Director’s Log | October 2023
Earlier in October, I had the honor of attending the Dogwood Health Trust’s Western NC Broadband Spotlight event with our BAND-NC team in Asheville. The event celebrated the finalization of the digital inclusion planning process for communities in western North Carolina, and the beginning of new partnerships and resources for residents in the region.
As representatives from the five regional councils of government (COGs) and their local partners presented their experiences and success stories, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lessons we learned at IEI throughout this digital inclusion journey.
We need more braids. Our recent Task Force on Talent First Economics stressed the importance of having intermediary partners with the ability to “braid” different funding sources together to support the “boots on the ground” organizations doing the work. Braiding funds makes it easier on these groups, especially smaller nonprofits that may lack administrative capacity, by providing one contract with one set of deliverables, one timeline and one reporting structure. For BAND-NC, IEI was able to braid multiple funding sources to support COGs in their digital planning efforts.
Regional efforts work. When we started BAND-NC, we saw several individual counties successfully develop digital inclusion plans; we also saw really great examples of regional efforts, particularly those led by the Land of Sky Regional Council in the west and the Upper Coastal Plains COG in the east. For many areas of the state, regional approaches allow for more efficiencies in the planning process and the ability to roll up countywide needs into a regional plan. For some COGs, these plans were used to support comprehensive economic development plans required by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. For others, they now have a blueprint for where to invest when state and federal digital inclusion funds become available.
Focus on new partners. The point of digital inclusion planning is to identify the existing gaps that need to be addressed and to engage communities in developing shared solutions to bridge those gaps. This means bringing partners to the table with a deeper understanding of the social determinants of health within a community, including smaller nonprofits and local champions. A positive side effect of bringing new partners to the table is building trust and nurturing long-term relationships that may address other future challenges in the region beyond digital access. Truly a win-win for all!
Dogwood Health Trust Vice President of Economic Opportunity Sarah Thompson referred to digital access as a “super determinant of health” during her remarks at the WNC event. If you’re not familiar with the term, it essentially describes something that affects and influences traditional social determinants of health. As we continue to work with COGs and other communities around the state, I encourage all of our partners to remember digital access in this light; not just as a means to access the internet, but as a necessary tool for a healthy and thriving North Carolina.