Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – The Greenlining Institute applauded the broad thrust of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement today of a renewed push to expand electric vehicle adoption and strongly urged an intensified push to bring clean transportation to the communities that have had the least access to EVs and other forms of clean mobility. Low-income communities of color, Greenlining noted, have the dirtiest air, the fewest financial resources, and have been particularly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The wildfires have shown us that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an urgent necessity, and environmental justice communities – mainly low-income communities of color — continue to suffer from the highest levels of deadly particulates,” said Greenlining Institute Environmental Equity Director Alvaro Sanchez. “Wide adoption of EVs will be a crucial part of any strategy, but to succeed, that strategy can’t focus on affluent early adopters; it must reach the most impacted and hardest to reach communities.”
“Transforming the transportation sector offers a huge opportunity to fight climate change and address the harm that’s been done to environmental justice communities,” Sanchez continued. “By leading the way, California can create good jobs and cleaner air in communities that have suffered the most, while re-imagining the way we move to end our dependence on polluting cars, trucks and fossil fuels.”
True Justice Denied to Police Murder Victim Breonna Taylor, Greenlining Institute Says
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – In response to today’s announcement of only minor charges — “wanton endangerment” — for one of the Louisville police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann issued the following statement:
“Nothing about today’s decision changes what we all know: Breonna Taylor was murdered. The declared state of emergency in Louisville confirms the seriousness of this reckless, systemic, state-sanctioned violence against Black folks and Black women in particular. The state attorney general’s decision to not file charges against any of the six police officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department for the killing of Ms. Taylor only serves to perpetuate the ongoing wave of domestic terrorism against Black men and women. This domestic terrorism will not stop until we demand that it stop.
“The timing of this decision, coming right after the historic $12 million settlement announcement with Breonna Taylor’s family, will not silence our voices or dampen the community’s demand for justice. It is both baffling and frustrating that settlement payouts for police misconduct and racial killings are funded by public tax dollars. In the end, the communities are bailing out the police department with their own dollars while also being on the receiving end of the police brutality. The law enforcement system is broken. This is not justice. This is not equity.
“In the words of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party who spoke in 1969, ‘We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We are going to fight racism with solidarity.’ The fight for justice is much bigger than a handful of individual cops: It’s about the ingrained racism in a system that uses outrageous tactics like no-knock warrants and bullets disproportionately against Black and Brown people. Our response will be peaceful, but we will not be silent and we will maintain a sustained collective effort to end the oppression.”
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – The Greenlining Institute’s latest Supplier Diversity Report Card shows California energy, communications and water companies continuing to lead the way on contracting with suppliers owned by people of color, women, LGBTQ people and disabled veterans. Nevertheless, these 2019 figures show that significant gaps remain and show backsliding in some categories.
“It’s clear that returning to ‘business as usual,’ during and after COVID-19 will not be good for business or our communities,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “Countless companies have spoken out against racism and police brutality, but consumers and employees are looking for more than just vague platitudes about change. We want to see companies committing to action within their own walls. At The Greenlining Institute, we believe our annual Supplier Diversity Report Card helps convert corporate intentions to corporate commitments. We look forward every year to this Report Card, which serves as one consistent step towards racial equity accountability.”
Key findings include:
While supplier diversity programs continue to pump billions of dollars into diverse-owned businesses, only eight of 22 companies increased their spending with Minority Business Enterprises last year.
Overall, the companies’ spending with Black-owned suppliers dropped nearly 10 percent. Spending with contractors owned by Black women dropped almost 37 percent.
Contracting with Asian American/Pacific Islander suppliers remained flat, while spending with Latino-owned businesses declined.
Spending with Native American-owned suppliers, a weak point in past years, improved in 2019, with half of companies increasing their level of contracting.
Spending with women-owned suppliers decreased slightly, although spending with firms owned by minority women increased.
“Racial Justice is on the Ballot in California this Year”
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With California voters facing multiple ballot propositions that will greatly impact the state’s struggle to overcome systemic racism and inequality, The Greenlining Institute has released its endorsements on key California ballot propositions, focusing on those with direct racial equity implications.
“There is near-universal recognition that the anti-racist uprisings in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the racialized caste system that continues to exist,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “There is an urgent cry for change and racial justice is literally on the ballot this year. California voters have a chance to take real steps toward justice – and to stop schemes that perpetuate the status quo of the privileged few.”
YES on Prop. 15: Make our property tax system fairer and boost funding available for schools and other vital needs in underserved communities.
YES on Prop. 16: Allow California to address our state’s sad history of discrimination by considering race, ethnicity and sex. “Race-neutral” solutions can never fix problems rooted in racism.
YES on Prop. 17: Allow persons convicted of felonies who are on parole to vote in California elections. California’s current felony disenfranchisement law is a remnant of an almost 150-year-old effort to keep Black and Brown citizens out of the voting booth.
NO on Prop. 19: Don’t create a new tax break that would primarily benefit wealthy homeowners.
