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Aneta Lee, FUSE Corps Fellow in Birmingham, Alabama on Episode 6 of the Building for Digital Equity Podcast
At the time of this interview at Net Inclusion, Aneta Lee was wrapping up her FUSE Corps Fellowship with the city of Birmingham in Alabama. We talk about the FUSE Corps Fellowship and her time at the city of Birmingham. Aneta discusses the ACP outreach campaign she put together and where she sees her future taking her - HINT, it could be to your community if you act fast!
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Sean Gonsalves (00:06):
Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast, and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Gonzales, talking to people at the events we are attending to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now, let's see who we have today.
Christopher Mitchell (01:06):
I'm, I'm Chris, and I'm here with Anita Lee, who is Executive Fellow for Digital Equity and inclusion for Fuse Corps. That is a small font on your name tag
Aneta Lee (01:16):
<Laugh>. Absolutely right. I don't know why they did that.
Christopher Mitchell (01:20):
How are you doing?
Aneta Lee (01:22):
I am Pleasingly exhausted.
Christopher Mitchell (01:25):
It's been a, it's been a, it's been a long couple of days here. It
Aneta Lee (01:28):
Has a lot of good people, and you've still got another half day to do it, so That's right.
Christopher Mitchell (01:31):
Yeah. So where are you active with FUSE Corps?
Aneta Lee (01:34):
So, I am at the City of Birmingham Mayor's Office. That is where Fuse Corps invited me to start a one year fellowship working with folks in the mayor's office to help them strategize and conceptualize what their role is in closing the digital divide for magic City residents.
Christopher Mitchell (01:56):
And FUSE CORPS is what FUSE Corps?
Aneta Lee (01:58):
FUSE Corps is a 25 year old nonprofit national organization that specialize in curating focused subject matter projects with local municipalities and local governments. So mostly cities and counties. And basically what they do, there's approximately about 50 to 60 fellows in the field around the country at any given one time. And they focus on a variety of topics that cities are trying to, that they're Warner Professional talk about. So we got FUSE Fellows working on homelessness in the unhoused social justice environmental justice and climate change, small business resiliency. My colleague who's my fellow fellow in Birmingham, she's working on food access and insecurity, and they wanted someone to come and help them think about digital equity, and I jumped at the, the chance as the opportunity to do this.
Christopher Mitchell (03:01):
That is wonderful. I have run across multiple fellows who are doing also this really important work. I don't know if they were in the Fuse corps or not, but I know, like probably
Aneta Lee (03:10):
With digital inclusion. Oh, yeah. Houston.
Christopher Mitchell (03:12):
Houston, yes. Chicago, Oakland, all of them in the mayor's office working on digital inclusion efforts. So that's my passion. Maybe, maybe several of them. I
Aneta Lee (03:21):
Mean, well, I know Joshua Williams was a FUSE Corps fellow in the city of Houston.
Christopher Mitchell (03:26):
Yes. He was who I was thin
Aneta Lee (03:27):
And so he and I he, he, he rolled off his fellowship, I think, last fall. But before then myself and I have another FUSE fellow here that's working in Travis County Texas. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And she's also working on digital equity, and she's doing a panel tomorrow. And I did my panel today. And yeah, we're, we're excited for this. This is a model that, you know, cities might con want to consider working with Fuse Corps to curate something like that so they can maybe just have a focus professional that can come in and just kind of provide strategy for them.
Christopher Mitchell (04:07):
What made you wanna work in this line of field around digital equity?
Aneta Lee (04:11):
So I've been in this space since 2015, so my experiences have been in nonprofit program management. Right after the economic bust of 2009. My nonprofit at the time lost all their funding and unceremoniously let us all go. I was, they should have been healthcare. Yeah. Un it was <laugh>. Well, that's a whole nother story. How they did it was like, are you for real? <Laugh> No, that's
Christopher Mitchell (04:43):
Too bad. I'm sorry to hear that. <Laugh>. I'm glad we can joke about it now.
