Outside the Greenlining Institute's offices on 14th Street in Downtown Oakland. August 11, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

An internet connection can be a lifeline for many reasons: It can provide the ability to study, apply for jobs, or connect with resources and support. But not everyone has access; in fact, nearly one in four Californians are unconnected or under-connected. 

The issue of internet access became more pronounced during the pandemic, when libraries, cafés, and other places with internet didn’t allow people inside. The city of Oakland has launched several initiatives in recent years to address the problem, and this week, it announced that 10 local organizations will receive $10,000 each to help close the digital divide among residents. The recipients will receive the grants through the city’s partnership with Greenlining Institute, a local nonprofit focused on resolving systemic inequalities through policy work, in what’s been dubbed the Town Link program

The organizations are: 

  • Allen Temple Baptist Church
  • Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS)
  • Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI)
  • El Timpano
  • Homies Empowerment
  • Oakland Workers Fund
  • Roots Community Health Center
  • St Mary’s Center
  • The Unity Council
  • Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay

The selected groups will use the allotted funds to educate residents about free and affordable broadband plans, host a digital literacy course consisting of 15 residents each, as well as supply access to computers and tablets to individuals that lack devices. 

Each organization will do outreach campaigns in their own way. Allen Temple Baptist Church, for example, will spread information through social media and during worship services, according to Reverend Jeremy J. McCants, the church’s liaison for the program. “We have been seeking ways to be voices and bring liberative solutions to Black and brown communities from our respective spaces, and thought that this would be an awesome project for both Greenlining Institute and Allen Temple to partner,” McCants told The Oaklandside.  

Grant recipients will also be required to collect at least 100 survey responses from residents regarding their internet needs and experiences. Itzel Diaz-Romo, interim development and communications director for The Unity Council, said her organization is focused on outreach to Spanish-speaking community members. “We’re going to meet people one-on- one through our career center and Head Start program, and we’re going to be passing out flyers,” Diaz-Romo said. 

Vinhcent Le, Greenlining Institute’s technology equity legal counsel, said they selected each organization because of the reputations they’ve built in their respective communities. “What Oakland and Greenlining both realized is that these internet providers don’t advertise their free affordable internet programs,” Le said. “We want to make sure that the organizations we picked would have trust with the community so that people would actually believe what they had to say.” 

The idea for the program dates back to 2018 when Andrew Peterson, the city’s then chief information officer, was trying to figure out how to make the internet more accessible to those who don’t have home access. Prior to leaving his position, Peterson oversaw the launch of the city’s free internet service “OakWifi” in late 2020. 

“Initially, [Peterson] really didn’t know how he was going to make this possible because there were a lot of moving pieces [to this problem],” said Jacque Larrainzar, the city’s race and equity analyst who helped create the program.

Around the same time, in mid-2020, the Greenlining Institute published the report,“On the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide,” containing interviews with Oakland and Fresno residents who had limited or no access to the internet. The interviews were conducted prior to the pandemic. 

In the report, the Greenlining Institute mapped internet accessibility throughout California and found that 22% of California residents are unconnected or under connected to the internet. They also concluded that Latino households are just over 20% less likely to have access to the internet than their white counterparts. A separate report included in the city’s 2018 project “Oakland Equity Indicators” showed that 26% of Oakland residents do not have high speed internet at home. 

Larrainzar sent Peterson the institute’s report, and that’s when the idea took off. “[Peterson] was very excited about what Greenlining was doing,” Larrainzar said. “Then the pandemic happened, and he really felt this [internet accessibility issue] had become a priority.” 

Greenlining Institute’s report also includes a map of internet accessibility throughout Oakland. Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second (Mpbs), and the average internet speed ranges from 12 to 25 Mbps. The map from the report shows a majority of East Oakland residents have below average internet speeds, though it doesn’t include the percentage of residents affected. 

According to the report, areas in the city that were historically redlined such as a majority of West Oakland and parts of East Oakland are experiencing the losing end of the digital divide. According to Le, Greenlining Institute’s technology equity counsel, the grant program is a continuation of the data they compiled through that report and hopes Town Link will help close the digital divide.

“So many people say the price of internet plans is the reason for this divide,” said Le. “And that’s because there is an education and outreach gap [of what is actually available].” 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.