NO on Prop. 20: Don’t return to old, failed “tough on crime” policies that would set criminal justice reform back for decades and hurt Black and Brown communities.
YES on Prop. 21: Allow cities to establish rent control on residential properties that are over 15 years old. Protect seniors, veterans, teachers and frontline workers who are particularly vulnerable to California’s affordable housing crisis.
NO on Prop. 22: Reject this deceptive effort by lucrative, app-based companies to deprive their workers of fundamental protections.
NO POSITION on Prop. 24: Greenlining believes in a future in which all are protected from data-driven discrimination regardless of whether or not we opt out of data collection. While Prop. 24 increases privacy protections in some areas, it does not go far enough to protect consumers.
As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on a digital and educational divide that has already severely impacted African-American and other children of color, yet another situation on the horizon could further increase disparities by hindering access to crucial technological tools, according to experts.
Michael Russell, an instructor of information technology, security and forensics at the Pittsburgh Technical College, is among tech experts who say two pending cases before the ITC could seriously broaden the digital divide.
Two cases pending before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) are being watched by educators and lawmakers who describe them as deeply troubling. Many big names in technology are under attack – including Amazon, Apple, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony – and tech experts say the outcomes of these cases are absolutely realistic threats to the ability to obtain certain mobile communication devices – an outcome that would increase the digital divide even further during this unprecedented time of online learning.
In a nutshell, Neodron, a company just recently created in Ireland, is seeking to block the import of more than 90 percent of mobile touchscreen devices, like smartphones, tablets and touchscreen laptops, that come into the United States. Neodron doesn’t design or manufacture products within the U.S. Its business plan is to acquire patents and then sue for infringement.
The cases have caught the attention of members of Congress, and those in the tech world express major concern.
“When we talk about digital divide, you’re talking primarily about the availability of high speed internet and its distribution across our nation. The big problem with this patent infringement claim is that the vast majority of inner city schools still have barely sufficient internet connection,” says Michael Russell, the lead instructor for information technology, security and forensics at the Pittsburgh Technical College since 2002.
Russell points out that “the majority of young people who access the internet today access the internet from their smartphones.” Particularly low income children often use their smartphones in order to get on the Internet.
He believes the Neodron case could impact their educational lives.
Russell used the term “patent pirate” when describing the activities of companies like Neodron which acquires patents for the purpose of financial gain. Neodron recently obtained patents from Microchip Technologies, possibly with the motive of filing petitions asking the ITC to investigate and close the U.S. market to nearly all smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In short, Neodron is putting the devices that people rely on at risk amidst a season when they need them most.
According to a statement by the ITC, the complaint “alleges violations of section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 in the importation into the United States and sale of certain touch-controlled mobile devices, computers, and components thereof that infringe patents asserted by the complainant. The complainant requests that the USITC issue a limited exclusion order and cease and desist orders.”
Restricting the import of these devices into the United States would cause educational and personal hardships for people largely dependent on their smartphones and other affected devices.
The issue is so dire that two members of Congress formed a bipartisan partnership to deal with it. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) introduced the Advancing America’s Interests Act to stop patent abuse through the ITC and to assure that the agency adheres to a high standard of public interest.
“The ITC was established to protect U.S. companies and consumers from unfair foreign competition, but in recent years, patent licensing entities have abused the ITC process for financial gain,” said DelBene in a joint release. “This legislation addresses this problem and helps protect American businesses from unfair and unjustified claims.”
Schweikert called the legislation “an important step in the right direction towards reforming the ITC’s unfair imports process to ensure that American businesses have equitable access to protection for their ideas.”
This potential impact of this case cannot be overlooked as African-Americans and other racial minorities have been so disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. As lives have become almost totally dependent upon access to the internet and remote services, the impact of an ITC exclusion order would have a broad reach.
Instead of rushing to get children out the door to catch the school bus and then driving into work, many parents now struggle to manage their children’s education as schools have shifted to remote learning and parents work from home. Government services of all types are now online, from job applications to business licenses to unemployment claims. And then there’s access to health care. Throughout the pandemic, it has become clear that telehealth is surging and is a crucial resource that allows people to protect both their community as a whole and the healthcare workers providing their critical services.
According to a recent study, up to 42 million people may not have access to broadband, a figure that is disproportionately made up of African-Americans and other people of color. But without the devices necessary to even access the internet, the problem becomes worse and communities of color are at a great disadvantage.
A key concern is that since the COVID-19 pandemic, an already serious struggle for low income students of color, has been exacerbated.
The Greenlining Institute, a 27-year-old multi-racial organization in Oakland, Calif. that aims to end economic discrimination such as redlining, conducted a survey of Oakland and Fresno, Calif. residents before COVID-19. The findings were as gloomy as expected. But all of the common themes were “made more urgent by the pandemic”, the Institute reports on its website.
Those common themes include “Internet access is not a luxury; Lack of access creates significant hurdles for everyday life; Smartphone access is insufficient; Internet plans designed for low-income families are inadequate; Lack of access is a barrier to academic success.”
