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Despite advances in technology, Richmond's poor are increasingly disconnected.


  • Scott Elmquist/Ed Harrington

1. Using a computer is second nature for teenagers.

2. You can do anything using your phone these days.

3. Internet access is nice to have, but you don’t really need it.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

A new local effort to study and understand gaps in online access reveals what may be surprising in a seemingly all-wired world. For many Richmonders, the Internet is out of reach. The chasm between people who have access to technology and those who don’t is known as the digital divide.

Nancy Stutts, co-author of a forthcoming Virginia Commonwealth University report on digital equity in Richmond, says the divide marginalizes people who are poor, unemployed, or have a language barrier — “people who are already out of the loop.”

Even young Richmonders — whom many assume are technology experts — suffer from restricted digital access. Last year Dominique Simon, 22, was helping a ninth-grader, a Chandler Middle School graduate, work on applications for a transfer to a new high school. “I asked him to type something up one day, and he gave me a funny look,” Simon says. The boy couldn’t type.

Young teenagers may have the technical expertise to get around a proxy server so they can play games online, Simon says. But many don’t know how to use email, Microsoft Word or other programs they’ll need in college and the workplace.

That’s why Simon and other recent University of Richmond graduates founded Voice to the World, an organization that teaches the basics of programming, Photoshop, Web design and blogging. Eighty pupils signed up for 15 slots in a summer program at Boushall and Henderson middle schools, Simon says. “So there definitely is a demand.”

Among adult Richmonders, the No. 1 reason they need digital access is to find a job, the digital equity report found. Many employers now require job seekers to apply for jobs online, which throws up several hurdles. Can people with little computer experience successfully navigate online forms? Can they complete the application in the 60 minutes of computer time allotted to public library patrons each day? And will they keep coming back to the library daily to check email for a response?

Librarians see a lot of frustrated job seekers. “It’s not that people are not smart,” says Patricia Parks, community services manager for the Richmond Public Library. “It’s just out of their realm of thinking.” The library offers free computer help for job seekers, as well as classes for all levels of computer users.

City government has made it a priority to provide more services and information through the city’s website and mobile applications, student researchers found. The report notes, however, that “this assumes that most people have access to broadband, computers and mobile phones.”

“Many people in the 8th District don’t have computers,” says Reva Trammell, longtime councilwoman for the South Side district. So she calls them. And they call her. Trammell spends hours on the phone each day.

Even if they do have computers, many people, especially in low-income areas, don’t want to get email blasts. They want to speak with Trammell in person and share a sandwich or a piece of cake, she says: “And I like that. I like that personal touch.”

In the Bellemeade, Oak Grove and Blackwell neighborhoods in South Side, word spread like wildfire — without Facebook or Twitter — about a recent proposal to build the new city jail nearby. People walked the neighborhood handing out information and placed petitions against the jail proposal in local churches and businesses. Residents passed the word along, and soon more than 1,000 signatures were on the petitions.

In an age where electronic newsletters and email are becoming the preferred method for dispersing community information, word of mouth worked better, says Louise McQueen, secretary for the Bellemeade Civic Association. People in the neighborhood do have email, but they typically check it just once or twice a week. “They don’t like it as much,” she says.

Stutts recognizes that some people choose to opt out of digital communication. But, she says, “I don’t think it’s possible right now” to stay connected to the larger community without digital access.

What it all comes down to, says Liana Kleeman, research coordinator for the digital equity project, is that “technology is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity.”

The student researchers found more than 75 places where people can use free computers to access the Internet in and around Richmond, mostly at libraries, community centers, nonprofits and community colleges.

Their map reveals a plethora of access points in the center of the city, near VCU, which thins the farther out you go. Some areas, such as southwest Richmond and Highland Park, are virtually empty.

Smartphones are another access point. Blacks and Latinos are significantly more likely than whites to use their mobile phones to get the Internet, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But phones limit what you can do online, Kleeman notes: “You can’t apply for a job on a cell phone. That’s absurd.”

And access to a computer is only part of the problem. “A lot of it comes down to digital literacy,” Kleeman says. Several local organizations offer computer education, but Richmond lacks a regional, collective group focused on closing the digital divide. “A lot of us are struggling with the same thing,” Kleeman says, “but not working together.”

In partnership with Voice to the World, the Richmond public library and the city’s Department of Information Technology, the VCU-based research group is holding a community meeting at 3:30 p.m. June 30 at the library’s main branch.

They’ll be discussing the results of the study and talking about ways to unify the area’s scattered efforts to improve digital access. The question now, Kleeman says, is “where do we go from here?”

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