Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Ini Augustine on Mutual Aid and Community Connectivity - Building for Digital Equity Podcast Episode 11
Ini Augustine is a technologist who was ready to organize with her community to improve access to computers and Internet access when the pandemic hit and many low-income neighborhoods in Minneapolis and Saint Paul were cut off from education and other resources. More recently, she organized the Black Broadband Summit and the Family Broadband Coalition. We talk about her work and the promise and challenge of forming a cooperative to bring better Internet access to people who have been abandoned by traditional business models.
We also talk about whether kids in North Minneapolis would be in better shape today than they were in 2020 if they suddenly were cut off from school again. And who should be taking responsibility to make sure that answer is yes?
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Christopher MItchell (00:05):
Before Sean does his intro, I wanted to make sure that you knew that on June 7th, 2023 at three o'clock Eastern time, the Institute for Local Self Alliance is once again teaming up with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for a building for Digital Equity livestream. It's gonna be great. You should check it out at building for digital equity.com. Thank you.
Sean Gonsalves (00:29):
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 Go 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 (01:28):
I'm here with Ini Augustine founder of Project Nandi. Welcome.
Ini Augustine (01:32):
Thank you for having me, Chris
Christopher MItchell (01:34):
Nandi. Okay. I always, I'm always confused, Nandi or Nadi, but it's Nandi Nand. And now you can tell me why Nandi Nand Nandi. I can remember that.
Ini Augustine (01:41):
Yes. It's named after Queen Nandi, who is the mother of Chaka Zulu. Okay. one of the best and most famous kings of the Zulu in South Africa. And she was a historical single mother who fought for her child's education, who became the greatest king of the Zulu. So just like she fought for her son, more fighting for our kids' education.
Christopher MItchell (02:02):
And where are you fighting for your kids' education?
Ini Augustine (02:04):
Twin Cities, Minneapolis.
Christopher MItchell (02:07):
And let's just step back for a second then. I think you have a history of doing a lot of interesting projects. What were you doing around the time that this project got kicked off? Oh
Ini Augustine (02:17):
Gosh. Oh my gosh. It's like so painful, but also funny to think about because I was working on a project in California. I was doing solar powered GPS systems, which is like just my bag, right? And I just knew 2020 was gonna be my year. I'm living the fast life in California, making more money than ever. And like, I was like, it's finally happening
Christopher MItchell (02:43):
For me. <laugh>, this is it. I've not had that moment.
Ini Augustine (02:49):
and that was not what happened because Covid broke out and I was in quarantine <laugh>. And, you know my daughter was just grieving a lot with the loss of her friends and her teachers and her education was just having a really tough time with online school
Christopher MItchell (03:06):
Because she was isolated from it. Yeah,
Ini Augustine (03:07):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so I thought that, it just occurred to me like, if she's this devastated, how much more painful could this be for other kids out there that maybe don't have their own laptop, don't have high-speed Internet, don't have a supportive family. and so I felt just as a mother, I had to do something. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so Project Nandi is what I did.
Christopher MItchell (03:27):
And then what was that <laugh>?
Ini Augustine (03:30):
I started delivering out, I called them Tech Care Packages. because what happened was I got a small grant from the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, and I was going to distribute out, you know, some old laptops that I had refurbished. And then George Floyd happened and I realized, hey, lives are about to be in danger. You know, people are not able to call for help. People are not able to stay connected to community support networks. And I started delivering out tech care packages with food and a laptop and helping people get access to Internet in North and South Minneapolis.
Christopher MItchell (04:02):
So these things are kind of just as you were getting going with Project Ndy, the universe was like, we got something else for you too. <laugh>. Yes. Yeah. So you have a technology background though. Yeah. So you weren't intimidated by that. Yeah.
Ini Augustine (04:16):
I'm a network engineer.
Christopher MItchell (04:17):
And you're an entrepreneur. Yes. So I, the first thing I want to ask you is actually just this question of I feel like one of the biggest issues in this space, and people are afraid to do things. Yeah. How are you not afraid to do things?
Ini Augustine (04:30):
Well, I don't know. I just feel like the worst that could happen is I die and then it's all over. So I have nothing to worry about <laugh>.
Christopher MItchell (04:36):
Okay. Yeah. There is a, the phrase that I love is sometimes bring up, which is that when there is noth, when there is no hope left, there is nothing left to worry about. Exactly. <laugh>.
