At Grace in Action, the Equitable Internet Initiative’s partner in Southwest Detroit, their Digital Stewards are a team of women technologists working to ensure their neighborhood is connected and resilient. Digital Stewards build and maintain network infrastructure, demystify technology for their communities and facilitate a healthy integration of technology into people’s lives and communities. By doing so, they are embodying the belief that access to communication and high-speed internet is a human right.
When Shiva, GIA’s newest Digital Steward, joined the team and asked what happens if someone on the network couldn’t pay their bill she was told, “We work with them. We meet them where they’re at.” Unlike big telecom companies like Comcast and AT&T, the Equitable Internet Initiative is working toward universal internet access through low cost internet plans.
Shiva’s own reflection illustrates this, “I’m Iraninan-American. Whenever my country starts revolting because of the oppressive system there, they turn off the internet. That’s the first thing that they do so people can’t reach anybody outside, get information, or learn what’s actually happening to them.”
For that access to be meaningful, though, GIA’s Digital Stewards explained that part of their work is to help residents feel comfortable with the tech in their homes and to understand themselves as technologists. The stewards refuse to be gatekeepers, which so often technologists and telecom companies are, keeping us dependent on them. When the Equitable Internet Initiative was initially introduced to residents in Southwest, there was skepticism, but the stewards worked over time to build their trust. Rita, a Southwest native, said that her team had to explain the tech “in words they understood so that they understood not just that we were installing internet, but the process of installing internet and how it gets to their home.”
Translation comes to mind for Karizma, who is a lifelong resident of Southwest, as an important gap to fill. Southwest Detroit has a large population of Spanish speaking households, yet many providers in the area do not provide services in languages other than English. Karizma remembers helping a neighbor who, “has 4 or 5 kids, has comcast, and she only speaks Spanish. She was paying $200 and she didn’t know what she was paying for because they weren’t translating.”
GIA’s Network Manager, Nyasia Valdez, told a story of a resident actually doing part of the installation himself. She noted, “Being able to talk through what’s happening makes it less scary… We even had one person run their own wires.” Because he works all day, it was difficult to schedule a time for the installation. To meet him where he was, Nyasia told him how to do it himself, “They were like, ‘Okay, now that I know what you all are doing I can do this so I don’t have to be there [for the rest of the install]...When you all are ready, you can come over and do this.”
There is a shared sentiment and commitment among all the stewards at GIA that spending time building relationships and trust is essential when bringing technology into a community.
She continued by describing spending hours on the phone calling everyone on the network at the onset of the pandemic, talking about what they can expect from GIA, but much more of the time was spent listening to their worries, concern, and confusion.
Although there is a demonstrated value and necessity to community organizing when building a resilient network of people and tech, prevailing ideas of who a technologist is and what they do led to an insecurity about these contributions. When Rita first started, she felt as if “the organizing piece wasn’t enough.” With time, however, her work in the community began to pay dividends and “Now it’s one of the most important pieces. If it weren’t for the people asking for this need, then what the hell is there to do?” This approach reimagines how we work with tech and is arguably more difficult. According to Shiva, “It’s easier to make a technician out of an organizer than it is to make an organizer out of a technician.”
The women of GIA’s Equitable Internet Initiative are not endeavoring to just recreate a low cost version of an ISP. Their work is innovative in that they are working with the community to use tech to meet community needs and shifting residents’ relationship to the tech around them and in their homes. The network of wires running throughout Southwest has woven a net meant to connect and hold us all.