Gina Birch Loves Digital Equity at the Ashbury Center in Cleveland - Building for Digital Equity Podcast Episode 2

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As she'll note in the beginning of this interview with Sean Gonsalves, Gina Birch loves her job as Program Coordinator at the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She discusses the remarkable transition in Cleveland from a city lagging in digital equity metrics to one toward the top of its game. 

They discuss the Affordable Connectivity Plan, ACP, and some of the challenges associated with the digital divide. Finally, they discuss some of the lessons they have taken from the Net Inclusion conference. 

This show is 14 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this 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 see other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Joseph McDade for the music. The song is On the Verge and is used per his Free-Use terms.


Sean Gonsalves (01:12):

Okay. I am here at Net Inclusion 2023 with somebody that I just met from Cleveland, Gina Birch. Gina, tell us, tell us who you are and why you're here and who you represent.

Gina Birch (01:26):

Yes. Thank you very much. My name is Gina Birch from the Ashbury Center in Cleveland, Ohio. And I'm obsessed with my job. I literally love it. I love net inclusion. My first in-person net inclusion was last year and it's just so inspiring. You get so many opportunities to network so much good information and stuff that you thought you knew really well. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you will always meet a person that knows a little bit more <laugh> that that's, that you do almost every time.

Sean Gonsalves (01:50):

Now, you said you came last year, huh? I did. So I understand this year is a record year. This is my first net inclusion, my first time in San Antonio. I'm, I'm welcome. I'm really, I'm really enjoying it. but this year they set an attendance record. I think there's over a thousand folks in attendance. So Yeah. Now are, now when you came back here, are you, you're seeing some familiar faces or meeting a lot of new people too?

Gina Birch (02:12):

I've got buddies. So what's cool is, well, number one, there's N D I A, right? Yes. Yes. So we work with N D I A throughout the year, and I see them in little squares on Zoom all year long. And then, so after two years of being with Ashbury last year, I finally got to meet a bunch of them in person and we hung out. I mean, like, we did the conference, but then we like hung out in the city.

Sean Gonsalves (02:30):

Now, now let's talk a little bit about Cleveland. Now we're familiar with, and, and, and folks that follow our work know that we're familiar with Digital Sea and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and Joshua Edmunds is back from Detroit, back in the Cleveland, and he does terrific work. But tell us about the work that you're doing, but first, actually before you do that, give, give, give our listeners a little sense of the digital landscape in Cleveland.

Gina Birch (02:56):

Sure. So I'll start with the bad news. Okay. A few years ago, Cleveland was rated the number one worst connected city in the nation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and Cleveland is already very economically segregated. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and that really shined a light on us. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and then the pandemic hit. So it was like we already knew we were in a bad spot, and then the pandemic hit. So if you look at your lovely ACP dashboard though, you can see that we are the number two city and ACP enrollment. So we That's right. We've really been pushing and we've really been working hard to sort of customize our digital navigator program to the needs of our community, especially around ACP enrollment and understanding the program, understanding ISPs offerings and what you need and what you should pay and what you are paying for.

Sean Gonsalves (03:40):

And you, you know, digital Navigator is right, because you do need to navigate to enroll to get folks enrolled in acp. Let me, let me just ask you, just as it relates to acp work on the ground there, what, what's been the, what's the experience been like for you? I know you know, folks around the country have different experiences. Yeah. You guys seem to be doing well. Yeah. In enrolling folks. What, how have you been able to do that?

Gina Birch (04:06):

Well, I can speak for our navigators because I personally trained them. Mm-hmm. I, I facilitated and designed the training for our navigators after attending all of the N D I A acp you know, webinars and, you know, meetings and emergency meetings about ACP even from when it was E B B. So once we, you know, got our collective grant from the Cleveland Foundation for seven, I believe six or seven of our organizations in Cleveland to get digital navigators we made sure to bring all of that information and really impress it on our navigators so that they would be prepared to, to help folks through that process.

Sean Gonsalves (04:46):

And so, you know, cause I think one of the, one of the things that see, that I've been hearing is working well is when there are organizations that, you know, trusted organizations in the community that are, that, that are dealing with folks, I feel like seems to be a key to to, to better enrollment in in acp, would you say?

