Winner of the Next Century Cities and Google Fiber Digital Inclusion Leadership Award – Apply now!

What is E2D?

Eliminate the Digital Divide (E2D) is a non-profit that was created in 2013 when my then 12 year-old daughter asked me two simple questions: “How can all kids in our school do their homework and projects successfully if some of their families are too poor to own digital technology,” and “What are we going to do about it?” Since then, we have brought together a broad-based coalition of municipal leaders, college students, corporate supporters and hundreds of civic volunteers in the Charlotte Region to address these questions by studying the pervasiveness of digital exclusion and creating solutions one family at a time. E2D strives to ensure every school-aged child has a computer and internet access at home.

When E2D first started, a retired computer engineer worked with us refurbishing and reimaging computers for high school students. He was able to crank out about 30 computers a month working part time in a basement computer lab that he built for E2D. We were excited to be heading in the right direction, but there are 144,000 students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and more than half of them live at or below the poverty line. That’s a lot of computers.

We figured if we were going to come to scale, we were going to have to engineer a system where we can bring in more people to work on more computers. We were confident that high school students with a certain maturity level and affinity for technology would be more than capable of doing the intake of donated computers, cleaning them, and providing refurbishment and reimaging with new software, so we created a computer lab that employed local high school kids.

The first group of students we employed were a part of a technology club, kind of like the Junior Geek Squad, from my kids’ high school, and they would come to the lab after school for 2-3 hours a couple days a week. We quickly found that once they had been trained they were more than capable of consistently and effectively completing the work that needed to be done.

Re-Image Charlotte

With the success of the first lab, we have decided to open up a second computer lab in the lowest-income high school in Charlotte — West Charlotte High School (WCHS).  While West Charlotte families no doubt face incredible challenges to make ends meet, the High School itself is a model of upward progress and is populated by incredibly committed teachers and administrators.  However, many of the students there had never had a computer in their lives until E2D began to work finding solutions for families – we have now placed laptops with over 350 WCHS families.  Within a year of receiving an E2D computer and training many have become interested and proficient enough to be able to refurbish and reimage computers themselves. Our new Computer Lab is called “Re-Image Charlotte”, and we are hiring exclusively kids from West Charlotte that have subscribed to the E2D program. Not only are these kids learning 21stCentury Tech skills, they will also be making 2x minimum wage to work in our lab. These students will now be working to prepare computers for other students in their community, and to us that’s the most beautiful ecosystem we could design.

Every one of these kids has grown up through intergenerational poverty that in most cases goes back to time immemorial. The neighborhood surrounding West Charlotte High School doesn’t lend itself to stable employment, so we are thrilled to be able to give these students the opportunity to make a steady income, as well as the job training they need for future success. Their educational and career trajectory is changing forever because of this program. Every one of these kids now has the chance to end the intergenerational poverty that has not yet been reconciled by any of their family. We have loving getting to work with these kids, and look forward to helping them use this experience to apply for their next job, or to college.

E2D’s Impact

Of the 144,000 students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district about 75,000 don’t have a computer at home. Each household in the district averages 2-3 kids per household, so to close this digital divide we need to provide digital solutions to about 24,000 households. To date, we have provided computers to more than 2,200 families– about 10 percent of our ultimate goal. We estimate that those 2,200 E2D computers are used by over 6,500 people a day, including school children, their siblings, parents, and guardians who get to use the computer too.

In Davidson, which is in the northern part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, the city owns the municipal network, which has been a big help to us. We’ve been able to work directly with the carrier to wire houses of school children in our program for free, and then charge a discounted service rate of $14 per month. We work with the families who have been serviced to help them get setup and to budget for their monthly payments. In some cases we’ve also subsidized the costs of their service for a few months to help them get on their feet. In other parts of the district we’ve worked with a variety of providers via our partners at EveryoneOn.org, including Google Fiber, Sprint, Mobile Beacon and AT&T to determine the best, most cost-efficient services available neighborhood by neighborhood.

Homelessness and the Digital Divide

We talk about the difficulties associated with the Homework Gap, and how hard it is to do your homework without a computer. But, as you might imagine, it’s a lot harder to do your homework without a computer or a home. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system has about 3,000 homeless kids, and we want to help these kids get connected particularly.

One of our proudest accomplishment’s this past year has been the creation of a pilot program that we are working on with Sprint to help these kids get computers and mobile hot spots. We’ve also gotten a grant from our NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets, to expand this program to more high school students. We’re really excited to go from the pilot phase to the roll out in the near future.

Winning a Digital Inclusion Leadership Award

The recognition that E2D received through the Digital Inclusion Leadership Award continues to benefit us regularly. We were able to talk about it in our meetings with potential partners, like Sprint, and with the Charlotte Hornets when they were considering us for a grant. It’s very powerful to be able to say “Hey, Next Century Cities, the National League of Cities, and Google Fiber believe that we have one of the most innovative ways to help our students bridge the digital divide in the country.” It proves that we’re not just a hopeful group trying to get to some solutions at some point, but that we’re a group that is actually getting things done right now, and we’ve received national (and local) recognition for it.

What Other Cities Can Do

I want people to realize that there’s nothing that we’re doing that they can’t do too. Each community has different assets to bring to bear, but every community does have assets. For example, we live in a community with quite a few local colleges, so we’re able to get dozens of students to volunteer for digital literacy training and to help us distribute our computers. Other communities may have local businesses they can partner with. No matter what your town is like, it’s important to remember that these solutions exist in your community– it’s just a matter of training your focus to find where those assets are hiding in plain sight.