Russell says if Neodron prevails, these issues could expand and get even worse for more people across the nation.
“I’m not only talking about just young people,” he said. “I’m talking about the elderly needing to monitor their health care, making appointments with the doctor and things of that nature. All of those things could be adversely impacted. Mostly inner city; mostly Black and Latino families would continue to have the largest impact.”
As the issue spirals, even more considerations will come into play.
“The educational, financial and personal need for the internet could lead to an even greater conflict than the inability to get online,” says Russell, who also teaches regulatory compliance.
“I do believe that technology has a potential of being another form of warfare,” he says. “I’m really concerned about that. Like economic warfare. We have a company located in another country filing a claim against American corporations that could adversely impact the way we live and do business. That’s a real deal.”
Researchers Should Collaborate Closely with Communities, Greenlining Institute Says
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With the public’s eye increasingly focused on research – from environmental and climate studies to COVID-19 drug and vaccine trials – The Greenlining Institute is urging researchers to be more connected to the communities they study and to incorporate equity practices into their approach. Greenlining’s new report, Making Racial Equity Real in Research, systematically analyzes barriers to equity in research and offers specific guidance for researchers seeking to overcome them.
“We all depend on research to understand our world and the problems we need to overcome, from the impact of climate change to the way epidemics spread,” said report author Hana Creger. “But the system tends to keep researchers disconnected from the communities most impacted by their work, often leaving people of color and other marginalized groups under-studied and misunderstood.”
The report lays out specific challenges, ranging from funding structures that fail to encourage researchers to work with community partners to peer-review processes cocooned in academic silos divorced from the real world. It encourages those funding and conducting research to work systematically to alter those structures and suggests researchers approach the problem through five steps:
1. Understand the context of racism in research in the past and present;
2. Review the challenges, best practices and opportunities available for centering racial equity in research;
3. Conduct an internal equity assessment of your research institution, department or team;
4. Partner with and pay a community partner; and
5. Co-create the research questions and scope of work with a community partner.
“The more collaborative approach we’re suggesting will lead to more innovative and useful solutions for the problems our society faces,” Creger said. “But transformative change won’t just happen by itself. It requires researchers and institutions to be willing to give up some power, redistribute resources, and treat community partners as true equals.”
“Greenlined Economy Guidebook” Urges Decision-Makers to Put Community First
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting profound, structural inequities in U.S. society, The Greenlining Institute lays out a bold vision for a more equitable economy and calls for a radical rethinking of community development in its newly published Greenlined Economy Guidebook.
“It’s not enough to just rebuild an economy that’s clearly broken,” said guidebook author Sonrisa Cooper, Greenlining’s Community Development Program Manager. “The pandemic has shown us how deeply racism and inequity are embedded throughout our economy. This guidebook offers a way to rethink how we do everything — from housing and infrastructure to parks, transportation and more — putting community at the center. We need a Greenlined Economy.”
The guidebook offers a path to an economy that is cooperative, regenerative, democratic, non-exploitive and inclusive. It lays out the barriers that currently get in the way of such an economy, including unequal power dynamics that keep community members shut out of decision-making, a top-down mindset, the lack of capacity-building for redlined or disinvested neighborhoods, siloed programs and funding sources, an unwillingness to prioritize grassroots groups, and a system focused heavily on profit.
The guidebook lays out six standards for equitable community investment, followed by concrete examples of how they might be applied in particular situations. The standards are:
1. Emphasize race-conscious solutions, because race-conscious policies like redlining and urban renewal got us to this point, and race-neutral approaches can’t fix it.
2. Prioritize multi-sector approaches, since while programs may be siloed, the problems communities face are not.
3. Deliver intentional benefits to underserved communities, rather than just assuming that benefits will “trickle down.”
4. Build community capacity, which has too often been eroded by long-term disinvestment and discriminatory policies.
5. Be community-driven at every stage, from goal-setting to analysis.
6. Establish paths toward wealth-building that can reach as many as possible and include pathways beyond just homeownership, with lower barriers to entry.
“We’re asking for a dramatic transformation of how things have been done in our economy for a long time,” Cooper said. “Our current economic system isn’t built to meet the needs of communities of color. If the current crisis has shown us anything, it’s that the time to start doing things differently is now.”
Greenlining Institute Study Highlights Barriers for Youth of Color
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With California facing a serious shortage of health care workers as it copes with COVID-19, a new report from The Greenlining Institute looks at the barriers that keep young people of color out of the health field and what can be done to overcome those barriers.
The report, Opening Pathways for Youth of Color: The Future of California’s Health Workforce, notes that while Black, Latino and Native American communities make up 62 percent of California’s people, less than six percent of California physicians are Latino and just five percent are Black. In partnership with the Alameda County Health Pathway Partnership program, Greenlining conducted surveys and a focus group with program alumni to get a picture of the challenges they face in pursuing health careers and what sorts of support would reduce those challenges.
