September 30, 2023
Clarence Hightower, Ph.D., Director, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties.

By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier

“It’s no longer a luxury. This is serious. It’s really a social justice issue. It’s a 21st century civil rights issue.” — Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner

“Unless the digital divide is narrowed soon, the United States may be headed to the class warfare of a century ago, the last time the economy changed so fundamentally. It won’t be pleasant.” — Jonathan Alter

“Bridging the gap between those with access to technology, and those without, is such an important equalizer in the world today. In fact, complete digital inclusion is an essential strategy in helping to lift people out of poverty and connect them to the world.” — Madeline Tate, PCs for People

In November 2000, the National Community Action Partnership (or the National Association for Community Action Agencies as it was known then) held a special Information Technology briefing regarding America’s digital divide. The digital divide had been defined by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) “as an economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies.”

In the United States, the NTIA noted that the digital divide refers primarily to technological inequities based on racial, socioeconomic, geographic, and other demographic categories that adversely impact individuals, households, schools, small businesses, and community-based organizations. On the heels of three late 1990s reports by the NTIA under the title Falling Through the Net, the National Community Action briefing served as an early attempt to sound a rather disquieting alarm. In the 21st Century, not only would issues of employment, education, housing, and transportation continue to serve as battlegrounds in the “war on poverty” and the ongoing struggle for racial justice, but so too would access to computer technology.

Now, nearly three decades after the term digital divide first entered our national lexicon, a study from MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) reveals that the problem has only gotten worse. The IDE refers to the nation’s digital divide as both “persistent” and “embarrassing” adding that tens of millions of Americans, in both rural and urban areas, lack at-home broadband connectivity.

Fortunately, there is an area nonprofit that is leading the charge to close the pernicious technological gulf that disproportionately affects the poor. Since 2012, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties has donated more than 100 of our gently used computers to the St. Paul-based PCs for People. These donations have helped scores of individuals and families, including school-aged children who now have computer access for the first time in their lives. Yet that is just a modest measure of the enormous impact that PCs for People is making not only here in Minnesota, but throughout the nation.

Established in Mankato during the mid-1990s as a small, loosely-organized operation, PCs for People received its 501(c)3 status in 2008 and has blossomed into a social and digital justice juggernaut and currently partners with more than 250 business, government, and nonprofit agencies. Headquartered on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul’s Snelling-Hamline neighborhood, PCs for People has also opened an office in Denver, Colorado, along with four Minnesota affiliates in the cities of Mankato, Brainerd, Grand Rapids, and on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Their mission is to provide affordable PCs, internet, and repairs for people who have limited experience with technology due to social, physical, or economic circumstances.

“The fact that so many highly qualified people,” states PCs for People’s Steve “Wolfie” Browender, “are denied job and educational opportunities because they can’t afford a home computer and internet is distressing.” PCs for People is working to change that reality for many and in 2017 alone is on track to refurbish and distribute more than 12,000 computers, eclipsing the previous year’s record for eighth consecutive year. Add in an additional 20,000 internet subscribers and PCs for People directly serves an estimated 60,000 low-income individuals in all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And, nearly two-thirds of those served by PCs for People had never owned a personal computer before.

In addition to specialty programs such as PCs for Kids and PCs for Vibrant Communities, PCs for People also provides hands on experience through its comprehensive training, internship, and volunteer initiatives designed to teach: basic hardware and software repair; computer recycling, sanitation, and refurbishment; and the inner workings a nonprofit organization.   

The indelible impact that is being made annually in the lives of tens of thousands of people, by a single organization with barely 40 employees, is no doubt remarkable. Still, PCs for People must not only be celebrated, but supported at even greater levels. Moreover, their model and success must be replicated America’s digital divide threatens to keep millions of talented minds on the technological sidelines. As Casey Sorenson, Executive Director of PCs for People states, “A computer and home internet access are absolutely necessary today. Whether it’s for job hunting, or doing homework, those who cannot afford these devices are at a huge disadvantage in many ways. Organizations that donate pre-owned computers are critical to helping those with low-incomes overcome barriers to economic and educational equity.”

To learn more about PCs for People, please visit them at (651) 354-2552 or visit them online at [email protected].

Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104