Gina Birch (05:06):

Absolutely. And I can speak for Clevelanders when I say we are skeptical. Yes. We, if we see something, the first question is for real how <laugh> or but what about, like, what's the catch? Yes. You know what I mean? Yes. So when information comes from providers Yes. If even scarier because they're the people who are taking your money. Right. So when you have a nonprofit organization that's been in the community for decades in the same place, you know, working with your friends and family members, then that's somebody who you can trust the information from a little bit more and that can help you take that next step. Cuz sometimes you might learn the information, but you don't trust the information. So you don't take that step forward, like you were saying.

Sean Gonsalves (05:47):

Yes, yes, yes. Now, you know, I think the pandemic really, you know, maybe the only good thing about the pandemic was that it opened people's eyes to the importance of of, of, of what we're talking about here. Yeah. About, about, about digital inclusion, about the, the access to, to high speed internet connectivity. Tell me a bit about like when you, when, when, when you're talking with folks about that, is, is that what you're finding too, that people sort of see that, you know, having access to you know, high speed internet technology and, and devices and, and, and, and digital literacy is something that people see as a, as really important to participate in, in, in, in how it touches on so many different parts of, of, of everyday life?

Gina Birch (06:35):

That's a, a good question. And I think that it's, it's been different for everybody. So like, for those of us that have been privileged to have access to internet, you know, indefinitely past mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's like a different scenario for everybody that kind of turns that light on. Right. So I work with the CEO of the, the Phoebe Foundation, which is an organization in Cleveland, a financial literacy organization. And during the pandemic, she just kind of heard, like, she, she realized that people don't have internet. And so, like, you have these different situations where a lot of people would give the example of the Covid vaccine mm-hmm. <affirmative> where you had to schedule your appointment on an app or on a website. That's right. There's no paper trail, like physical paper. So like, folks that don't have access or knowledge are like, okay, can you show me how to do that?


Yes. But they're at the pharmacy counter. So like your pharmacist is not their job to train you for sure, but they're also gonna assume that you have the knowledge. So like there's a big gap right there. And so, you know, what does that person do? Do they not get the vaccine? Do they run across somebody that can help? Like there's, that situation is just so flimsy where it's, you know, the digital navigators really come in to fill that gap where practitioners are, are, are not employed to do that type of work. So like healthcare practitioners pharmacists, like any, anywhere where there's a kiosk, like even at the airport mm-hmm. <affirmative>, where you going to, you know, get your, print your board and pass out mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we really work hard to give our clients a, a wide digital foundation so that when they encounter our devices, they don't know, they can still recognize certain aspects like icons and like, you know, universal symbols and buttons and menu bars and stuff like that.

Sean Gonsalves (08:20):

So. Right. I mean, you know, people aren't born knowing these things and so you have to have the, the exposure, you know, the, the kind of work that you're doing is, is, is vital for sure. Now, what, what would you say are some of the, the bigger challenges that you, that you find in your work?

Gina Birch (08:36):

honestly right now, one of the biggest challenges we have is how to reach our home bound community members. because it is a liability issue for a lot of our organizations and for MDUs or, you know, multiple d dwelling units like apartments and high rises, it's a little bit easier cuz we can get a navigator in there that works for that organization. Yes. And they can sort of stay within that building or those buildings for that organization. But the Ashbury Center has a storefront and we are not part of a housing authority, although we do partner with the housing authority mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so like for folks that are maybe a couple of blocks down but can't leave the house. Yes. We really haven't found a solid solution that is well funded for us to go into the home to be able to, to assist. So that's one of our biggest issues

Sean Gonsalves (09:45):

Right now. You know, you mentioned housing authorities and, you know, one of the things that I've been hearing this, you know, in different breakout groups and, and it is something that, you know, we think about quite a bit. There are a, a lot of folks in multi-dwelling units that could really there's a lot of folks that don't have internet access actually in multi-dwelling units. And I'm, and, and I'm start, it's starting to become more clear to me about how important housing authority officials and housing authorities can be in helping to to address the digital divide. You, you see that too? Absolutely.

