The program, which focuses on digital justice, gives Seattle residents the tools to thrive

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When Nga Le immigrated to Seattle from Vietnam five years ago, she needed help finding a job and building her language skills. With the resources of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Le was able to use technology and educational programs to help her pursue those goals — and settle in Seattle.

Looking for a job isn’t the only reason people need internet access and skills these days. From making a doctor’s appointment to video chatting with friends, computers and the internet have become invaluable tools in modern life – especially during the pandemic. But these resources are not distributed fairly. That’s why Comcast partners with Seattle-based ACRS to support their mission with critical technical support.

Le has leveraged these resources at ACRS, an organization that seeks to empower and improve the well-being of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and other underserved communities. Le is currently taking ACRS’s ESL Ready to Work course and a computer class.

When she moved to the United States, she said through a translator that she could not speak English. American culture also took some getting used to. She also wanted to learn English and computer skills to get a job. When a friend told her about ACRS, she decided to enroll in a computer class.

“If I want to apply for a job or do anything, I have to use the computer, it’s really beneficial for me,” Le said.

Alexandra Olins, director of labor and citizenship at ACRS, describes the organization as a community center where people can grab a meal, connect to therapy services and access resources to help find work. The organization serves the community holistically by providing so-called full service – which, Martha Reyes, ACRS Development Manager, encompasses as everything it takes for a person to be successful.

The organization serves approximately 30,000 customers annually with offerings in more than 40 languages ​​and a location in Seattle’s 98118 zip code, one of the most diverse in the country, as well as two satellite locations in Kent and Bellevue to expand the organization’s reach beyond King County.

Improving life with digital justice

It was ACRS’s work in the community that led Comcast to partner with the organization over 10 years ago. “We recognize that they [ACRS] are affecting some of our most vulnerable community members across multiple generations,” said Diem Ly, director of community partnership at Comcast. Comcast’s support included a $158,000 investment, a state-of-the-art technology overhaul, and a free Internet connection.

The partnership between Comcast and ACRS is focused on using digital resources to further ACRS’ mission by training job seekers in computer basics and Internet skills, Reyes said.

This support has been particularly important over the past two years. “Human services and social work is all about people helping other people,” Reyes said. As social distancing measures were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, ACRS’s services went virtual. At the start of the pandemic, Reyes said Comcast approached the organization and asked what it needed, and with the company’s support, ACRS ramped up its Wi-Fi and distributed laptops to all members of its 300 employees. “By being able to connect personally with clients and our colleagues, we have been able to help our clients and the community heal,” said Reyes.

ACRS will continue to offer virtual classes set up during the pandemic and the entire first floor of the organization’s building is now known as Digital Empowerment Zone, which hosts virtual classrooms, digital literacy workshops and wellness groups. This digital space was made possible by Comcast Lift Zone.

“It’s a rare place where they have the full power of all of this technology to be able to open doors to their own possibilities,” Ly said. ACRS’s Reyes envisions Lift Zone supporting youth volunteering with ACRS.

These services fit into ACRS’ overarching mission to build more digital equity. While their program is open to everyone, most clients do not speak English as a first language and may not have the financial resources to maintain internet access at home. ACRS also has a Digital Literacy Lab, which houses internet and technology resources, as well as culturally-responsive training.

Providing resources through culturally appropriate programs and individual support is essential to building justice, Reyes said. Ly agreed, saying that digital justice means providing internet connectivity and access to technology, but also education and training.

Impart skills to be successful

As of 2017, Comcast has been the sole supporter of ACRS’s digital literacy program, Olins said. It offers courses four times a year, three hours a week for ten weeks, that guide participants in setting up an email account, managing passwords and using social media.

Drawing on his experience as a digital literacy instructor and employment case manager at ACRS, Jeff Ng said many students taking the digital literacy course are not native English speakers so assistants who speak other languages ​​are available to assist.

In this nurturing environment, students grow and change. Ng said that sometimes people are unsure of their abilities, but he always gives them the opportunity and encouragement to try. Often, Ng said, students don’t know anything about using the computer or the Internet at first, but by the end he watches them email their teachers, share pictures online, or search for jobs.

“It takes time and patience, and you have to encourage students to try a little bit, a little bit more,” Ng said. “At the end of the course I can say that they all improve in terms of their digital skills and especially their self-confidence.”

One student that Ng tutored virtually was reluctant to speak or ask questions in class. He could see that she might have something to say, but she felt uncomfortable doing so. He encouraged her to ask questions, which she started using the chat option in Microsoft Teams. Soon after, she began actively asking her questions in class, even clarifying them with questions sent via email. Finally, she shared a Google doc with Ng with her favorite recipe from her home country.

“It’s very encouraging because now she knows how to express herself using the tools I taught her during the computer class,” Ng said.

Seeing this improvement and empowering the students is what Ng enjoys most about his work. With the Lift Zone Lab, Ng said, students will have more opportunities to use the internet and engage with resources like distance learning and job hunting.

“I believe that with the tools that we will provide, we will help even more customers to empower themselves and gain independence,” said Ng.

In every program at ACRS, participants are assigned culturally competent case managers who often share a common language with the participant, Olins said. Working with the case manager helps students develop an education and career plan. In the early days of the pandemic, as resources came online, caseworkers went to customers’ homes to troubleshoot connectivity issues, Olins said. Consistent with social distancing protocols, caseworkers would help people from their porch or direct younger family members with more digital literacy to access programs.

Even before the pandemic, Olins said it was clear that digital literacy was a crucial skill for many aspects of life, such as making doctor’s appointments, looking at children’s grades, applying for a job, or even checking a bus schedule.

“The focus is on making people full members of their community, and that really doesn’t work without digital literacy,” Olins said.

And when COVID emerged, digital literacy became even more important. “You couldn’t complete any part of the class without digital literacy,” Olins said.

But the students learned quickly. “People got over some of their fear of digital literacy because they had to do things over and over again to get into class,” Olins said. “And then they kind of took charge and really moved faster than I think it did before COVID.”

Le, the ACRS client, has come a long way. After attending the class, Le said she felt confident about using the computer. She uses it to send her resume and search for jobs. “Now I can [use] the computer to send emails to my friend and family in Vietnam,” she said, including her sons and other family members who still live in Vietnam.

Her training at ACRS enabled Le to overcome the initial difficulties of learning a new language and culture. She is able to use digital resources for goals outside of language learning and job search. Recently, Le has been using the internet to find recipes to cook for her family – and she says she’s made many friends at ACRS.

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