In a world that runs on technology, some communities are being left behind. Nereida Robles has been helping to change that.
Many in California’s Latino migrant communities face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to societal equality. For starters, there’s the language barrier: Many in these communities speak little or no English. For a significant number, their first language is an indigenous native tongue and Spanish is their adopted second language; some don’t speak Spanish beyond simple phrases.
Not only do a large number of families in migrant communities live far below the poverty line, but many live and work in rural areas, often as laborers in California’s agriculture industry, where there is far less technological infrastructure than in urban areas. A choice of Internet service providers or cell phone companies is something most of us take for granted; yet in these communities, there is often just one provider, if service is available at all.
Lack of technological access for immigrants, migrants, and non-English language speakers is part of a larger gap in access to technology for communities of color, often referred to as the digital divide. Bridging this gap is a key goal of Greenlining’s Telecommunications and Technology program. Greenlining’s policy work is a crucial link in a chain that connects government investment in programs designed to increase technology access to community-based organizations that bring the fruits of these efforts into people’s homes and neighborhoods. The final, essential link is the members of these communities themselves, getting the word out to their neighbors about the availability and benefits of these programs.
Nereida Robles rose to this task. Robles, a native Oaxacan and mother of a 20-year-old daughter, is a tiny woman with an expressive, wise face. Her small stature belies her fiercely dedicated commitment to education and improving the lives of her family and her community.
Connecting the Unconnected
In 2009, Robles, who was taking adult education classes at San Jose State University in pursuit of her Master’s degree (which she’s since earned), applied for a scholarship at the Chicana-Latina Foundation, a Greenlining Coalition member. Alicia Orozco, a feisty native Cuban who serves as CLF’s Project Coordinator, told Robles about the Broadband and Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP), a government initiative to improve broadband access among rural, ethnic, and minority populations.
The BTOP program was funded by President Obama’s stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), through the National Technology Agency, in partnership with the California Emerging Technology Fund – a program that resulted in part from Greenlining’s earlier advocacy efforts. The initiative was designed, says CLF Executive Director Olga Talamante, “to connect the unconnected” in low-income, rural, non-English speaking communities.
CLF joined eight organizations in submitting a joint application for the BTOP grant, which allowed the non-profit organization to distribute free, refurbished computers to families in Salinas, the Monterey coast, Santa Rosa, and San Jose, if they signed up for Internet access. But besides language and cultural barriers, some intended recipients shared a mistrust of the government. Others were embarrassed about their education level. There were economic challenges as well: For a family living on less than $25,000 yearly, any additional monthly expenditure can present a hardship.
“These are people who never even turned on a computer before,” Orozco says. “Some people didn’t have a great education. The point is, it belongs to them also.”
Robles was among 35 students who volunteered to become community ambassadors. She saw the program as an opportunity not only for her family, but for native Oaxacans residing in and around the Santa Cruz/Monterey area. Robles explained to them how the Internet can be a resource, allowing students to do their homework more efficiently and making it easier for their parents to pay bills, make medical appointments, and check on their children’s academic and attendance records.
Seeing Their Hometowns in Mexico
She recounts, “There was a family that was telling me, before [the mother] got the computer, the children had to go to the library at certain hours. So if they missed those hours, then the children couldn’t do their homework, or do their research, stuff like that. Having a computer really changed their lives, because now they were able to do their work at any time they wanted it.”
Robles came into contact with the community often as a member of a folkloric dance group specializing in traditional Oaxacan movement arts. She was able to convince her employer, Branciforte Small School in Santa Cruz, to open the facility’s doors for workshops in computer literacy and Internet usage. At the workshops, Robles showed the Oaxacan community how to use Google Earth to see their hometowns in Mexico.
“People were very excited and happy when I Googled the city where they were born, where they were from. That was something magical,” Robles says. When she showed people from Michoacan and Salvador images of their cities, “They felt connected. They felt close. Because some people don’t have the proper documentation to go back and forth, so for them it was just amazing.”
“The government was just like, ‘connect people to the Internet,’” Orozco says. But Robles took her role as a community ambassador to heart, embracing the program with all the enthusiasm of someone who passionately believes they are making a difference in the lives of future generations. In addition to using school classrooms at nights and on weekends—the only time some migrant families, who traveled from as far as Hollister, could make it—a local radio station helped get the word out to non-English, non-Spanish speakers by broadcasting in indigenous Oaxacan languages.
Ultimately, the program gave out almost 1,100 free computers, directly affecting around 5,000 people, Talamante says. Robles signed up more than 140 families.
“The biggest thing,” Robles recalls, “was to see a family of six say, ‘are we not paying anything else?’” after being given a free computer. A Comcast store in Salinas “had lines out the door,” she adds, estimating that as many as 400 people signed up for a rate that gave program attendees Internet access for $9.99 per month.
The efforts of Robles and the other community ambassadors not only produced demonstrable results, but became an absolute game-changer. Grades and attendance levels rose; some students used their new computers to submit college applications. Many started teaching their parents the benefits of being computer- and Internet-literate. Having access to technology in turn empowered the parents and created increased demand for adult education; “After the program ended, parents were asking for the classes,” Orozco says.
Parents whose children had received free computers took an interest in ESL courses and asked for citizenship classes to be offered. Construction and manual labor workers were able to look for better-paying jobs in less physically-demanding fields. Some people were able to find long-lost family members after decades. Members of the Peruvian community even used Skype to share Noche Huena—a traditional Christmas Eve celebration—with relatives in their homeland. More assistance came from the Mexican consulate in San Jose, which recently announced it was sponsoring a Plaza Comunitaria, or adult education program for native Spanish speakers.
At the end of the day, not only did the program bring families and communities closer, but as Talamante says, “We’re excited about what we have seen in terms of impact: technology, schooling, job training.”