Gina Birch (09:51):

Oh yeah. And honestly I have a, a great testimonial about that. We have Ricardo Renoso in Cleveland. He is the current digital inclusion manager for the city of Cleveland. That position did not exist until a few months ago when he got hired. Now before he was offered that job, he was the digital inclusion manager for C M H A, which is the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. So the county where Cleveland is mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they manage a housing authority for that area. and they have so many options mm-hmm. <affirmative> at Cmha mm-hmm. <affirmative>, some of their buildings are, are wired and ready, like they're lit up. So you, all you have to do as a, as a resident is say, I would like internet. Yes. And it's, they just turn it on for you and they don't have to pay. Right. Some of them have you know, spectrum only or at and t only mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And you know, everyone that lives in those units is eligible for acp mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So once we have a navigator in the building, we can, you know, ex first, first of all explain the value of internet. Cuz a lot of folks may not even see the value or understand that some of the problems that they're having are due to their lack of access or lack of knowledge. So just opening that door, getting them qualified and getting them service that hopefully nine times outta 10 they won't have to pay for or pay very little

Sean Gonsalves (11:03):

For. So, so on that point, so, so once you've had the conversation with folks about the availability of the ACP and people, you know, wrap their mind around it and they understand that it's not a scam and that it's something that could be a benefit and they're like, okay, let, like let's sign up. When you get to that point, talk about, talk a little bit about that process. I mean, has, has that been challenging for you?

Gina Birch (11:23):

Once we sort of get the buy-in, it's happiness after that <laugh>, the person is like, oh my gosh, I can't believe this exists. I I had no idea. Like, this is gonna change my life. Cuz a lot of times what we do are our resource fairs and outreach events where we, we will be giving away a laptop or a free computer once you're qualified. So not only do you get internet or internet for free or very low cost, but you also get a free computer on the same day. Mm. So that can take a person from mm-hmm. <affirmative> thinking that I don't know when I'm gonna be able to have internet at home to oh my God, I can apply for a job tonight. That's

Sean Gonsalves (12:00):

Right. That's right. And that, and that. And that's key. And, and there's so many aspects to it. I mean, there's the, there's the infrastructure piece and you need to have a reliable network that's available to you. And then there's the affordability aspect of it. And then there's, and then there's the, you know, the whether or not you have a device and, and, and the, and the skills to use it. I mean yeah. Pretty much everybody has a cell phone these days mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but you know, those are limited in terms of, of what you can do online. Right. Right. I mean, yes, you can check social media, you can, you can shop, you can do things like that. But, you know, kind of consumption things. But when it comes to being a producer or, or doing things like you're talking about applying for jobs,

Gina Birch (12:38):

That's a good way to put it. A con, consumer based activities versus like production based activities. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> for the, like, the type of device that's necessary. I, I like that. And I'm sure I'm gonna use it again, so

Sean Gonsalves (12:48):

Thank you. Okay. Okay. All right. All right. Well, so, so speaking of takeaways, cuz cuz that won't be the only thing that you take away from me. I'm sure it'll be the smallest thing, but since you, so we're on day two. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> so we had a full day yesterday. You have another day tomorrow. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. What are some of the things that you feel like you may have come across that, that, that, that, that are sticking with you at this point that you may want to bring back with you?

Gina Birch (13:10):

There's a particular individual that was on a panel yesterday in the digital equity curriculum or what was it? Curriculum with digital equity at the forefront is Uhhuh is what it is. So like building it while ensuring that, you know, it's equitable at the beginning as opposed to building it and then going back and making it equitable. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But her, not, her name is Ina p Morgan and she is working outta Kansas City, Missouri, I believe. And I was so impressed with her because of the variety of programming that she's able to offer to such a wide range of youth. And she has convinced a school district to house her program without being an employee of the school district inside of one of the schools.

Sean Gonsalves (13:27):

I, you know, stuff like that ain't easy.

Gina Birch (13:29):

It's really not. And I mean, she's, she's dynamic <affirmative>, so like I can, somebody said yes, Uhhuh to her, Uhhuh for sure. Uhhuh <affirmative>. But I mean I just gotta, I gotta figure out how to get on that level for our programming for our youth. Cuz we work a lot with our, with our seniors. but really making our programming more robust, Uhhuh <affirmative> for, you know, more of the community to be able to access has been an important goal for me coming into that inclusion mm-hmm. <affirmative> and I feel like I'm getting exactly what I need.

Sean Gonsalves (14:18):

Nice. Well, listen, I really appreciate you taking the time to hang out for a minute.