On March 26, 2021, human-I-T staff parked a Chevrolet Suburban High Country SUV next to a small building in Detroit’s historic Mexicantown neighborhood. In the building, Detroit nonprofit Southwest Solutions runs its Adult Learning Lab. Piled into the back of the SUV were one hundred laptops reserved for individuals served by Southwest Solutions’ adult literacy, mental health counseling, job training, homeownership assistance, and veteran programs.
The laptops were provided in collaboration with our partner, General Motors. According to Data Driven Detroit, roughly 25% of Detroit households lacked internet access in 2018, but that number could represent up to 40% of residents. This staggering figure is underscored by The National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s (NDIA) ranking of Detroit’s connectivity rate as the lowest nationally among large cities.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic only highlighted the scale and impact of the digital divide in Detroit, as suddenly almost every facet of day-to-day life required access to a personal computer and the internet. This dramatic shift is especially hard for low-income families and individuals receiving vital services from nonprofits like Southwest Solutions.
“Because of the COVID crisis, we had to transition many of our programs to online service delivery,” said Sean de Four, President and CEO of Southwest Solutions (SWS). “The digital divide in our community has made it difficult for many of our consumers to access the important services they need.”
Recognizing the need its clients were facing, SWS approached GM to help find a solution to assist its clients. GM had already been collaborating with human-I-T since our mid-2020 arrival in Detroit, thanks to a $1.3 million grant from GM that inspired other digital divide leaders in the city to support human-I-T.
“The launch of human-I-T’s Detroit warehouse could not have come to the city at a better time as the pandemic showed us just how important it is to be connected,” said Lori Wingerter, Chief Philanthropy Officer at General Motors and Connect 313 Board Member. “We’re excited to collaborate with Southwest Solutions to continue to put tech to work for Detroiters.”
The existing partnership between GM and human-I-T allowed us to connect with SWS, identify their needs, quickly source laptops from businesses in Detroit, and prepare them for redistribution.
However, while having access to technology is a necessary first step in becoming a digital citizen, it’s not sufficient by itself. Becoming fully connected requires understanding how to use the technology and having the resources to fix problems as they arise. For these reasons, human-I-T provides all laptop recipients with warranty and tech support for one year.
On the day of the laptop donation event, the recipients joined the staff of SWS and human-I-T in the Adult Learning Lab for a few words from the organizations’ leaders before getting their devices.
Standing in front of the devices and local press, Sean de Four briefly spoke about how these devices would benefit the individuals that SWS serves. “We know you all will put these computers from human-I-T to good use,” de Four said. “We know how hard you’re all working to improve your lives and your circumstances to live a whole life.”
“Days like today are what human-I-T is all about, it’s really a culmination of all of our hard work,” said Gabe Middleton, CEO and Co-Founder of human-I-T. “These are more than just laptops in these boxes. They’re tools of opportunity. They’re tools for curiosity and discovery. They’re tools to help people grow. But never forget that the purpose of that growth is that one day you can give back and pay it forward.”
After the remarks, both organizations began distributing the devices. For recipients like Charles Montegue, a Detroit native and Air Force veteran, receiving this laptop had deep personal meaning.
“This [laptop] will help me video chat with my doctor, and also with my sons in England and Japan,” Charles said. “It’ll also let me see my grandkids clowning around. Right now, I’m trying to do it all over the phone, and it’s just not the same. [It] is a big life changer.”