Building Digitally Equitable Communities - Bonus Episode Ten of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

For the tenth episode of our special podcast series “Why NC Broadband Matters,” we’re talking about the an innovative Building a New Digital Economic (BAND-NC) grant program, which provides funds to support devices, subscriptions, and digital skills training to communities across North Carolina. The program disbursed its first round of money to 29 projects across 39 counties this summer, and is planning a second round of funding right now.

To talk about how it came about and the impact it’s having, Christopher speaks with Maggie Woods, Policy and Program Manager at the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State, Amy Huffman, Digital Inclusion and Policy Manager within the Broadband Infrastructure Office in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, and Arlayne Gordon-Bray, IZone Community Engagement and Industry Partner at Edgecombe Public Schools.


We produced this episode and the “Why NC Broadband Matters” series in partnership with NC Broadband Matters, a nonprofit organization advocating for better connectivity across North Carolina.

This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed.

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - a Creative Commons Attribution (4.0) license.


Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Because we were able to get this grant and we were able to connect with other grantees, we have now been able to advocate for our families and have seats at the table to really share the concerns and needs of our community when it comes to digital inclusion and when it comes to broadband access.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Today, we are bringing you another episode in our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, why NC broadband matters. I'm Ry Marcattilio-McCracken with the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract support and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high capacity Internet access. The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: ILSR is working with NC Broadband Matters to produce this series, focusing on issues affecting people in North Carolina that also impact folks in other regions. In this episode, we are joined by Maggie Woods, Policy and Program Manager at the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State. As well as Amy Huffman, Digital Inclusion and Policy Manager within the Broadband Infrastructure office in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Chris is talking with Maggie Woods and Amy Huffman about an innovative series of grants on digital inclusion in North Carolina. And after, we'll talk with Arlayne Gordon-Bray, IZONE Community Engagement and Industry Partner at Edgecombe Public Schools about how they are using the grants. Now, onto the show.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is a special edition. We are back working with NC Broadband Matters to deliver some special content focused on North Carolina and some of the really inspiring work that's making a difference in that great state.

Christopher Mitchell: Today, I am excited to talk with Maggie Woods the Policy and Program Manager at the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State. Welcome to the show, Maggie.

Maggie Woods: So happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Amy Huffman, who is back after previously having talked to us about the homework gap and great work she was doing on it. Amy is the Digital Inclusion and Policy Manager within the Broadband Infrastructure office at North Carolina's Department of Information Technology. Welcome to the show.

Amy Huffman: Thank you so much for having me.


Christopher Mitchell: So I'm very excited about talking about this approach, which frankly is one of the biggest bangs for the bucks we are seeing in terms of better broadband planning across the entire country. But before we get into what BAND-NC is and how the program works, I just want to offer a little bit of background on what you both do. So Maggie, would you please tell me about the Institute for Emerging Issues and what you do there?

Maggie Woods: Absolutely, so the Institute for Emerging Issues is a public policy center based out of NC State University in Raleigh and we have a big ambitious mission to make North Carolina a more prosperous and more economically vibrant state for everyone. And so the way that we have traditionally done this is by being a convening organization, which looks very different in the time of COVID, but we're really good at bringing people together from different backgrounds, different perspectives, different sides of the political aisle to wrestle with big ideas in the state.

Maggie Woods: And because we focus on emerging issues, each year we choose a new issue or two to highlight. So either issues that we think are truly innovative or issues that we think could be stuck a little bit or might need different kinds of attention put on it. And so in the past year, we have been focused on digital inclusion, which is why we are talking today.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and I came to one of your events and I have to say, it was phenomenal. In terms of an event that had really good speakers, was very well produced, had a diverse group of folks that came to it so I will just say that I am happy to evangelize the work that your organization does. And of course, as a bit of a sports junkie here and there, NC State is a wonderful, wonderful place. I'm sure you have great academics, but your sports are really wonderful too.

Maggie Woods: Go Wolfpack.

Christopher Mitchell: So Amy, let's talk about the longest title we've ever had on this show, I think. What is your role? And I just have to say the title, Digital Inclusion and Policy Manager is a wonderful title. I wish every state had a person with that title. So what do you do there?