Ini Augustine (04:48):
Christopher MItchell (04:49):
Okay. So, so you approached business leaders to say, gimme some money, we're gonna do some great things to get people technology that they need. No,
Ini Augustine (04:57):
No. I approached my community and they came through for me. Project Nandi was built off of Mutual Aid. Which is basically normal people coming together and saying, Hey, this is something I believe in. I'm gonna donate five bucks, 10 bucks, 20 bucks, whatever, to make this thing happen. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and people from specifically Minnesota just like, had my back so much. They donated money, they donated time, they volunteered, and then it turned out that people from all over America started donating. So we were able to raise $40,000 for our first, you know, kind of big push to kind of distribute these laptops and resources out. and it's just funny because <laugh>, when I did it, I was like, okay, well this is great, but I'm not gonna be doing it for long. You know, the National Guard is gonna come through and they're gonna bring medicine and food and laptops. And they came, but they brought no resources.
Christopher MItchell (05:49):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative> <laugh>. Yes. And, and I mean, still, so let me, let me jump ahead to ask you a question, which is, if tomorrow they shut down the schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, do you think most kids would be in a different situation than they were? No.
Ini Augustine (06:06):
No, because the schools have completely backslid to the point where they've taken back a lot of the laptops that they gave to kids. in a lot of schools, they won't let the kids take the laptops home for the weekend. So if there's an emergency, like, do you remember when we had the trial for Chauvin, and they just suddenly closed the schools down. Cause they're like, we don't know what's gonna happen. Right. Like, so in those types of situations, the kids had no laptops because everything was at the school. Right? Yeah. So no, they're, you know, they're in the same situation. you know, our governments and our, our education system has not learned and they've backslid.
Christopher MItchell (06:41):
Do you think that that is a sign? This is a, this is an unplanned conversation. Like the way, this is the way I am. Cause I, I'm terrible at planning. so so you just, you know, we'll see how this goes, but I was like, do you feel like the schools are the right place to be trying to solve these issues? Cause I feel like the schools stepped up in the ways that schools often do. Yeah. But I also feel like it isn't, this isn't what they do. It's not like fair to put this on them necessarily.
Ini Augustine (07:05):
Well, see, this is the thing is that, I mean, as a mother, I understand, I feel very strongly that it's all of our responsib our children, our, our responsibility, meaning us as a community that includes schools. That includes, you know, other parents that includes people on the street, just making sure that your kid doesn't run into the, into traffic or whatever. And so I understand that they've been underfunded, specifically Minnesota has been terribly, terribly underfunded.
Christopher MItchell (07:31):
I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania. There's places that are worse than me. <laugh>. <laugh>. But I, I had to take your point. Well, I mean
Ini Augustine (07:37):
Specifically for kids of color, I mean, the vast majority of black children in Minnesota when they graduate from high school with their, you know, degree do not do math or reading at age level.
Christopher MItchell (07:49):
Right. And that's worth, I think it's really worth noting what you're saying is you're reflecting an experience, I think, which is, may strike people, Minnesota has some of the higher funded schools. Yes. But we are one of the highest racial disparity states. Yes. Where we have across the board really good results. But the gap between white and black in Minnesota is one of the largest of all the states.
Ini Augustine (08:12):
One of the largest. And when you look at, you know, our indigenous brothers and sisters, it's even worse. And so, you know, when you say it's worse in Pennsylvania for people of color, I just doubt that <laugh>
Christopher MItchell (08:22):
No. And that's, and that's just where I think it's worth people knowing this stuff is complicated and there's different layers to it. Yeah. So, so where is the solution then? And that's, that's the important part I think, that you're bringing forward, which is like, I feel like you started working on one level of mutual aid and now you have a different thing going with Mutual Aid to try and develop more education Yeah. And more opportunities in the community.
Ini Augustine (08:42):
Yeah. I mean, the thing is, is that, I mean, we're all out here trying to do what we can do to support people. and I feel like if we just did ourselves to the best of our abilities and, you know, tried our best to help each other in the ways that we can, we'd be successful.
Christopher MItchell (08:58):
So what is, what is happening with the Family Broadband Council?
Ini Augustine (09:03):
It's the Family Broadband Coalition. Ah,
Christopher MItchell (09:05):
I'm gonna get there. FBC Coalition,
Ini Augustine (09:07):
Family Broadband Coalition. And it's kind of an outgrowth of the Black Broadband Summit, which we held in November of last year. And what we are doing is working on creating a black led, cooperatively owned Internet service to help close the digital divide and stop the digital redlining that's happening in, in the Twin Cities.
Christopher MItchell (09:26):
And how is that, like what are the first steps that we're taking that you're taking in this direction? I mean, just so people are aware, like we're, we're really enthusiastic about trying to help out a bit. Cuz we're in the Twin Cities too. Yes.