“Young people of color want to work in the health care field, but too many obstacles get in their way,” said report coauthor Christian Beauvoir. “The starkly higher rate of COVID-19 deaths for Black and Latino Californians reminds us how important it is to have a diverse health workforce that can deliver culturally competent care.”
Among the report’s key findings:
Challenges young people of color faced included–
Finances, including cost-prohibitive expenses associated with college applications and tuition,
Transportation, with lengthy commutes and lack of money forcing many to use riskier transportation alternatives to cut costs, and
Lack of support systems to help them get into and navigate higher education.
Key supportive factors participants cited included –
Exposure to a variety of health careers and professionals,
Social support and mentorship, particularly for first-generation and low-income youth, and
Financial assistance that eased the cost burden and reduced the need to choose between further education and holding a job to support themselves and their families.
The report concludes with a series of policy recommendations designed to reduce the barriers cited and increase availability of supports, including passage of Proposition 16 to allow the state to more effectively address racial disparities in education.
The digital divide means millions of American children don’t have broadband connections at home, even as their schools hold virtual classes.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced California schools to close in March, the West Contra Costa Unified School District knew it had a problem. Most of its 29,000 students had school-provided Google Chromebooks, but an estimated quarter of them didn’t have access to reliable internet connectivity at home — something that was vital for attending classes virtually.
Cities like Richmond and San Pablo, which make up the WCCUSD, are nothing like the tech hub of San Francisco, despite being just across the bay. About 90% of the students are Black, indigenous or people of color, or BIPOC (including 54% Latino), and many of the district’s families can’t afford home broadband connections. Students would normally cope by doing their homework in a library or restaurant offering free Wi-Fi. Another lifeline: Sprint’s charitable 1Million Project, which offered free cellular hotspots to about 1,500 WCCUSD students.
Over five months later, it’s back-to-school season. Classes at the WCCUSD will remain virtual for the foreseeable future, thanks to the continued spread of the coronavirus, and the district still hasn’t figured out how to fully address the digital divide, which includes an estimated bill of over $3 million to get its students online.
“It’s been really rough,” Matthew Duffy, superintendent of the WCCUSD, says in an interview. “We’re handcuffed by … how much it’s going to cost.”
As the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the US, schools across the country are figuring out how to hold classes this fall. Some are offering in-person sessions, but others — like the districts that cover 97% of the 6.2 million students in California — are opting for remote learning. Thirteen of the 15 biggest US school districts will be fully remote this fall, with their students attending virtual Zoom sessions or completing their Google Classroom homework online. Nearly half a year after the pandemic first shut down schools, many still don’t know how to make sure all students can attend virtual classes.
This shift online has shined a light on a long-standing problem that’s only gotten more severe in the age of the coronavirus: the so-called homework gap. The country has wrestled with a digital divide for decades, but the pandemic has exposed some of the most vulnerable populations: Students from poorer urban areas and remote rural districts, with minorities disproportionately hurt by lack of access to connectivity. In California, the wealthiest households are 16 times as likely to have access to home internet as the poorest ones, according to the Greenlining Institute. The worry is that the disconnected students, many who are already disadvantaged, will fall even further behind their more affluent peers.
“There’s so much of this crisis we can’t fix,” Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who coined the term “homework gap” well before the pandemic, says in an interview. “But the homework gap is something we can solve.”
An estimated 18 million people in the US don’t have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to a FCC tally from 2020. Experts say the official figures are almost certainly lower than reality because of faulty maps. Another study found about 16.9 million children don’t have the home internet access necessary to support online learning during the pandemic, according to a joint study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League and UnidosUS. Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native households are even less likely to have adequate connectivity, with one out of three lacking access at home, that study said.
Schools are being forced to tackle the digital divide problem in their districts, becoming experts in complex broadband options seemingly overnight. That’s on top of grappling with how to make sure their low-income students are fed and healthy, and navigating archaic regulations controlling how they receive funding. Various schools around the country have relied on emergency relief funds from the CARES Act to purchase devices and hotspots for students, while others have begged the public and businesses for help funding equipment.
“Even before the pandemic we had a homework gap,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “We all knew it, we all talked about it. It’s not as if the pandemic created the homework gap, it’s just that we can no longer conveniently have it swept under the rug.”
When the coronavirus exploded in China, it didn’t just kick off the proliferation of the disease. It also caused a shutdown in the production of electronics that we’re still feeling the effects of today.
The result was supply being unable to meet the demands sparked by the lockdown, from high-definition webcams to computer monitors. For Chromebooks, hotspots and other devices for education, shipping delays have been severe.
California’s Department of Education contacted electronics manufacturers and internet service providers to see what devices were available and what they could provide for the state’s schools before remote classes began. It estimated it would need over 700,000 computing devices and more than 300,0000 hotspots to get California students connected this year.
Apple agreed to make up to 1 million iPads available for California schools by the end of 2020. Districts can buy the year-old, seventh-generation iPad — the most recent model available — with cellular capabilities for $379, which is $80 less than what the general public pays and $60 below what students and educators pay on their own. It’s still more expensive than the Wi-Fi-only iPad, which costs $329 for the public or $309 for students and educators, but the built-in LTE helps address the connectivity problem.