Amy Huffman: Yeah, I wish every state broadband program had a digital inclusion person dedicated to digital inclusion, too. So our office is the state broadband office and it's our vision that every North Carolinian would have access to a portable, high speed broadband anywhere at anytime. And a number of years ago when digital inclusion started bubbling up as part of the conversation, we had already been focusing on broadband adoption and increasing broadband adoption throughout the state.


Amy Huffman: We highlighted it in our state broadband plan and we are working towards those goals of increasing broadband adoption. But when digital inclusion, the conversation around that, it sort of shifted a little bit around 2016, 2017. And so we realized that was an issue we needed to double down on and really focus on. Since about that time I started working at the digital inclusion in a number of different ways, leading a coalition of folks across the state, working with experts to create pilot programs to increase digital inclusion and get funding to the state to do that sort of thing.

Amy Huffman: It's just something that's iterated over time and expanded. But basically, I lead our office's digital inclusion programs, policies, and efforts and help support folks across the state who are doing this work.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. And part of that is playing a role in this effort to create a digital inclusion plan for every last county in North Carolina, which I love that you have 100 counties. It's really helpful.

Amy Huffman: A nice round number.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you, Maggie, then, first give us a thumbnail sketch of the building a new digital economy in North Carolina, BAND-NC program.

Maggie Woods: So BAND-NC's goal is to equip counties to meet needs and to build more digitally equitable communities. And like you said, our ultimate goal is to make North Carolina the first state in the nation where every county has a digital inclusion plan. And this really started because of the events that you referenced, Christopher, that took place in February, so right before the pandemic hit.

Maggie Woods: We really didn't want there to just be an event about digital inclusion without doing something about it. So we were able to announce some grants at the end of that event and to kick off BAND-NC and then the pandemic hit and all anyone wanted to talk about was the digital divide in North Carolina.

Maggie Woods: And I know Amy and I have talked that before the pandemic, it was sometimes like pulling teeth to convince people that this was a real challenge, and that's not something that we have to do anymore. So people started coming to us saying, how we can we support, how can we help counties? And so that's how BAND-NC has been able to grow really really rapidly.


Maggie Woods: So this past summer, we were able to offer a first round of funding. We provided rapid response community innovation grants to counties across the state. And this could be used to meet immediate digital needs or to try something new and innovative. And we were able to fund 29 projects in 39 counties over the summer and we'll have a second round of funding coming this spring.

Christopher Mitchell: This is, I think, worth digging into briefly and I'll ask you, Amy. I feel like a lot of times people have divided, I've certainly divided the problem with Internet access into access to infrastructure versus the training, the device and that sort of thing. And I feel like for this, you were like what if we just deal with all of these issues all at once? Is that a correct reading of it?

Amy Huffman: I think so, I will say that, and Maggie can speak to this as well, is that for BAND-NC particularly, because they are $5,000 grants, those are miniature grants, that's not going to fund an entire county's access problem. So in North Carolina, we think we have about a billion dollar access problem to our rural areas. About 95%, according to the FCC data, of our households are covered. We know that data is flawed, we know that's actually quite a few more households, a lot of households don't have it, so we think it's about a billion dollar problem.

Amy Huffman: So while there were some projects funded that did community Wi-Fi and things of that nature and funded hotspots and things that solve the access gap in some communities, we did recognize that this BAND-NC program is really geared towards the digital inclusion aspects. We really loved seeing projects that addressed affordability, that addressed computer ownership, that addressed digital skills and digital literacy and getting that to folks who needed it.

Amy Huffman: We did see a lot of proposals for working with schools in helping get kids online in the middle of a pandemic and loved those types of proposals. The way we describe the broadband challenges is that it's actually one challenge is just two sides of the same coin. So there is the access challenge and we have that across the state and across the country. There are millions of households across the country who don't have the literal pipes and wires.


Amy Huffman: But just as importantly, there is millions of people who don't have the skills and don't have the devices and can't afford it and if you can't afford it and you don't have the skills and you don't have the device to use it, it doesn't matter if you have access to it or not. It's not going to improve your life or be meaningful in your life or improve your economy. And so to us, it's the same challenge just split into two sides. And we think it's really important to simultaneously address both sides or we're not going to actually make any progress.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, you mentioned that the $5,000 doesn't go very far in terms of solving this problem but I actually think it will. And I'll be curious what the early results are, in the sense that what I'm hoping for is that we see this catalyzingly local conversation. That's what I think is the brilliance of this, is that you're providing enough money that there is incentive for local groups to start talking about this and I would hope they are developing a plan that addresses all aspects of it.