Ini Augustine (09:36):
You're one of our supporters. <laugh>.
Christopher MItchell (09:38):
So, so, but, but what, what are the first steps?
Ini Augustine (09:41):
Well, really what, right now what we're doing is building our coalition and strengthening our relationships. what I've found from extensive studies of cooperatives is that the vast majority of them fail. And it's not even due to economics. It's due to, you know, personal conflict. So building our relationships and trust with each other as well as building the, the level of digital skills that our families have. we're trying to make the transition from people who have been helped to people who are now helping, because I just believe that everyone has something to contribute. Right. And if you're always the one receiving or you're the one always giving, that creates an imbalance of power. Right. It does. And so, you know, my goal is to come in and help people, you know, become who they need to be, who they want to be. not necessarily save them. I think they can save themselves if, if allowed to.
Christopher MItchell (10:38):
Yes. And especially if they're able to develop that confidence Yeah. That, that they do have something to contribute. Yeah. When you say most co-ops fail in your studies, is that all co-ops that have been formed? Or is that telecom co-ops, or I did a fellowship called the north Star Black Cooperative Fellowship, and we did, we read several books about cooperatives. the vast majority of them were no longer around from the time of the end of slavery to, you know, recent times, and again, the vast majority of them failed.
When you say failed, does that mean that they actually did not succeed what they were trying to do? Or just that they ceased to exist? They
Ini Augustine (11:14):
Ceased to exist. Okay. Yeah. Like their mission wasn't accomplished. They were like, yay, let's go home. It's, you know, they disbanded because they ran out of money or personal conflict, you know, kind of destroyed their ability to be cohesive. Those were, and again, that was the main thing, the, the trend that I just saw overall with all the
Christopher MItchell (11:32):
Co-ops. And so what we're hoping is that as people are building more of that trust with each other and we move forward, we'll be able to avoid that fit or at least push it down the line a little bit.
Ini Augustine (11:42):
<laugh>. Yeah. Long enough. Long enough to close the digital divide for our babies. If we can hold on and <laugh> do that one thing, I'll be satisfied.
Christopher MItchell (11:49):
Is there a sign that you're getting from the community that this is likely to work?
Ini Augustine (11:53):
Well, yeah. At the Black Broadband Summit, 30 people came and I was just like, blown away because, I mean, I just never thought that there would be that much support for, you know, black cooperative economics for black people in technology for black children. You know and, you know, the city just really came through, so, and people have been following up, like we have a petition for community owned Internet that people have been signing on, you know, on at the black broadband website. It's black broadband summit.com. There
Christopher MItchell (12:25):
Will be more. Yeah.
Ini Augustine (12:27):
There'll be more.
Christopher MItchell (12:27):
I hope one will be happy when I'm in town. <laugh>. Yeah.
Ini Augustine (12:30):
Yeah. We're gonna, we're gonna do another Black Broadband Summit as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week in November of 2023 too, so.
Christopher MItchell (12:38):
Excellent. So that's where people can go to, to learn more about it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> how will we know next year if you look, look, look ahead to February of next year? How we know that we're making a difference?
Ini Augustine (12:53):
Well, by that time, our, our first cohort with the Family Broadband Coalition will be engaged in the work of building the co-op. They'll have completed, their training, will have completed visiting the various co-ops that we wanna visit to learn from. and we'll be doing the work. So if we are, I mean, I'm hoping that we'll be fur far along, but you know, I know that that may not happen, but if we're still engaged and connected in the work, I consider that a success. Yeah,
Christopher MItchell (13:21):
That's a good standard. Yeah. Anything else we should talk about while we're here?
Ini Augustine (13:27):
Well those are really the main things. I mean, a part of the Family Broadband Coalition is creating our apprenticeship program because we want the families that participate to be like the first employees of the co-op. And so I have an apprenticeship program specifically for people of color in technology, specifically broadband, teaching them how to become network engineers and how to actually build this network that we dream of. and so I think that is kind of it's something I haven't talked about a lot, but I feel like it's integral to what we're trying to do.
Christopher MItchell (14:01):
Excellent. Yeah. All right. Well, it's been wonderful getting you on this new show that we're doing, and Thank you. I'm looking forward to seeing you around over the next two days here at Net Inclusion.
Ini Augustine (14:12):
Yeah, absolutely. Here at Net Inclusion and moving forward,
Sean Gonsalves (14:16):
We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcast 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 email@example.com. Finally, we'd like to thank joseph mcca.com for the song on the Verge.