I choose to stay here; PFP Documentary

Folk Arts and the Digital Divide: Some preliminary thoughts

The digital divide is the gap between those who do and those who don't have real access to information and communications technologies. Real access includes the ability to use these technologies effectively. Over the past three years, PFP constituents have reported rising barriers to access and participation, and their concerns about becoming further marginalized. Opportunities, already rare, are less and less available to those who aren't online, who aren't comfortable with or able to communicate effectively on computers, who don't own computers. More funders are shifting to online access for grant programs. It is apparently becoming easy to assume that everyone has access and to forget those who aren't reachable on-line.

Last year, PFP began to experiment with computer coaching, offering a workshop, website development and hosting, and email accounts. Concurrently, we gathered more information from constituents, read up, talked with colleagues, and watched closely as constituents tried to negotiate various digital "requirements" and "opportunities" (assessments, planning processes, grants, reports, etc.) For the coming year, we propose doing further research, devoting resources to the problem (and seeking resources to support these efforts), and, overall, adding another plank to our Technical Assistance (TA) program. This document, excerpted from a report to our board, is intended to stimulate feedback and conversation. We invite your comments: pfp@folkloreproject.org or 215.726.1106.

1. Program direction overview: As we witness concrete examples of how the digital divide is further marginalizing PFP constituents, we are beginning to see this both as a literacy issue, and as an economic equity issue (a class issue). As in our previous approach to such divides and inequities, we see two tracks of advocacy tasks ahead of us:

Making processes more equitable: ensuring access for those without digital resources. We need to reveal and publicize the issue of digital disenfranchisement, and to organize people to imagine ways to address it. We need to work with constituents and allies to familiarize funders, cultural workers, and others on the "have" side about what they can do to ensure access and inclusion by the "have-nots": all the people with no (or with inadequate) computer access, competence, or fluency. Treating this as a class or "dis-ability" rights issue, we can ask for "special accommodation" whereby people can petition for non-computer-based access, on the basis of need; educational equity practices related to language access and learning are another possible model. Making people/the problem visible is a first task here.

Building digital access and literacy among grassroots folk and traditional artists, with a priority on core constituents. Learning (on all sides) is a concurrent first task. Providing direct assistance on a case-by-case basis, working side-by-side with constituents, as we have done in other arenas, will further educate us all about needs and next steps. On-the-ground tech assistance allows us to immediately address some pressing needs and ensure at least some level of inclusion as the divide widens.

2. Background and need: The overwhelming majority of core PFP constituents - folk and traditional artists and grassroots cultural workers from low-income or working-class communities - do not have adequate access to, command of, or presence on the internet.

Historically marginalized (only 2 - 4% of arts funding goes to folk and traditional arts, as one example), our constituents are being left even farther behind by the transformation into a digital society.

We currently have email addresses for less than 30% of the 1125 artists in our database. We estimate that perhaps 40% of our constituents have dependable internet access.

In contrast, the Inquirer reported last fall that 68% of Philadelphia public school families have access to computers at home and The Pew Internet and American Life Project [9/05] estimated that 72% of American households have internet access. How do we come to estimate 40%? The same Pew study reported internet usage of only 30% for people over 65, 38% for people without High School diplomas, and 54% for people earning less than $30,000 a year. Anecdotal evidence from a handful of public folklorists suggests that 40 - 60% of folk arts constituents around the nation have internet access. The number drops sharply (to virtually no-one) in some immigrant and in low-income communities. Staff at local peer organizations working in North Philadelphia, with farmworkers, or in our charter school estimate that 2 - 30% of their constituents have access.

PFP constituents - substantial numbers of immigrants, artists for whom English is not the first language, low-income people, people without college degrees, elders, and people of color - are typically groups with low access. Even when a teenager or relative may have a computer to share, this does not always translate into meaningful internet access (let alone facility) for core constituents.

Over the last six months, we have begun to track this more closely, paying particular attention to the needs and situations of current technical assistance (TA) recipients:

Of the 318 TA recipients currently on our radar screen, only 127 (39%) have internet access.

Of 27 highly valued local traditional artists and cultural workers with whom PFP is actively working (including many exceptional artists with whom we have worked for years):

- 46% now have access to home computers (in some cases, thanks to PFP assistance), but only 31% feel comfortable using them, or use them routinely.

- 53% have email (but only 38% use it consistently, effectively or dependably),

- 26% have any kind of web presence (only 15% would without PFP assistance, and only 7% report satisfactory control over content or functions).