Christopher Mitchell: In one county, it might be more of access or it might be more of inclusion, but every county can work toward that on their own. Is that what we are seeing, Maggie?

Maggie Woods: You're exactly right. And that's how we've tried to design the program, is for the $5,000 to be a catalyst. So in the grant application, we ask grantees to tell us who are they bringing to the table or who they thought needed to be brought to the table in order to accomplish their digital inclusion goals. And so we're seeing that across the board, people telling us that receiving this $5,000 has helped them bring on community partners that they couldn't bring on before.

Maggie Woods: And we know of the 29 projects that were funded, that 14 of those projects or 14 of those counties, are working on a digital inclusion plan. And so what's really exciting about this, is that even if only those 14 build a digital inclusion plan as a part of BAND-NC, that will be huge for our state and we will really get to that goal of bringing community together and using that $5,000 as a carrot.

Maggie Woods: And one other thing I'll mention, is that in the second round of funding that's coming out this spring, is really to help communities implement a part of their digital inclusion plan. And so the idea is that communities will turn in their plan as part of their application and that, of course, it will be a competitive process, but that then we'll be able to offer another $5,000 to communities that have completed the plan.


Christopher Mitchell: Now, if I'm a community, let's say I happen to notice that Wilkes does not have one of the plans yet, at least on your website. Am I still eligible to put a group together and to try to access $5,000 or how does that work at this point?

Maggie Woods: Yeah, 100% and Amy and I have launched a series of virtual workshops to help communities begin to build a digital inclusion plan. And these workshops have been open to BAND-NC recipients, as well as anyone else in the space that's interested in building a plan. We have those recorded and can pass them along to people who are interested. We can also meet separately and are developing some other workshops that will be rolled out this January. So this is open to anyone.

Christopher Mitchell: Something that I've been excited about regarding this is that it elevates local voices who may not have been heard otherwise. I'm sure a lot of these places have a person who was already trying to push toward more digital inclusion and that sort of thing. And then suddenly, $5,000 is available, that person is going to have more of a voice within that community and hopefully that will just change everything and the snowball effect. And before we started recording, I think Maggie mentioned a sense of the snowballing.

Christopher Mitchell: So Amy, I'm curious. Are you seeing that? Is that a sense that we are empowering different voices within communities in ways that would not have been, absent this $5,000 opportunity?

Amy Huffman: Absolutely. Before these grants, I could pretty much name everyone in the state who was working on digital inclusion. Either I had met them or knew of them through partners. People, I don't want to say came out of the woodwork, because that is not fair statement. I think these people were already leaders within their community, but maybe they weren't specifically focused on digital inclusion or maybe they were and maybe we just hadn't met before. Or maybe they weren't even calling it digital inclusion, maybe they were just doing the good work that is needed in their communities.


Amy Huffman: But I'm seeing a whole host of people come to the table who I've never met before who are now interested in this and I think it's absolutely empowering local leaders and folks from all different types of organizations. We had applications from early childhood centers, from faith based organizations, from schools, from libraries, from local governments. And it's just so exciting because you know, Chris, digital inclusion, it takes everyone to do this work, to solve these problems. This is a challenge that impacts every single industry and so you need partners from health care and education and libraries and so it's just so exciting to see that start to happen across the state.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I was looking at the list and it was really remarkable to see the range from public entities to civil society type organizations. It wouldn't have surprised me if it was all libraries, but it certainly wasn't. There was a great mix of folks.

Christopher Mitchell: Maggie, I'm curious about the rules for this. If I'm part of a faith based effort in a county that's already received an award and I want to do my own plan, I think you encourage folks to work together then, because there is a maximum of $5,000 per county, I believe. Is that right?

Maggie Woods: Yeah, that's correct. So the way we set it up is that we're trying to get as many counties involved as possible. So if one entity in the county has already been funded, then we can't fund that county, at least for the first round. For the second round, that will start over.

Maggie Woods: But if people did reach out or apply from a county that had already received funding, then we were really intentional about putting them in touch with the group that was funded in their county. And we continue to do that, so Amy and I are in the process of thinking through, who do we know who has received a BAND-NC grant or who is involved in this work, participated in a workshop, that might not be connected to others in their county that we know about.