T-Mobile’s 4G LTE service for the LTE iPads costs about $12 to $17 a month for unlimited data, depending on the length of the contract, the Education Department says.
“This is a game changer,” Tony Thurmond, California state superintendent of public instruction, says in an interview.
As part of that agreement with California, Apple has agreed to prioritize iPad shipments to the state’s schools as more supply becomes available, he says. The Cupertino, California, company has earmarked over 200,000 iPads for California districts to purchase immediately, he says.
“This is significant at a time when there’s a run on devices worldwide,” Thurmond says, adding that about 70 California districts so far have talked with Apple and T-Mobile about the offer.
At the same time, the state’s Department of Education is coordinating with electronics resellers to source other devices like Android tablets. Chromebooks, in particular, are in high demand but in short supply, says Mary Nicely, a senior policy adviser to Thurmond. One vendor has offered to convert a low-cost Microsoft Windows machine into a Chromebook, she says, and companies like Acer and Lenovo are also “trying to prioritize California.”
“We’re looking at backlog for all of our manufacturers in the millions, but they think that they can get those millions into California by the end of December,” Nicely says in an interview.
Overall, the California Department of Education sent requests to about 100 California companies for help with supplies or donations for remote school this fall. It would cost the state’s districts about $500 million to buy enough hotspots and computing devices for students who don’t have them. Of those requests, only about 10 companies have responded.
“While some companies have made donations, it’s been difficult to get many companies to really lean in,” Thurmond says.
California has the benefit of many Silicon Valley companies reporting huge profits as their technology becomes even more vital to keep people connected. In the June quarter, Apple, Facebook and Google reported a combined $23.4 billion in profit. In mid-August, Apple became the world’s most valuable tech company, worth over $2 trillion.
“I do hold out hope as these corporations figure out their financial situations post-COVID that there will be more money coming in from the private sector,” says Vinhcent Le, technology equity legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute.
But if one of the richest and most powerful states in the country can’t bridge the digital divide when it’s most dire, what hope do less-connected and poor states have?
A 2.5-hour drive west of Washington DC through forestland and mountains, lies a rural part of West Virginia called Grant County. Most of the 11,600 residents in the 480-square-mile county work on farms, a local power plant, or in nearby factories for poultry production or kitchen-and-bath cabinets.
Grant County is the eighth most sparsely populated county in West Virginia when it comes to students per square mile, the local school district’s superintendent says. Grant County Schools serves 1,630 students, all of whom qualify for government-sponsored meals thanks to the low socioeconomic status of about three-quarters of the county’s residents, says Grant County SchoolsSuperintendent Doug Lambert.
Compounding the problem: Only about 54% of Grant County’s residents have home internet access, and “we’re not sure [they have] the necessary … capacity to do what’s … expected on the internet platforms that we’re going to use,” Lambert says. A school survey found 44% of respondents don’t think their connectivity is fast enough for virtual school.
While about 5.6% of the overall US population lacks broadband internet, according to the FCC, the percentage jumps to 22% in rural areas. Building out high-speed internet networks is prohibitively expensive when there’s only one customer every mile or so. In many rural areas that have some sort of connection, there are only one or two internet providers, and the service available is pricey and spotty. Hospitals, schools and other critical groups have long lacked fast-enough internet to function, and it’s now heavily impacting students who will be learning from home.
Nicol Turner Lee, an expert on connectivity at the Brookings Institution, has proposed parking Wi-Fi-connected buses in rural communities around the US. By one tally, there are about 480,000 school buses that are largely sitting empty. They could be outfitted with solar-powered Wi-Fi routers and parked in underserved neighborhoods to act as community hotspots.
Some schools are doing it. The Florence County School District 2, one of five school districts serving Florence County in South Carolina, parks nine Wi-Fi-enabled school buses in neighborhoods with little broadband access.
“There are going to be traditional routes of access that we’ll be able to see like … hotspots, partnerships with libraries, digital parks,” Turner Lee says in an interview. “But then there’ll be places that we still need to be creative.”
Grant County Schools has given families the option of full-time virtual courses this fall, in-person classes or a hybrid of the two. About 18% of students have signed up for the virtual option, but because of the number of COVID-19 cases in the county, it’s possible that all students will start the academic year remotely.
As a result, come Sept. 8, the first day of school, Grant County Schools faces the possibility that the vast majority of its students will only be educated through paper assignments handed out alongside their free daily meals.
“We will do everything we possibly can to meet the needs of our kids,” Lambert says. “But we are very much hindered in the broadband capacity [of the county].”
Because the area is so poor, many families can’t afford to pay for service in their homes. Using smartphones as hotspots gets expensive really fast. And the county’s topography and remoteness means there are some places that don’t have access to broadband at all, even if the families could afford it.
