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Digital Inclusion efforts thriving at the IRC

In October, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City’s Digital Inclusion team helped close to 60 refugees receive desktop computers, mobile hotspots, three free months of Internet access, and basic computer skills training at a ‘Bridging the Gap’ technology distribution event. Vikram Ravi, our Digital Literacy & Access AmeriCorps VISTA, worked with PCs for People and Mobile Beacon—two nonprofits aiming to provide technology to low-income individuals with the goal of breaking them from the cycle of poverty.

Launched earlier this year, the IRC’s Digital Inclusion program began with the goal of creating equitable access to three aspects of the digital world: broadband Internet, devices and education. Relevance is key to the IRC’s digital initiatives. Instead of jumping into the complexities of operating systems or RAM storage, digital inclusion focuses on showing recently arrived refugees how technology can be useful in their daily lives. That means providing access to smartphones, computers, and wireless connections, but it also means trainings focus on daily needs and interests, from watching music videos from their home country or to using a banking website to set up an automatic bill-pay. 

With the recent push towards STEM fields, it is more important than ever to make digital inclusion a priority. “The precursor to STEM is digital inclusion,” Vikram noted. “Before you get into STEM, you have to have internet in your home, you have to have a computer, you have to have basic education on how to navigate a computer.” The Digital Inclusion program helps refugees take those first steps.

Tech mentor volunteer and refugee stand with computer hardware at the IRC in Salt Lake City
Digital Inclusion efforts began at the IRC in Salt Lake City with the support of Cotopaxi and Utah Open Source early in 2017 when we established our Tech Mentor program. Photo: Jesse Sheets/IRC

Digital Inclusion supports several different programs helping refugees in the community overcome the technology barrier. Digital Readiness for Refugees, for example, pairs clients with a digital literacy volunteer at the Salt Lake City Public Library. The volunteers work one-on-one clients for three to six weeks, providing support as they learn basic computer skills. Similarly, the IRC’s Tech Mentor program, in partnership with Cotopaxi and Utah Open Source, provides refurbished desktop computers to clients who agree to participate in an in-home mentor program.

In addition to these efforts, the IRC hosts monthly smartphone distribution events and digital inclusion workshops. The smartphone distributions provide federally-subsidized cell phones and data plans to low-income individuals, while the workshops focus on exposing refugee youth to the possibilities of technology.

We live in a world driven by technology, and programs like this help the IRC serve populations who might otherwise be excluded from digital access. “If you think about it, every social issue of our day is connected to and cruxed upon an individual’s ability to access and use technology,” says Vikram. “Everything from immigration to healthcare to education to getting a better job or connecting with family members, all of these things require access and being able to navigate technology. There’s no aspect of [refugee] resettlement that doesn't involve technology.”

Making technology accessible to resettled refugees is essential as they build their lives here in Salt Lake City. The Digital Inclusion program helps us bridge the technology gap and ensure refugees resettled by the IRC have support as they navigate their new lives in the U.S.

Learn more about supporting our digital inclusion efforts by emailing us at SaltLakeCity [at] Rescue.org (subject: Digital%20Inclusion)