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“Nothing could be more important than making sure that the digital divide does not exist anymore. Detroiters need what human-I-T is offering…to make sure they can connect with other folks, to make sure that they can do some of the things that they need to do for their jobs.”

This was said by Portia Robinson, the CEO of Focus:HOPE. Focus:HOPE, the non-profit organization where human-I-T’s Detroit hub is housed, uses practical action to combat racism, poverty, and injustice in the City of Detroit. Through these actions, Focus:HOPE has articulated its own way of “doing the most good”.

“Doing the most good” is an ideal we also attempt to live up to through our work reducing e-waste and shrinking the digital divide. However, we’re only one organization. In order for us to completely execute on this mantra, we need a cohort of organizations (like Focus:HOPE) and individuals to be at our side; dedicated to making the world a more sustainable, equitable place. 

It was with this in mind that we collaborated with Detroit’s Office of Digital Inclusion and Connect 313 to create the Empowering Digital Detroit (EDD) initiative. The goal of this initiative is for Detroit businesses and organizations to divert 500,000 pounds of e-waste from landfills, while also distributing 1,000 laptops to Detroit families in-need by the end of Digital Inclusion Week in October. And, given how the initiative’s kickoff event went, we feel confident about our ability to meet (and hopefully surpass) those goals. 

Held on Wednesday, June 16, at our warehouse and refurbishment center at Focus: HOPE in Detroit, the kickoff event was attended by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit city council members and officials, and an array of local business and community leaders 

The event had two main components: a variety of energized speakers who voiced their support and excitement for EDD, and an opportunity for attendees to tour our facility and get a glimpse at what repurposing e-waste really entails. 

While the content of each speaker’s thoughts varied, all were marked by an agreement with three central premises:

  1. Both the e-waste crisis and the digital divide have already had stark effects on Detroit,
  1. Expanding digital access in Detroit is necessary for the city to ensure all Detroiters can participate and thrive in the digital economy, and
  1. Detroit’s city government, community leaders, and businesses must take an active role in ushering the city towards its potential position as a national leader in digital inclusion

The speaker series began with human-I-T’s Chief Innovation Officer and Co-Founder, James Jack, who echoed these sentiments. 

Photo by Graeme Jackson

“[EDD] is a community-based solution that not only reduces harm to the environment, but empowers our local citizens here,” Jack said, “Electronic waste represents 2% of our trash in our landfills, but 70% of the toxic waste, so it’s a growing problem that our solution will really address and make sure we empower our local citizens.”

During his remarks, Jack also introduced the attendees to a central idea of the EDD initiative: to introduce Detroit to a circular economic model which reduces waste from local economic activity while simultaneously creating job opportunities and fueling digital inclusion programs for Detroit residents.

Jack acknowledged how human-I-T’s first year in Detroit was made possible thanks to investors including General Motors, Rocket Community Fund, the McGregor Fund and Craig Newmark Philanthropies . Jack went on to thank early tech donors who have helped jumpstart EDD, including Rocket Companies, Ally Financial and Wayne State University, as well as representatives from the City of Detroit, before concluding.

Jack’s remarks were bolstered by the words of Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit. As he took to the stage, Duggan opened his speech with some straight facts. “Inequality has been an issue in this country, really since our founding…but the digital divide threatens to make the problems of inequality far greater.”

Photo by Graeme Jackson

Duggan then brought up a point we’ve been making for nearly a decade: bridging the digital divide isn’t complex, it just requires that we connect people to devices and the internet so we can create equitable access to opportunity. Mayor Duggan also explained how our operations in Detroit thus far were already directly responsible for uplifting people in that very room with digital opportunity. Afterwards, he turned his attention to Detroit’s business community of Detroit. 

He emphatically expressed his desire for the Detroit business community to become active participants in the EDD initiative. “I really hope that the business community in this area will support [human-I-T],” Duggan said, “And the next time you’re upgrading your equipment, don’t throw it out – send it to human-I-T. They’ll be providing opportunities for a lot of people who deserve it.”

It’s important to note that, when we talk about providing opportunities to people who deserve it, that means everybody who is alive right now. Everybody deserves to have access to the tools they need to unlock their potential. Especially people like Devin Waugh, Andre’a Garwood, Andria Garwood, and Amariah Wims-Fuller. These three rising stars of the Detroit Public School System were kind enough to speak at the EDD kickoff event, and their words had a profound effect on us all. 

As each of these future leaders stated, the impact of having access to a device and the internet was not some sort of abstract concept – it will have real, tangible effects on people’s ability to achieve their dreams. “I’ll have a much easier time accessing school-related websites and improving essays, presentations, and class work,” Waugh said. 

Andre’a and Andria Garwood, Salutatorian and Valedictorian at Mumford High School, respectively, also expanded on the importance of digital access. “My goal is to become a physical therapist. Having access to a laptop, to me, is important because it gives individuals the opportunity to obtain a college degree,” said Andre’a Garwood.

“Having a laptop is important to me because it’s a way of life,” said Andria Garwood. “It gives you instant communication with almost any person in the world. It helps everyone stay updated with anything and new information.”

Amariah Wims-Fuller, an eight-grader with dreams of going to either Howard University or Harvard University to become a defense attorney, also demonstrated her intimate knowledge of how digital access can help protect a community during times of crisis. “Having a laptop is important not only to me, but to my peers as well,” Wims-Fuller said. “During this epidemic, we as a community have to stay protected, socially distance, and still receive a proper education.”

Joshua Edmonds, the Director of the City of Detroit’s Office of Digital Inclusion, built on the points raised by these bright students during his own remarks, asserting that the future of Detroit rests on the city’s ability to empower its young people with digital access. 

Photo by Graeme Jackson

“You all have heard from these amazing students who are going to go off and do great things. Imagine how many more we have in Detroit already. Imagine how many more, as we are repurposing that technology from our business community, what that means,” Edmonds said. “That’s more lawyers. That’s more radiologists, it’s more physical therapists. And so we can definitely acknowledge the success for the event today as well as the momentum in this room but, moving forward, it’s all hands on deck. We need everybody.”

Edmonds’ words were followed by Council President Brenda Jones, Focus: HOPE CEO Portia Robinson, and Council Member Roy McCalister Jr. joining human-I-T’s co-founders Gabe Middleton and James Jack to distribute devices to 13 recipients before commencing with tours of our facility.

As we handed each recipient their device, we felt invigorated and inspired to get out there and find more partners who want to make Detroit a more socially equitable, environmentally healthy place to live. To us, each recipient that was given a device was a living testament to the potential of the EDD initiative to positively impact Detroit and its residents.

“We make it easy for our partners to do good,” said human-I-T CEO and co-founder Gabe Middleton said during an interview at the event. “By simply donating old electronics instead of sending them to a landfill, companies can help to protect the environment, create jobs right here in Detroit, and create opportunities for students, seniors, veterans, and families.”

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