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The Biden administration’s proposed budget presents a continued opportunity to build digital equity nationwide. As cities and states continue to develop broadband infrastructure, we must think big and put forward strategies and plans to maximize digital equity for our communities. We know the communities and cities left behind need digital equity strategies the most. And there’s an abundance of funding and support right now to make it happen.
The President’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024 includes billions of dollars to invest in workforce development, technology, and innovation, with the long-term goal of stimulating our economy and creating jobs in an equitable, sustainable, and representative way. We believe this budget philosophy provides the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the historic and already approved $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Achieving digital equity means investing in systemic elements that help communities thrive. It’s not just about ensuring internet access. It entails promoting digital literacy and programs in partnership with educational institutions that enable people who are underrepresented in higher education and tech to develop skills through apprenticeships. It’s modernizing and transitioning into the digital economy our local businesses, governments, schools, and other anchor institutions to create demand for the tech services and skills we’ve trained the community for. It’s revitalizing and building spaces for community and tech ecosystems that house and incubate growth. This is the only way to empower communities in the long term to thrive.
We’ve seen firsthand how this can work. Through our work at our headquarters in Fresno, California, we’ve created over 15,000 jobs, accounting for over a quarter of a billion dollars in aggregated wages. These jobs and salaries are going to women and people of color. We’ve helped grow the city’s GDP by over one percent yearly. Fresno is the second fastest city in the U.S. to recover from the pandemic. And it’s also one of the top ten cities for entrepreneurs of color. Coincidence? We think not.
Ours is a successful model that helps cities strengthen digital infrastructure while upskilling populations left out of economic mobility. As a tech company, we’re building tech economies in underestimated cities. Our paid apprenticeship program empowers communities by teaching them tech skills via public-private partnerships. We hire a number of our apprentices, meaning our tech professionals come from and look like the communities we serve. Their abilities and backgrounds create more innovative and inclusive tech products for our clients, which include governments, schools, small businesses, and nonprofits. We help create demand for our tech talent through our tech services and initiatives like our Digital Empowerment Center in partnership with the city of Fresno. This program, made possible by American Rescue Plan dollars, enables us to provide local businesses with free trainings on digital literacy, specialized tech tools, and skills necessary to succeed in the digital economy. Our approach is a successful model of how communities can maximize historic federal investments to advance digital equity and revitalize underestimated economies.
Nationwide we’ve upskilled and trained thousands from underestimated communities who otherwise might not have considered the tech industry as a place for them. Eighty percent of our alums end up in a tech job, with the average person tripling their annual income from $21,500 to $62,700. We’ve renovated over one million square feet in previously vacant, blighted spaces within underserved downtown areas across the country, creating vibrant spaces for innovation and commerce. We’ve raised over $100 million to support this critical work, expanded our model to serve ten cities, and built a diverse and representative tech apprenticeship engine to drive national jobs and economic recovery.
We’re thrilled that the federal government is committed to funding digital equity for communities. But focusing on internet access is not enough. While necessary to advance, it is only a small piece to successfully launching and strengthening digital economies. Digital literacy, workforce training, and fostering entrepreneurship through cross-sector partnerships are essential. Cities and states can leverage federal investments to embed more permanent, codified approaches to create and infuse digital equity in our communities. Cities and states can and must strategically maximize historic funding for long-term economic growth.
Laura Maristany is Vice President for External Affairs at Bitwise Industries.
Everyone is talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Government entities, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals across the country are waking up and asking themselves, “HOW?” How do I ensure my organization is representative of the communities I serve? How do I support collaboration and inclusion in my organization? It’s a sign that more organizations see the problems, but don’t yet have clear solutions. Government entities have a crucial role to play in developing and implementing solutions that work.
Interestingly, while much advocacy has gone into highlighting the need for more diversity across sectors, less has gone into sharing specific solutions that actually increase equity and inclusion for some of the most underestimated nationwide.
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Transforming personal and organizational commitment to equity into action can feel much like the first day back on the job after a long vacation, particularly when it follows intensive reflection on the long history of institutionalized prejudices that led to present circumstances. Although a sign that one’s work and relationships serve important ends, this sense of being overwhelmed by the enormity of a task can also be powerfully demotivating.
Two tactics have helped me forestall mental paralysis, and can help us all as we operationalize equity in our workplaces: zoom in from the big picture down to priority actions that feel more doable; and look to people and institutions that have been there for role models and ideas.
While the market seemingly recovers from the effects of the pandemic, the recession’s effects on Black, Brown and other underrepresented communities have been devastating, with experts calling the economic comeback “the most unequal in modern US history.”
Economists have long sounded alarms about the country’s increasing wealth disparity, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this destabilizing rift. In the US, the top 1% earners took in nearly a quarter of all income, making 26.3 times more than the bottom 99%. According to the latest data from the Federal Reserve, “the top 1% of Americans have a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion (or 30.4% of all household wealth in the US), while the bottom 50% holds $2.1 trillion, or 1.9% of all wealth.”
One thing about building a business that no one ever tells you: your company’s culture is set in stone by the time you hire your tenth employee. Who you hire largely determines your ability to succeed; a recent study found 65 percent of startups fail due to people-related reasons. No pressure, right?
We’re Bitwise Industries, a Central California startup driving economic growth despite being far from the streets of Los Angeles and the high-tech workspaces of the Bay Area. Bitwise taps into the “human potential” of our hometown of Fresno in three key ways: teaching digital skills at our coding school, renovating buildings to provide physical spaces for more than 200 startups and hiring local tech talent at our custom software development firm.