On top of that, the local internet service provider, Frontier Communications, filed for bankruptcy in April, making it unlikely that it will expand its broadband internet footprint anytime soon.
Unlike many schools around the country, Grant County Schools didn’t offer personal Chromebooks or tablets for students before the pandemic. Instead, it has now refurbished old desktop computers and repurposed the district’s classroom laptops for the families who’ve chosen full virtual classes.
The remaining 1,200 students will have to wait until November at the earliest for their new Chromebooks to arrive. The district paid about $550,000 for 1,650 Lenovo models using money from the CARES Act and other federal funding that it received at the end of June and early July. Not getting the money earlier meant it was at the end of a long list of orders.
“All kids are important, all kids are special,” Lambert says. “What about my kids? Sometimes we’re forgotten because we don’t have political cloud.”
A national plan
Whether they hail from California or West Virginia, many schools hoped to tap into a tool that’s long helped their internet connectivity efforts: a federal assistance program called E-Rate. The FCC-run program provides schools and libraries with internet service that’s discounted by 20% to 90%, depending on the poverty level of the area.
Instead, they found that trying to expand their E-Rate discounts outside of the school walls would hurt them.
When E-Rate was introduced with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it was designed to discount internet service within building, not throughout the community. But some, like the FCC’s Rosenworcel, argue that the E-Rate mandate should be expanded to give schools Wi-Fi hotspots for students with unreliable home internet.
It wouldn’t be without precedent. In 2011, the FCC ran a pilot program with E-Rate, called Learning On-The-Go, to test providing connectivity for netbooks for students living in remote areas, among other efforts.
Since E-Rate is a program schools know well, they would be able to easily navigate the system to get more funding. And because the program is already in place, funding could be distributed quickly.
“It’s increasingly apparent we organize a lot of fundamental things for our students through schools,” Rosenworcel says. E-Rate “is the way to expedite connectivity for the most number of students as fast as possible.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the rest of the panel have resisted, saying E-Rate can’t be used to take steps like distributing hotspots. “Current law specifically allows E-Rate funding only for ‘classrooms,’ not student homes,” the FCC said in a statement. “That’s precisely why since March, Chairman Pai has repeatedly called on Congress to establish and fund a Remote Learning Initiative so that more students can get connected and stay online.”
One of those members of Congress trying to expand connectivity is Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York. She introduced House legislation in late April, the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020, that called for a $2 billion fund to get internet access to kids at home. The FCC would distribute the money to schools and libraries through E-Rate to buy hotspots and other Wi-Fi devices.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel now,” Meng says in an interview. “E-Rate is a known program, it’s a trusted program, and we think it’s the fastest way to go.”
In the Senate, Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, filed a companion bill that same month, called the Emergency Educational Connections Act. The bill, co-signed by half a dozen other Democrats, would provide $4 billion for the FCC to distribute via E-Rate.
While technology funding for disadvantaged students has broad support, the coronavirus stimulus proposals it’s packaged with do not. The Heroes Act and the Moving Forward Act, which both contain provisions to fund connectivity, were passed by the House but have stalled in the Senate.
Four months after the two education connectivity bills were proposed, there’s still no additional funding for E-Rate and internet connectivity, forcing districts to cobble together solutions of their own. Schools in places like California have already begun classes, and the rest of the country will begin within the next month.
Grant County Schools had hoped to use its school building E-Rate internet service — which is discounted by 80% from the normal service pricing — to provide connectivity for families and community members outside the school. The FCC wouldn’t allow it.
“We make emergency changes all the time,” Lambert says. “Why can’t we make a change at least temporarily to help us get through this with E-Rate? It’s fallen on deaf ears.”
Instead, Grant County Schools is drawing from $82,000 in funding it received from West Virginia to install five new hotspots around the community. Parents will be able to park their cars outside the new locations — as well as the two county libraries and four schools — to tap into the 20Mbps download and upload connectivity.
But even those 11 community hotspots may not be enough to get students online. The capacity will be shared with whoever’s parked nearby — including the broader community — and it falls below the FCC’s broadband definition of 25Mbps down (though the upload speed is better than the 3Mbps broadband standard).
Calling on the private sector
The private sector has stepped in to fill some of that gap. Carriers like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T have provided discounted or even free service for families. Device vendors have donated Chromebooks and other laptops and tablets.
At the start of the pandemic, Verizon reached a deal to provide discounted unlimited data plans for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second biggest district in the country. Very quickly, it realized other schools would need connectivity for students, and it reformatted its deal to extend it to other districts. The newly formed Verizon Distance Learning Program now has agreements to provide “really favorable” data rates to the rest of California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, DC., and 32 other states through its newly formed Verizon Distance Learning Program.
“This program is here for as long as COVID-19 is the pandemic that it is,” says Andres Irlando, president of Verizon’s public sector group that oversees its distance learning work. He declined to specify what rates the schools are paying for their data.
Hotspots make it easy for students to get online immediately, are ideal in places without fast wired connections and are helpful for families who are unstable with their living situations. But the longer term solution to keep kids connected is getting them hard wired connections at home, experts say. That’s where companies like Comcast come in.
