Milwaukee nonprofits receive grants to bridge digital divide

Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy
Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy

Dinosaur computers. That’s what Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy, director of the Hmong American Friendship Association, calls the six hulking devices stationed in the nonprofit’s computer lab. When handled with care, they roar to life, mere overheated fossils of the early days of the internet.

But while they may be old, these computers are mighty. Of the kids who use them after school, Kiatoukaysy estimates that over half do not have access to the internet at home.

“Nowadays, using the internet is like eating food,” said Kiatoukaysy. “It’s really needed, given the fact that it’s a part of our daily lives.”

As many have turned to online resources for school and work since the COVID-19 pandemic, accessible broadband has become a big issue, warn experts. In Milwaukee, at least 25% of residents do not have broadband in their homes, most of which are in low-income communities, according to data from the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau.

The Milwaukee Broadband Partnership, an effort led by the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, is studying the scope and scale of broadband access and affordability needs in priority areas in the community, with the intent of yielding a set of potential solutions and recommendations for possible private and public sector collaborations.

Bridging what is called the “digital divide” is not an easy task. But recent efforts made by AT&T and Spectrum have made it so that nonprofits in Milwaukee will continue to develop digital education and broadband technology for the communities who need it the most.

Dextra Hadnot of AT&T alongside Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy of the Hmong American Friendship Association and others as the nonprofit receives its grant.

AT&T is committing more than $2 billion from 2021-2023 in broadband offers, as well as educational resources through AT&T Connected Learning, a program to connect students to skills, resources, and opportunities for success in school and in life, said the provider in a media release. Those donations include two grants to Milwaukee area organizations.

Similarly, Spectrum is committing $8 million over six years to nonprofit organizations in underserved rural and urban areas, $1.1 million of which will be reportedly spent this year.

Hmong American Friendship Association

The Hmong American Friendship Association received a $25,000 AT&T Foundation grant in early November to help expand their youth academic program, which provides homework help, digital literacy training and tutoring to Hmong students in the computer lab after school. Close to 100 students are in the program, said Kiatoukaysy.

Most of that money was spent on 10 new computers for the lab, which, including the still-functioning dinosaurs, expands their capacity to 16, explained Kiatoukaysy. Leftover funds will be used to train daily tech tutors, of which there are currently seven – a mix between retired teachers, college and high school students.

“Our dream is that the kids will bond with them and that the tutors can be role models,” said Kiatoukaysy.

HAFA is dedicated to improving the quality of life for Southeast Asian refugee families in the Greater Milwaukee area by promoting self-sufficiency and the preservation of cultural heritage.

“AT&T looks at this as a quality-of-life issue,” added Dextra Hadnot, director of external affairs for AT&T Milwaukee. “We live in a digital economy now, and for those who don’t have the ability to participate, they get left behind.”

Greater Milwaukee Urban League

Dr. Eve Hall
Dr. Eve Hall

The AT&T Foundation also announced a $25,000 grant to the Greater Milwaukee Urban League to help provide access to technology for African American students in the city.

In addition, Spectrum gave the Urban League a $45,000 Digital Education grant to create a “Technology Innovation Hub,” where students in need receive digital training workshops to help them build new skills and complete homework during the school year.

The $45,000 grant is the second Spectrum Digital Education grant for the GMUL, bringing total Spectrum support for the organization to $70,000 since the grant program started in 2017.

“The Urban League is conditioned to be an additional support in this community around the digital divide,” said Eve Hall, president and CEO of the GMUL. “We know there are equity issues.”

The grants come as the GMUL expands its reach with the opening of a new satellite office at 3410 W. Silver Spring Drive. It will be used to create a pipeline of talent for employment in five targeted industries in the Milwaukee area: technology, manufacturing, health care, construction and the skilled trades, explained Hall.

Also expanding the organization’s reach is its “Mobile Lab,” essentially a van with laptops that schools and community centers can use. The Spectrum grant has allowed GMUL leadership to hire an IT-person full-time to handle the resources, said Hall.

“You need a computer,” Hall said. “It makes the difference in whether you’re going to advance or not.”

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