Maggie Woods: And so, we're really trying to increase that snowball effect by connecting people who are working on this that might not know each other as best as possible.

Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to make sure we gave credit to the electric cooperatives, as well. Who, we don't have a member on this call, but they were essential from the start. I think they've helped to fund some of these awards. Maggie, do you want to tell us a little bit about that partnership?


Maggie Woods: Yes, the electric cooperatives have been enormously helpful and they were the first people to see the vision of BAND-NC and to sign on. So our first two sources of funding came from the North Carolina Electric Cooperative, which support all of the electric cooperatives. As well as from Roanoke Electric, which is out in the eastern part of the state.

Maggie Woods: So they were the first two groups that raised their hand and said yes, we believe in this and we could not be doing this work without them.

Christopher Mitchell: And Amy, I'm curious, is this coming more or less along the way you thought it was? You have several years of experience working in the state, has this been exceeding your expectations, or hitting them, or do you want to admit it's below your expectations? Because you had such high expectations they were unreasonable before?

Amy Huffman: No, it is not below my expectations. I would say it's exceeding my expectations. When we first talked about this, it was before February of this year. A time before February and March seems eons ago. But when we first started talking about this, I thought it was a really exciting idea. I was a little concerned about communities putting together digital inclusion plans and it being too much of a lift, but it's definitely exceeded my expectations.

Amy Huffman: We received, I think, Maggie correct me, but I think about 60 applications in the rapid response round, which is a lot. We only have 100 counties and the projects were really good and really well thought out and we wanted to fund way more than we could, which is disappointing but also a good problem to have. That means there is a lot of people who are thinking through these things really thoughtfully and who know the needs of their community and are working towards helping those folks.

Amy Huffman: So yeah, it's definitely exceeded my expectations. It just made me really excited for the future of the state and given me this glimmer of hope that this digital divide thing might be something that in a shorter time frame than I originally anticipated, that we would be talking about in the past tense. I think it's really exciting and I think it's definitely propelling us forward in a way that we would not moving forward with without.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think efforts like this really catapult us forward and then when you combine that with work that I think National Digital Inclusion Alliance are doing, frankly, I think you should be keeping that resume pretty updated, Amy, because you are going to be switching jobs before too long.


Amy Huffman: I will happily work myself out of a job. That is my goal, to work myself out of a job and this not be something I have to work on anymore.

Christopher Mitchell: And so Maggie, one of my last questions is, because we're going to move to a discussion with folks who are implementing some of these plans, but before I do that, I wanted to ask. This is something, I feel like most people immediately think of rural challenges. Are you seeing a mix of rural and urban efforts as part of this program?

Maggie Woods: Yes, as you know, this is an everyone problem. It's not just a rural issue and so we are seeing applications from rural North Carolina from suburban North Carolina and from urban North Carolina. Especially because we are focused a lot on the adoption piece and we know that there are more people who have access to the Internet but can't afford it, than who don't have access. That doesn't minimize the access problem at all.

Maggie Woods: We've, from the start, messaged this as this affects every single person in the state and so we want everyone involved in this work.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Any closing comments, Amy?

Amy Huffman: Just that we are really excited for seeing these projects be implemented, seeing the digital inclusion plans that come out of communities and continuing to work towards closing the digital divide in North Carolina and there couldn't be a better time to hone in and focus on these issues and really roll our sleeves up and get to work and we're just excited that communities are taking the leads in that and we are here to support them along the way.

Christopher Mitchell: And Maggie, did you have any final talking points you wanted to make sure we got out?

Maggie Woods: Yeah, two things. One, we mentioned the North Carolina Electrical Cooperative and Roanoke Electric but there are a couple other funders and partners that have made this work possible. That includes the John M. Belk endowment, Duke Energy Foundation, Google Fiber and Corning Optical have made this possible.

Maggie Woods: And then of course, working with the Broadband Infrastructure office and Amy and [inaudible 00:22:05]. We could not do this work without them. They've been tremendous partners from the start, when we had this idea and they said yes, we're in. Keep going. And even as the pandemic hit and we had to rethink and reframe what we were doing, they were there every step of the way. So we could not do this work without them, we're so thankful to have them.


