Sixty years ago this summer, the Detroiters held a huge civil rights rally that became a rehearsal for the historic March on Washington two months later. The Rev. CL Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s father) led 125,000 people down Woodward Avenue in the Walk to Freedom, and the day’s keynote speaker, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded with his soon to become famous: I have a dream.
It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that a dream started in Detroit. Over the past century, Michigan built the cars and trucks that kept America moving, the planes and tanks that won World War II, the blue-collar middle class that propelled postwar prosperity and a civil rights activist who is still fighting for every American to enjoy the American dream.
Now, as our economy evolves from analog assembly lines to digital lines of code, Michigan must build a new model of progress and prosperity in the next century. Congressman John Lewis prophetically identified digital equity as the civil rights issue of the 21st century because gaps in broadband connectivity and digital know-how reflect and reinforce long-standing racial and economic inequalities.
To meet this challenge, Motor City and Michigan are developing a digital equity formula: Affordable Internet Service + Widespread Digital Skills = Universal Connectivity. Now, Michigan must invest to make this roadmap a reality by mobilizing our communities.
Historic federal investments bring this goal within our reach: The recently enacted Affordable Connectivity Program, together with low-cost programs from broadband providers, makes approximately 48 million low-income households nationwide eligible for free Internet service.
But this initiative only helps if people know how and why to sign up. And our entire community needs elected officials, educators, business people, clergy, and civic activists to participate.
Continuing this long tradition of civil rights activism, the Detroit National Action Network Digital Equity Tour is a prime example of how Michigan can bridge its digital divide. The Digital Equity Tour is holding membership events in every Detroit City Council district, partnering with churches (including 180 Church, which I pastor) and nonprofits like Focus:Hope and United Way for Southeastern Michigan to get the word out to eligible families.
While the Digital Equity Tour has registered hundreds of households for free internet service, we need to register tens of thousands more. And even with free Internet service available, we need to clear the remaining digital skills hurdle: helping unconnected people understand why and how to go online. Around a third of adults nationwide lack basic digital skills, and filling this gap requires meeting people where they are.
At 180 Church, for example, we have established a computer lab and offer adult literacy classes, computer training, and resume writing. The lab offers free connectivity to those, like 25% of Detroit households, who don’t have a desktop, laptop, or tablet in their home. And we’re not alone: With the support and collaboration of Mayor Mike Duggan, the Connect 313 program works with community groups across the city to promote digital literacy, broadband adoption and access to devices. This effort is a key reason why the gap between Detroit adoption of broadband at your fingertips and Internet on the device has dropped from 46% in 2019 to 33% in 2021.
Now, the Biden-Harris infrastructure bill offers Michigan the opportunity to bring this model statewide. Governor Gretchen Whitmers’ administration will soon receive hundreds of millions in federal funding for broadband equity, access and rollout projects.
Community-based digital equity programs, block-by-block, door-to-door, person-to-person evangelism for broadband adoption and digital literacy, should be prominent in the state’s plan for these funds.
Yes, rural Michigan wiring matters. But the connectivity crisis in urban communities also needs attention. More than one in four statewide residents are offline, even where fast service is universally available. This isn’t just an infrastructure challenge; we also need to invest in proven programs that build confidence and digital literacy.
From Connect 313 to the Digital Equity Tour, we have a roadmap to universal connectivity. We invest to accelerate it.
The Rev. Lorenzo Sewell is senior pastor of 180 Church in northwest Detroit.
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