Through at least the end of 2020, it will stop withholding access from families who have debt less than a year old (it had previously stopped denying service for debt older than that). In March, it boosted the speed of its plan by 10Mbps to 25Mbps, now meeting the FCC threshold for broadband, and it began offering 60 days of free service to families who qualify for Internet Essentials. Comcast also has streamlined its application process to make it easier for families to apply and get approved.
“If you’re a family with a student, more likely than not, you’re guaranteed an expedited application,” says Karima Zedan, who runs Comcast’s Internet Essentials business. “We want to get those households connected as quickly as possible.”
Because it could be tough for some families to afford even $10 a month, Comcast in mid-August introduced its new Internet Essentials Partnership Program that lets cities, schools and nonprofits pay for internet services for families for one or two years. Since the start of the pandemic, Comcast has signed up over 70 schools, covering more than 200,000 students, to the program. Chicago is one district that will make high-speed internet, via Comcast or RCN, available for free to about 100,000 Chicago Public School kids in their homes over the next four years.
“Reliable, high-speed internet is one of the most powerful equalizers when it comes to accessing information,” Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said in a press release announcing the initiative. “This program is a critical component of our … efforts to end poverty.”
In Grant Country, Frontier offers discounted home internet service for families through the federal Lifeline program. It lowers the monthly cost of phone or internet access by up to $9.25, but people who qualify can only get a discount on one of the services.
Across the country, teachersare expecting hiccups as the year gets started virtually. Sara Park, a ninth-grade English teacher at San Francisco Public School’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, says her first week of classes went more smoothly than in the spring — but about 15 of the 95 students in her three classes dropped in and out of the sessions because of connectivity, login and other issues.
“I fear that a digital divide this early within a student’s trajectory … ultimately feeds into a divide in whether or not you’re going to go to college,” Park says. “And [that] then turns into [whether you’re] accessing high paying jobs.”
Even if students have access to the internet and devices, they — or their parents — may not have the digital literacy required to participate in remote school. That includes tasks seemingly as simple as connecting a computer to a hotspot or figuring out how to schedule a meeting on a digital calendar.
“I truly do fear that even if every student has a laptop and hotspot, there’s no ensuring equity,” Park says.
As for the Bay Area’s WCCUSD, the school’s administrators scrambled to find ways to bridge the digital divide in their district as they prepared for remote classes to start on Aug. 17. Eventually, they identified another T-Mobile program, called EmpowerED, that would provide discounted monthly service and waive the hotspot pricing.
Unlike the Sprint 1Million program, which had strict eligibility requirements like only accepting high-school kids, T-Mobile’s EmpowerED is open to more students and is easier to join. But it has a big downside: it’s not free. After a three-month free trial, the WCCUSD has to pay a monthly fee of $20 per student for 4G LTE service. And it has to sign a year contract.
It’s costing the cash-strapped district about $540,000 to equip an additional 3,000 students with hotspots — on top of about $2.5 million it’s paying for 6,000 new Chromebooks.
“It adds up really fast,” says Tracey Logan, chief technology officer for the school district. The fear for the WCCUSD — and countless other schools around the country — is what happens if the pandemic drags into the next academic year. The school district already has to replace about $6 million worth of aging Chromebooks next year, and if even more of its students need home hotspots, the costs could skyrocket.
“It’s not really sustainable beyond a year,” Logan says. “Have we bridged the digital divide? Absolutely not.”
In a groundbreaking win for the environmental justice movement, New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation that aims to limit new pollution sources in neighborhoods already shouldering a disproportionate burden.
The bill, more than a decade in the making, advanced in both chambers of the state Legislature during a fraught political climate that has laid bare the connection between historically racist government policies and current environmental and public health inequities.
After years of effort, the twin forces of the coronavirus pandemic and a national outcry to end systemic racism combined to propel the measure to the governor’s desk. Activists hope the bill’s passage will have ripple effects throughout the U.S.
“It’s a perfect storm of terrible things that hopefully opened up a lot of legislators’ eyes,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, director of environmental justice and community development at the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark. “New Jersey’s not seen as the beacon of progressiveness, so if New Jersey can do it then I’m sure other states will be able to do it.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill, as he made the unusual move of endorsing it before it was passed.
The bill, NJ S232 (20R), is the first of its kind in the country. It requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for power plants, incinerators, landfills, large recycling facilities and sewage treatment plants in certain minority and impoverished neighborhoods if the projects pose health and environmental risks in conjunction with the threats those communities already face. The agency would be required to make a determination that compares the stressors of that community to those other communities face.
More than a dozen states, including California and New York, require cumulative impact assessments as part of the permitting process. But legal and environmental experts say those provisions lack teeth and can be treated as mere boxes to check because the decision is at the discretion of regulators, not mandated based on conditions.
The New Jersey bill“writes very clearly the line in the sand: if it’s not permissible in an affluent community, it shouldn’t be permissible elsewhere,” said Mad Stano, a senior legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute. “That is not something that we have been able to achieve in policy up until this point.”