Maggie Woods: And then as Amy said, I'm so thankful to the communities that are stepping up. The ones that we were able to fund, the ones that we weren't able to fund, it really is amazing to watch what people are trying and what they are doing and the need is so great and we're happy to be able to provide one small step in the right direction but it's really people on the ground who are getting the work done and I couldn't be more thankful for them and happy to support and proud to get to learn from them.

Christopher Mitchell: I really want to, again, note that I feel like this is so important. This is such an innovative approach, such a bottom up effort and it really gets to the power of what you can do when you put your faith in the folks in the communities directly, rather than saying we have $500,000 how do we figure out how to solve all of North Carolina's problems, just by tapping into the intelligent folks we have at NC State.

Christopher Mitchell: Which I understand, the $500,000 as you noted, came from multiple sources that all bought into this vision. But I love that you came up with this because too many people are not thinking about how to do these bottom up solutions. Kudos to you.

Christopher Mitchell: And I also, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't note that, I don't want to put either one of you on the spot, but North Carolina has unfortunate restrictions in some of the local solutions in terms of partnerships, that this podcast has highlighted in the past, with municipal partnerships and things like that. And I just wanted to remind folks that when we are talking about this stuff, I feel like it would be remiss not to note that I am frustrated with some of the barriers North Carolina still has in law and I'm really glad to see people are working within those constraints to find ways of moving forward and we hope those of us from outside North Carolina that North Carolina could also lead the way in removing barriers to innovative local partnerships.

Christopher Mitchell: I didn't want to ask either one of you a question about that, because it's not within your roles often, to be questioning these sorts of things. But I did want our listeners just to make sure that we weren't ignoring it entirely.

Christopher Mitchell: So thank you both so much for your time. I am excited to talk with some folks that are in the ground implementing this and again, I'll just note, $5,000, it doesn't seem like a lot but it's going to catalyze so much organization, it's going to unlock so much more. This is huge and I hope, not only do we see 100 counties in North Carolina, but 50 states with all of their counties doing it to. Thank you for your time.


Amy Huffman: Thank you.

Maggie Woods: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: And now, I'm really excited to move on to an interview with Arlayne Gordon-Bray, who is the IZONE Community Engagement and Industry Partner at Edgecombe Public Schools. Welcome to the show.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Hi, thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm really excited to talk about what's happening at Edgecombe and for folks who don't know, you are right close there to Wilson. And so anybody who listens to this show, they've probably heard me talk a lot about Wilson before, so this is the area, eastern North Carolina. It's an area in which they're facing a number of challenges with the economy over the years, but you have this exciting grant now to work on digital inclusion. So I guess the first thing is, just tell us what you are doing with the grant.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Initially we applied for the grant in the summer of 2020 when we knew that the governor had said that we are going back to Plan C, which is all remote education. And so we're trying to figure out, honestly the spring time when the pandemic first it, for our families and we were all scrambling but we knew that things were going to change and we needed to figure out how are we going to support our families in this time.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: So BAND-NC had this grant that was also focusing on digital inclusion and we said this could be a really good opportunity to get funding and then also hear from other grantees about what's the best way we could make this happen.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: So initially, the plan for the grant was that we applied with hosting five sessions, one in person and four that were going to be virtual. Of course, social distancing for the first one, and then four virtual that would talk about the different topics of digital inclusion. So the first one was going to be an in person, one on one tutoring for our families around remote education, whether it was the learning management systems, how to use basic computer tools like turning on a camera, thumb drive, that kind of thing. How do you get into communication with your teachers through ClassDojo or the other materials.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And then once we had that interest, the subsequent sessions were going to be on things like digital safety, what is digital citizenship look like, how do we maintain online privacy, with the plan then to move into broader topics for people to be able to understand what is happening with broadband? So session three is going to be around understanding connectivity. Why do we not have Internet? Why do we not have good broadband out where we live and understanding that issue.


Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And then the following session is just really getting the feedback from our community, whether it is teachers, principals, and parents, about what they need around digital inclusion. We do a lot of empathy interviews and surveying because we are very equity centered in our district and so those last two, we definitely kept those in the spirit of the work that we always do about making sure it's always based on the feedback.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: So I'll take a step back. Our first one was planned on being an in person at three different high schools which are spread across the county, however, based on the COVID numbers and the interaction that we had, we shifted and we actually did a Geek Squad, but we called it Edge Squad for Edgecombe County.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And so we took six buses full of teachers, there was like three teachers per bus, and went out to six different locations across the county for two hours on a Tuesday evening to provide support to our families. And we had about 50 to 60 families show up and one side even just had four kids just on the bus, like three seats apart just working just because they wanted to be together. I think I even asked them, do you not have Internet at home? They were like, no we got Internet. We just wanted to be here.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: So our next event is actually going to be next weekend. We are going to host a game night around digital privacy and digital citizenship.

