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Digital Skills Foster Confidence in Life

Digital Beat

Dr Revati Prasad
     Dr. Prasad

In a field focused on maps and megabytes, speed and latency, those of us working to realize universal, equitable broadband can sometimes lose sight of what connectivity can mean for people’s day-to-day lives.

Today, we are launching some phenomenal research by EveryoneOn CEO Norma E. Fernandez that not only expertly applies the tools of in-depth, careful, and closely observed, qualitative research, but does so to focus on often overlooked groups—low-income African American/Black and Latina women. Her new report, , focuses on women’s lived experiences and offers valuable insights into how digital inclusion programs can be designed to fit into complicated lives and meet diverse needs.

Fernandez set out to understand what motivated women to embark on their digital skills journeys, and when they did, what circumstances they encountered that either created a speed bump or smoothed their path. Through interviews and surveys, Fernandez’s research discovered common threads, ones that transcend race, ethnicity, and geography.

Learning, Helping Others, and Independence Are Motivators to Build Digital Literacy and Skills

The women who participated in Fernandez’s research understood the imperative to be connected and have skills to survive in the digital landscape. They wanted to feel comfortable in this world and not have to rely on family or friends to conduct online activities.

Family, Friends, and Community Support Broadband Adoption and Learning

The women needed the support of their families to be able to attend and complete their digital skills training, both for logistical and emotional support. Community partners were also essential in ensuring women’s access to digital skills training.

Juggling Fear, Domestic/Household Responsibilities, and Unaffordable Internet Prices Are Realities

Women had serious practical constraints on their time and ability to develop their digital skills. They needed to navigate domestic responsibilities—such as preparing meals, doing laundry, and caring for parents—in order to even attend the training sessions.

As the end of the Affordable Connectivity Program looms, we must reckon with ongoing needs. The majority of women who participated in Fernandez’s research said paying internet bills was a challenge. How do they continue to hone their skills, find new jobs that use these skills, or take advantage of online conveniences, if they cannot afford ongoing internet service in their homes?

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Fernandez’s work was how her findings stressed both practical and emotional aspects. Yes, women wanted skills so they could get a different job or manage some tasks easier. But they also wanted to not feel embarrassed because they needed help from their kids to do something online. Fear, Fernandez discovered, is a huge obstacle to beginning a journey to acquire digital skills. How do any of us feel when we think we could break something valuable if we don’t know what we’re doing?

Fernandez also wanted to understand what it means for these women to become more connected and more digitally skilled.

Digital Skills Foster Confidence in Life

The women who attended the digital skills training programs learned to do a range of daily tasks—from using email to communicate with their children’s teachers to creating flyers for their volunteer activities. Their successful acquisition of these skills translated into a newfound confidence that extended beyond their digital endeavors.

Fernandez’s strongest finding was that every interviewee, without exception, expressed heightened empowerment and overall confidence. Several women expressed sentiments such as “I feel like I can do anything now!” This is the kind of data that cannot be “captured” by surveys alone.

The conversations Fernandez had in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area revealed how digital inclusion practitioners may conceptualize things differently than these women do. For instance, when Fernandez asked about “challenges” in their digital skills journey, the word did not resonate. Sure, they needed to find childcare or transportation before they could come to the class, but those were simply the facts of their life, not challenges.

Fernandez was able to glean these insights because of how she did her research, interacting in English and Spanish, ensuring these women understood what the research was for and how their words would be used. Fernandez built a crucial level of trust. That participants gained something from the interaction was also important. Fernandez recognized the value of people sharing their time and perspectives and offered them a gift certificate for participating.

These crucial insights into the lived experiences of low-income Black and Latina women are exactly why the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society set up the . We want to support research projects, often practitioner-led, that will help us understand realities on the ground, design better programs, and demonstrate what makes a real difference in people’s lives. A new round of fellowships will open this summer.

Fernandez will present this research tomorrow in a webinar hosted by the Benton Institute. She will be joined in conversation by Aneta Thomas Lee of the and Maria Chaparro, Founder of . Their discussion will draw from their experiences working with marginalized communities across the country — from the borderlands to the rural Black South, from the Midwest to major urban centers. The panelists will discuss how women gain not just confidence through these digital skills journeys, but also how they are crucial to digital equity organizing within their communities.