Aneta Lee (04:46):
<Laugh>. Absolutely. But unfortunately, well, you know, fortunately, and unfortunately now in hindsight, you see a lot of different things. At the time it was, unfortunately, it plunged me into about a three and a half year unemployment span mm-hmm. <Affirmative> which was very difficult on my family. Fortunately right before they did this, I had recently found out that I was carrying my daughter. And so this gave me the opportunity to be with her in that time, during those formidable years. And so as, as ran any random day looking for work, trying to, you know, provide for the family I stumbled across the digital inclusion fellowship with N 10 and sponsored by Google Fiber. And at that time I was like, okay, this is interesting and applied for it, and obviously was able to hop on that inaugural cohort.
And and so it's been, it's been amazing. And so that started my journey in digital inclusion and now digital equity work because I, you know, I've been doing a myriad of different positions that spun off to something else that spun off to something else. And so a lot of times you'll hear people say, oh, I've been working in education in 15 years, and now I've gone into digital equity, or That's not been Anita's journey. Anita has lots of different positions. I am now in a whole nother fellowship <laugh> with a completely different organization that's wrapping up this spring, and now it's time for me to forge in my next path. All of that in digital equity. It's now what I feel like my purpose, my mission, and, and my reason for being on the planet.
Christopher Mitchell (06:27):
What has you been doing with the city of Birmingham?
Aneta Lee (06:32):
So, yeah. So I'm in the mayor's office. Actually, you know, the, the beginning of any fellowship, so I actually moved to Birmingham. I'm from Metro Atlanta, and so I moved to Birmingham because this was, you know, community work. So I need to be there, right? And so the first few months is obviously getting to know Birmingham, it's landscape. It's a resources, it's assets, it's it's champions and things of that nature. And so I've, I, I've identified great things in Birmingham as far as rich culture. The fact that they have a very progressive mayor in mayor Randall Woodfin and and, and they are revitalizing after many decades of a white flight de investment and, you know, segregation policies that has disrupted people of color in the Birmingham area. So that richness and that, and that sort of essence is there on the on, unfortunately, on the flip side, there's not a whole lot of focus or really any focus on digital equity.
There are some amazing organizations that's doing things like tech startups and, you know, app challenges and things like that, but nothing that addresses the divide that exists in the city of Birmingham. And so what I've been doing there have been, I've, one of the things, the, what I thought was the quickest and lowest of hanging the Fruit, I got mayor friend to declare digital inclusion week back in October. Hopefully I get to get him to do that a yearly. I was able to with our friends at Education Super Highway put together a ACP outreach campaign, which we call Connect 99. The 99 represents the 99 distinct neighborhoods that make up the city of Birmingham. All right? Yeah. And so so that was a campaign that we have launched to just get more people involved in the a CCP program. I've worked with one of the city council members that are in the process of doing a small infrastructure project and a couple of the neighborhoods excited about that. And lastly as I wrap up this fellowship and go on to my next adventure I'm doing a digital equity summit that I really need you to come to <laugh> for
Christopher Mitchell (08:52):
This. It's looking good. It is looking good.
Aneta Lee (08:53):
Yeah. Okay, awesome. I'm feeling good about that. Digital equity summit, which I'm hoping will really educate the leadership and the different community cross-sector entities about digital equity, what the digital divide, how that negatively affects the citizens of Birmingham, and then hopefully let that be a catalyst of change in building Birmingham's coalition digital equity Coalition.
Christopher Mitchell (09:20):
Now, you said that, at least I got the impression it's not a major priority right now for the city in terms of digital equity. Do you feel like individually people might think of this as a individual problem? Like, like I don't think anyone would come out and say it that way mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, but is that sort of like a perception that like if people aren't on the internet, that's their own problem, they should work it out?