Christopher Mitchell: So it's not just going to be some kind of boring lecture kind of thing?

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: No, those don't work. That much we have learned and we definitely know with Internet privacy and digital citizenship, that is not going to work. People are tired of being told what to do and don't post on Facebook and so we said, let's make it a game night. Let's have some fun with it.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: We've got fantastic digital learning coordinators and our digital education lead, who has already created a whole Google site, posters, everything, to be included as passive programming along with this one.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, how did you get the word out? How did you target folks to make sure they would know that this was an opportunity for them?

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: For our Edge Squad, what we did was one, we reached out to principals really early. We told the principals, this is what we're thinking about doing, can you tell us what have you seen as issues to make sure they're being addressed and made sure they were in on the planning process.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And then we sent out advertisements through them to put in all of their individual school newsletters, made sure they sent it out to targeted families that were having trouble right now, we did an all call, so an auto phone call went around to the entire, anybody that was on the phone list that's in the district, they got the phone call about we're going to be out in your neighborhood.


Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And then we also just have a fantastic team of teachers and bus drivers who let their students know they were going to be out there, which is really part of the galvanizing effort, and just being parked out there with snacks and raffles and prizes to also make it fun.

Christopher Mitchell: That bit about the bus drivers surprises me. It's been a while since I was on a school bus, but the bus drivers seem like they were an important part of that.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: They were a huge part. I'll tell you why the bus drivers actually end up becoming such a key aspect. Usually bus drivers also serve multiple roles in the school. So maybe they are on custodial staff or they're food and nutrition. So they have other touch points with the kids, but as terms of being a bus driver, they know how to navigate the neighborhoods best. So when you've got a good bus driver, they know not to just park at one spot, but they know how to go through different mobile home parks or different neighborhoods to beep outside certain kids doors because they have those every day touchpoints with the students anyways.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And they were even able to provide insight to say it's best if we park here, this is the safer place. They actually provided a lot of on the ground help.

Christopher Mitchell: When I learned about BAND-NC, one of the things I was really hopeful was that this money was not only going to do the things you described, but it would change the dynamic. And so, I'm curious, aside from the training that you're providing with the money, has it unlocked any new potential? Has anything changed to have a more serious discussion about how to solve these problems?

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Yeah, I would definitely say so, and I would say that on two levels. The first level is because we were able to get this grant and we were able to connect with other grantees, we have now been able to advocate for our families and have seats at the table to really share the concerns and the needs of our community when it comes to digital inclusion and it comes to broadband access.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Which, became helpful early on. Our council of governments, for the upper eastern part of North Carolina, or COG, as they say, they also were a grantee and they are creating digital inclusion plan for the county. And they were sure to include us as a part of creating this plan. I think part of that is just based on the fact that we were all grantee included and this work is included in this.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: We've sat with our town administrator to talk about these needs. All of this has happened partially because we do get this grant funding and it's got a little bit more attention. Working with other grantees has also given us additional ideas of how to deploy this work.


Arlayne Gordon-Bray: The second part of where I am hoping and I think I am feeling it happen slowly, in terms of what kind of shift is happening, is that it's actually helping our community to advocate for themselves. I'm sure most of the listeners here know how bad lack of Internet access can be for our community. When we had school go remote in the spring time, 30% of my kids did not have Internet. We were printing off paper packets and delivering them with lunches every single day.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: We've discussed this a little bit in the beginning, we've had some challenges, my dislike, Edgecombe county is a place where you can see that the system has failed folks in so many ways. Many of our school are title one, most of our kids are black and brown children and we know how the system is never equitably built for that and neither is school really for that population. Only 10% of our parents really have anything beyond an associate's, whereas the national average is closer to 25%.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: So when we moved to digital education and to remote access, this was not going to work for us. But we also know that we are being hit the hardest by COVID, in person is not an option. So what do we do here? The next option is how are we empowering folks to make things happen or to make these changes. And so I am hopeful that as we've been working on this grant and showing some of the innovations as well as constantly talking about this is why we don't have access. It is not your fault. This is not your fault.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, you didn't screw up when AT&T decided not to build here.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Correct. No part of this is your fault. It is not your fault that you made a decision to live in a rural county and that your family is from here and that y'all live here. This is not on you. This is on a set of failures that we don't have enough competition coming in making sure you have fast enough Internet that exists here. This is not your fault and then how can we work together to work around this?

