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Seattle’s digital equity grant program funds computer literacy for immigrants and needy residents

Written by Lindsay McKenzie

Seattle officials this month distributed about $590,000 in grants to 19 community organizations around the city as part of a long-running digital equity grant program, designed to provide technology and internet access to residents most in need, including many recent immigrants to the United States.

The program, which has been around for a quarter-century, works with local communities that need the most public support, Jim Loter, Seattle’s interim chief information officer, said in a press release.

Among this year’s first-time recipients is the YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish, which received $25,000 to distribute laptops to local residents through a “loan-to-own” program in which the recipients are encouraged to complete IT training milestones with the promise that they can keep the tools for personal use as a reward.

The YWCA program focuses on the needs of local immigrant communities, including families from Afghanistan, Somalia and Vietnam, among other countries. It also prioritizes families that currently do not have any computers in their homes, or lack the digital literacy skills to use them. Large families who may share a device will also be considered, as will elderly residents who lack computer skills.

The YWCA’s award from the city will support the distribution of about 70 laptops, digital literacy training and one-on-one career support.

“Our agency is rooted in the principles of race and social justice, so we’re focused [Black, indigenous and people of color] community members, and with this grant in particular, immigrants and refugees who suffer under the digital divide,” Mike Schwartz, the Seattle YWCA’s director of economic empowerment, told StateScoop.

Without access to computers or knowledge of how to use them, residents can be blocked from important information and services, Schwartz said. In addition to finding and applying for work, computer access is increasingly needed to access health, education and housing services.

The YWCA will use digital equity funds to specifically target White Center, a Seattle suburb where about 40% of residents are foreign-born, Schwartz said.

“There’s a lot of demand out there,” Schwartz said. “This digital equity grant will help us get there. I don’t think it will fully meet the needs of the community, but it’s a step in the right direction.

He said the organization also relies on philanthropic support to fund its digital-literacy program.

When Schwartz learned his team had won the $25,000 grant, he contacted colleagues at the Greenbridge Learning Center, a YWCA facility in White Center that serves immigrant families. Staff there can help identify potential laptop and training recipients, Schwartz said.

The YWCA has long offered training to help residents find jobs and learn how to use computers, but the city’s grant will enable the organization to offer more personal assistance, and help it distribute and more tools, Schwartz said. The organization receives funding from many sources, and assists community members with rental assistance, eviction prevention, English language instruction and other services.

Other projects receiving grants from Seattle include technology instruction for formerly incarcerated adults, the creation of new laptop lending libraries, Wi-Fi hotspot deployment and digital connectivity for people living in supportive or transitional housing.

In total, 52 organizations applied for funding this year. Loter, the interim CIO, said in the press release that it was a “sad part of this process” to narrow down the 19 winners.

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