- Only 5% report being able to access grant applications online; only 2% report being able to complete grant applications online.

- Only 15% were able to use a computer to complete any kind of grant application without PFP help (and the majority of the remainder had some other helper).

Literacy issues - comfort, fluency, a sense of competence in writing in English - continue to be huge issues, hindering folk arts applicants who are highly skilled and accomplished in their work and in their ability to verbally articulate artistic vision and program/project needs. This disadvantage is born out by PFP's concrete experience. When sharing information about programs and opportunities, we not only email widely, we also mail information to core constituents, and preferably, call them. (This document is not the place for elaborating the virtues of a phone call - an actual conversation, a chance to check in with artists and constituents, a two-way exchange, a time for both to learn about current issues - which is, of course, an investment of real time, yielding real gain.)

3. Why PFP? Why now? Direct feedback from constituents, in both group discussions and one-on-one conversations over the past year, has alerted us to the need for action. Our observation and participation (especially with more than 70 core TA recipients over the past year) are equally significant in shaping our sense of needs and issues. Our experiments in providing new technology-related TA services have helped to focus our understanding of what artists and grassroots agencies need.

We feel a particular urgency.

- Over the last summer, planning initiatives related to artist needs conducted by major foundations were highly dependent on emailed communications and assessment tools. Consequently, the points of view and needs of traditional artists, communities of color and low-income people were not adequately heard or addressed.

- Funders are increasingly requiring internet access for applications, making it more difficult for those lacking technology to compete. This includes competitive regional and national funders, and (soon) even entry-level local programs. Having helped constituents to fill out applications and forms, we know intimately the kinds of technological, practical/logistical and conceptual/descriptive problems that emerge. We see this as a huge and growing barrier.

- Cultural groups offering opportunities now often routinely assume that they can broadcast information widely via email or on a website. Sometimes information is communicated solely by email.

- Local technology providers offering free or inexpensve services to "communities" or non-profits aiming are not currently reaching our constituents (although they could).

- During our long-range planning gatherings last summer, grassroots artists and constituents identified a range of pressing needs(for hardware, software, training, email access, web access, help in getting online, and help in developing a web presence.

- PFP staff (self-taught in relation to technology) have shared such knowledge as we have and taken some first steps in assessing constituents' needs and in framing responses. But it is clear that PFP's technology infrastructure, practices, and knowledge need some retooling (and additional outside help) to respond adequately to these new needs.

4. Resources on the digital divide, and some directions:

a) The same people marginalized by the wealth gap, the yawning economic disparity between rich and poor in this country, are marginalized by the digital divide. The terrific popular education materials and developed by United for a Fair Economy may be adapted; we can learn from them. http://www.faireconomy.org/about/index.html

b) There is a large literature on the digital divide to sort through. Some places we've found helpful:

- Eszter Hargittai, "Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People's Online Skills," _First Monday). http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_4/hargittai/

- Digital Divide Network. http://www.digitaldivide.net/ ("The Internet's largest community for educators, activists, policy makers and concerned citizens working to bridge the digital divide.")

- U.S. Dept. of Education. Office of Educational Technology http://www.ed.gov/Technology/digdiv.html

- Bridges.org http://www.bridges.org/digitaldivide/index.html

c) Insofar as these are language and literacy access issues for our constituents - substantial numbers of immigrants, artists for whom English is not the first language, low-income people, people without college degrees, elders, and people of color— we may also benefit from attention to literacy education, and social justice movements around language access. (For example http://www.lacnyc.org/about/)

We welcome other suggestions as we shape strategies.

5. Next steps at PFP: To address the digital divide, we propose to expand our technical assistance program in the next two years, adding workshops and services, and aiming to build computer access, web visibility, email access and e-literacy among local folk and traditional artists and grassroots cultural workers who lack them. Immediate next steps include:

a) expanded assessment of detailed technology needs among 200 - 500 PFP constituents; identification of other allies concerned with these issues; and continuing to build our own knowledge;

b) piloting a series of workshops to build constituent technology access and literacy (and our own);

c) continuing to experiment with new services: computer donations, website and email provision, and computer coaches/tech aides; and

d) drafting a workplan for expansion of PFP technology infrastructure and technical assistance services to support these efforts in FY 07.

Responses? Thoughts? Let us know. As we move forward, we invite your help: 215.726.1106 or pfp@folkloreproject.org