Aneta Lee (09:41):
Well, I can definitely say that the legacy ISPs that could, that right now exist, that's what they will say. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, right? They do say, oh, they're, there's access to everybody in Birmingham. If they want it, they can get it, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and unfortunately I think it's just the lack of knowledge of what this all means. So I think once, you know, once they actually get it in, the flip is switch, they will understand how important it it is. But that's what I've been trying to do through the years. So I think it's not a matter is like it's an individual problem. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I just don't think they have the tools and the resources to one, know how important it is and two, how important it is, how easy it could be for them to incorporate digital inclusion practices into what they're doing for the city.
Christopher Mitchell (10:37):
So I feel like your task is like, I feel like there's some people that are, have grand visions, and I feel like you're like, we're just gonna get started down this road. <Laugh>, maybe someone else is gonna drive the bus, the rest of, right. Right. Well, you're gonna get us started.
Aneta Lee (10:51):
Right? That's, that's really, I mean,
Christopher Mitchell (10:53):
Attitude, <laugh> very healthy.
Aneta Lee (10:56):
Well, and, and you have to understand that's the kind of the whole structure of the fellowship, right? Okay. You know, the fellow, it's like 12 months, like, you know, how much can you do in 12 months? And so understanding that the work that you either either shine the light on, even implement, even create, or even build, is probably gonna be taken over by others. And, but that is the essence of, of the, the, the actual fellowship. So while I but that's difficult to do, right? Yeah. That's, that's difficult to, to kind of start something and then have to like let it go. <Laugh>. Yes. But for me as a digital equity advocate like I said, like going back to this is my purpose. This is why I'm here on the planet, this was an amazing and learning experience. It was an, an opportunity to work in, in, in government in a very unique way.
It increased my knowledge even more about digital equity, digital inclusion, digital divide. I have learned way more about infrastructure than I ever, ever had because my why was are cool because my, my experiences had always been on the equity side, the skills and the in, in the devices. And so, although I'm, you know, sometimes I feel like I need to go ahead, y'all need to gimme my it certificate so I can splice some wires, <laugh>. Well, I know that's not my thing. It's gonna provide me the perspective that I need to go to the next community that hopefully will need my help.
Christopher Mitchell (12:32):
Thank you so much, Anita. I am, I'm hoping we'll be able to have another conversation Oh, definitely. At the Birmingham Digital Equity Summit. Oh,
Aneta Lee (12:38):
Absolutely. Sounds great. Sounds great. I do I'm gonna do a shameless plug, Chris, I'm sorry. Please. Are you gonna, you let me do it? Oh, you're here. So as I talk about it, like I, I've had this long winding road of, of doing this work in different organizations. I believe after this experience, I'm at a level where I feel confident enough to you know, be more of a, a consultant and, and be able to help communities build out their plans, build out their coalitions and things of that nature, which is some of the awesome work that you guys do at I L S R and with Deanne. But I also kind of wanna put out there that Anita is also ready to hang her shingle and help you do some things in your community. And I think one of the niche things that I think will make me unique is the fact that given the right opportunity, I am willing to move to your town mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and stay there. So cuz that's what I literally moved from where I was living with in metro Atlanta to do this for one year in Birmingham. And I'm very, very proud of the work I can do. And so, and I'm fine with moving again. So
Christopher Mitchell (13:46):
How do you feel about snow?
Aneta Lee (13:47):
I have never experienced snow, but I'm ready. I'm been in the southeast all of my life, so I'm, I'm ready to give it a shot. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (13:55):
Excellent. That's a good pitch. <Laugh> <laugh>,
Aneta Lee (13:59):
Absolutely. Desert. A little West coast stuff. All the jazz, so, yeah, definitely.
Christopher Mitchell (14:05):
Excellent. Thank you for your time today.
Aneta Lee (14:06):
Thank you so much, Chris.
Sean Gonsalves (14:11):
We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at ilsr.org/podcast. Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor. Please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, we'd like to thank joseph mckay.com for the song on the Verge.