Environmental justice advocates nationwide have called the legislation the “holy grail” of the movement and know of no other as strong.
Environmental justice campaigns gained traction in the 1980s, growing out of the civil rights movement and research that showed polluting facilities were more likely to be built in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
Those areas came to be known as environmental justice communities, shorthand for their struggles against environmental harm tied to economic and racial injustice.
President Bill Clinton took on the campaign’s mantle in 1994 when he directed federal agencies to address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of programs, policies and activities on low-income and minority populations.
At that time, only four states had laws or rules pertaining to environmental justice, said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a founder of the environmental justice movement. Within two decades, all 50 states had adopted laws or policies, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
At the federal level, the National Environmental Policy Act was amended in 1997 to require agencies to weigh the cumulative impact of projects before permitting them.
The Trump Administration rolled back the requirements in July. Days later, the Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog called for a renewed focus on environmental justice, particularly more robust regulatory oversight in burdened communities.
In New Jersey, lawmakers have introduced an environmental justice bill every year since 2008, but the legislation always succumbed to industry opposition.
In 2017, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Democrat and the former mayor of Newark, introduced the federal Environmental Justice Act to codify Clinton’s executive order, a measure that would give regulators power to deny permits based on cumulative impacts. The Booker bill influenced the New Jersey bill sponsored by Democratic Sens. Troy Singleton, Loretta Weinberg and Teresa Ruiz, as well as Assembly members John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Britnee Timberlake.
This year, the state bill was going down a familiar path. After it passed a Senate committee in February, the coronavirus pandemic hit, postponing non-emergency efforts indefinitely.
Then it became clear that people of color were dying of Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates. In April, a study from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that patients in areas with highly polluted air were more likely to die from the virus than others, confirming another link between environmental degradation and public health.
In May, the country erupted in protests after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died when a Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd said, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, a Black man killed in 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold.
In Trenton and elsewhere, lawmakers began introducing measures to tackle racial injustice on a structural level.
“Black Lives Matter [connected] ‘I can’t breathe’ when it comes to policing and ‘I can’t breathe’ when it comes to the pollutants choking our communities,” Bullard said.
A month after Floyd’s death, New Jersey lawmakers strengthened the bill’s language to require, rather than allow, regulators to deny permits that would disproportionately cause or contribute to a community’s adverse health and environmental burdens when those burdens were deemed to be greater than those borne by communities elsewhere.
The provisions represent “a quantum leap” in environmental justice legislation, said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
“We are in a position of moving away from a social injustice that’s long been embedded in this nation and in the state,” said McKeon, who sponsored the bill. “The protection of the environment and public health is essential to our prosperity.”
But industry leaders say the bill’s scope is too broad — it applies to more than half of New Jersey municipalities — and that the cumulative impact analysis will be difficult, if not impossible, to execute.
The state Chamber of Commerce predicted the law will drive employers and jobs out of the state and stifle economic opportunity. The Waste and Recycling Association and Chemistry Council said their facilities are good corporate neighbors. Lobbyists likened the law to redlining, a government housing segregation policy that discriminated against Black residents.
“This bill is redlining over half the state, at least by population, and saying you cannot put any of these facilities in there,” said Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “It’s going to harm manufacturing and a whole bunch of industries we want to promote, and at the end of the day it’s not going to improve these communities.”
Singleton, a sponsor of the bill, rejected the premise.
“There’s this idea that we cannot have environmental justice and positive growth and economic development that helps communities and generates jobs at the same time,” he said. “These two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Trade unions, too, lobbied against the bill, expressing concerns about government overreach and a possible chilling effect on private investment.
An amendment to the bill gives the DEP some leeway to issue permits if a new project would provide a “compelling public interest” to the community.
“No community in our state should bear the brunt of pollution that is created by industries that serve us all,” Murphy said in July.
Emblematic of these communities is the Ironbound section of Newark, a four-square-mile neighborhood in New Jersey’s largest city that includes an incinerator and more than 100 brownfields, potentially toxic parcels of land.
The neighborhood sits near the seaport and a contaminated stretch of the Passaic River, close to highways and Newark Liberty International Airport. Doremus Avenue, known as the Chemical Corridor, is home to a fat-rendering plant, a sewage treatment site, and a natural gas plant.
“You can’t imagine the amount of frustration. They keep putting stuff in Newark or Camden, and you can’t stop it even though there’s a lot of things there already,” said Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University in Trenton.
“All these pollutants together have a detrimental impact on public health,” Sheats said. “You are making a scientific decision if you do nothing.”
The New Jersey DEP will need to write rules for implementing the bill’s requirements, a process that could take more than a year and will make or break the legislation’s effectiveness.
Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, recently relaunched the National Black Environmental Justice Network and wants to see New Jersey’s bill replicated elsewhere.
“I’m hoping to start a cascade of action in other states,” she said, “working to get a bill that’s as strong as this one is.”