to thrive in an increasingly digital-first world.
You can benefit from or get behind this important initiative in many ways.
Check out the City’s recent round-up of activities taking place through Digital Inclusion Week and year-round.