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: It's my belief that by the BAND-NC grant, by us going out and talking about this, we're starting to get that message even further and even as we did our Edge Squad, because really our team that works on the grant is smaller, we have now a larger group of digital learning coordinators, et cetera that are trying to build into this work and figure out how do we continue to meet parents where they are at.


Arlayne Gordon-Bray: And the discussion has shifted even in some spaces from, it's shifted from how are we going to make sure we are supporting parents in the remote environment with school to saying how are we now making sure that our parents are equipped with these digital skills to use for themselves. So we've even seen in the discussions like topics have changed there. And we'll talk more next year with our actual failing students about here is why we're not connected y'all. Again, it's not your fault, this is the explanation of what's going on.

Christopher Mitchell: And so you seem enthusiastic, although you might be enthusiastic about a lot of things. You seem like you are a high energy person.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: You know what? I'm not. I wish I was. [crosstalk 00:35:56]. I'm double fisting coffee here.

Christopher Mitchell: But to me, one of the things I was hoping for is that, and I want you to be honest, all the things you just discussed, that's exciting. We're talking about a $5,000 investment. It's unlocked a lot, right? One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you and I'm talking with the folks that we just had on, Maggie Woods and Amy Huffman, is because this should be done in every state. It doesn't cost a lot, and this is a big impact.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: It is a big impact and the hope is that there is a bigger impact. The hope is that we are getting the knowledge and our voices are loud enough that we've got some bigger changes. I'll be honest, I'm partially enthusiastic because I'm tired and I tell this anecdote all the time because I get so frustrated and I think I even included this on our BAND-NC conference call that we had.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: So Edgecombe county where we are, I am three hours from the nation's capital, I am one hour from the state capital and I am within 45 minutes of two military bases and my kids don't have Internet. In 2003 when my dad was in Iraq, he called me with perfect, crystal clear clarity to check in. But it's 2020, I have children that don't have Internet. That's disgusting.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you put it like that, it seems like a bit of a failure.


Arlayne Gordon-Bray: That's a huge failure. And the question is, that's not just one failure, that's a lot of failures and when that translates, when you are telling people your community is in such close proximity to all of these things that our state and our nation hold to be true, but we don't make this happen for you, that shows that we don't care and that you guys don't matter. That your inclusion in the world in this broader space, it actually doesn't matter. You don't add much. So it gets my hype.

Christopher Mitchell: It should, and I think it's worth, I want to get your thoughts on this because that is very insightful but the next step, in many ways, is getting infrastructure out to folks who can afford to pay $50 a month for it, or more. And the fear is you have these people who have been waiting all this time and they are going to see it going by and maybe some of the neighbors have it, but that's a pretty big issue, isn't it, for families? You're describing families that are probably not able to afford that.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Correct. And of course everybody loves to complain about their ISP and how they are not serving their needs. One thing that I have said and we say to different folks when they complain, is I'll just tell them straight up, listen we can't put the full blame on the ISP because if I was an Internet service provider, the ROI for me to build out here, that return is actually not worth it. We know that in rural communities, there is a lower adoption rate. We know that it is a higher cost and so the step in, when we talk about yeah it could be hard for that $50 for our communities, that means that the step in has to happen from other public private entities and partnerships to make that happen. If this is something that we say is important overall for our community and our economy, we need other folks to help step in and meet that gap.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right, so what I'm hearing is that there is good work happening, there is more good work on the horizon, there is some hope, but there is a lot to be done.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: There is a lot to be done, fingers crossed there is some good work happening.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for your time today, Arlayne.

Arlayne Gordon-Bray: Oh thank you so much. It was good to get on here, I love talking about our kids and our community and our county.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Thanks for tuning into this episode in our Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets. And if you follow @NCheartsgb on Twitter, ultimately tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We want to thank Shane Ivers of for the series music, What's the Angle? Licensed through creative commons. And we want to thank you for listening. Until next time.