Planning for Digital Inclusion in North Carolina
By Samantha Graham, BAND-NC Director
Since I joined IEI two short months ago, I have had the opportunity to work across North Carolina with motivated partners on digital inclusion initiatives. It has been fun and rewarding, but also like drinking through a fire hose! We are hopeful that North Carolina will soon be the first state in the country with a digital inclusion plan in every county; with that hope comes the need for coordination, stakeholder engagement and guidance. Federal and other funds will soon be made available for local level digital inclusion project implementation, but in order to thoughtfully and responsibly use these funds, communities must be on the same page on their assets, needs and priorities.
My first trip in my new role was to attend the Western Piedmont Council of Governments (COG) regional digital inclusion plan kickoff meeting on October 5 in Hickory. I was able to listen in as community leaders from their four-county region discussed their digital equity assets and challenges, such as computer refurbishing programs at the local Goodwill and digital navigator training through the libraries. COG staff planners will work with community partners over the next several months to develop a plan, work towards county-level approval and then start funding digital inclusion strategies.
After leaving Hickory, I headed west towards Hendersonville for the Dogwood Health Trust Annual Community Meeting (is there anything better than the North Carolina mountains in October? Fall foliage and digital equity discussions were an excellent way to start my new position). The meeting brought together partners from the 18 western counties and the Qualla boundary. Topics included pre-K-12 education, workforce development, affordable housing and health disparities. Digital equity remains a regional priority as it provides support for many urgent community issues, and we look forward to continuing our work with the Trust through 2023.
My travel week ended with an inspiring and informative meeting with the North Carolina Digital Equity and Inclusion Coalition, led by BAND-NC’s former director, Maggie Woods! The group met in-person for the first time since March 2020 and has more than doubled in size thanks to recognition of the importance of digital equity through the pandemic. It is an exciting time to be in the digital equity and inclusion space and we are lucky to have such knowledgeable and driven leaders in our state.
The remainder of October has been a gratifying kind of busy as our team looks toward future programming, including a peer-sharing network, webinar series, and continued partnerships for regional digital inclusion planning. The fire hose is starting to let up, but our plans are only just beginning.