I recently attended a workshop in Sacramento with several colleagues who manage digital divide and broadband adoption programs throughout California. During an open discussion session, one of the attendees stood up and exclaimed to the audience of at least 100 people that her County was “invisible.” The County she was referring to is Imperial County. I’ve done a fair amount of work there myself, especially recently, and have heard similar sentiment from others.
I was invited by the Alliance Healthcare Foundation to attend a funding forum in Imperial late last year. The objective of the forum was to give local nonprofit and social service leaders in the healthcare space an opportunity to hear about AHF’s funding initiatives and provide feedback about the challenges the local community faces in raising funds and running programs. During the forum, local leaders expressed a feeling of isolation, one going so far as to call it a community “inferiority complex” (a couple people disagreed with this sentiment) because funders and others doing work in the state treated Imperial as an extension of the larger, surrounding communities of San Diego and Riverside, despite the fact that Imperial is a much different community. Thus, Imperial tends not to receive the kinds of funding it needs to effectively solve its problems.
If evidence is needed to show that successful programs in one community don’t necessarily translate into success in a nearby community, one need to look no further than San Diego and Imperial. San Diego has been the recipient of extensive digital divide program support over the last five years, primarily driven by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF). During that time, San Diego closed its digital divide population by an astounding *20%, bringing it to a virtual tie with San Francisco as the most connected county in California. Imperial, meanwhile, went nowhere. According to a survey by the Imperial County Office of Education, the digital divide in Imperial County is nearly 40%, which is one of the highest in the nation. Fortunately, funders such as CETF and Alliance Healthcare are leading the effort to pay closer attention to these rural and often overlooked parts of the state with direct funding and by learning more about the community they’re trying to serve, directly from the members of the community itself.
Imperial is a very large county geographically. It’s not hard to spot on a map and should certainly not be excluded from one. But it’s a small population, and like most small and sparsely populated communities, it falls through the funding cracks for public resources like libraries and programs that include technology. The unfortunate part is that Imperial is not alone. And what’s worse is that there are dozens of much smaller and just as “invisible” communities throughout the state who suffer from the same kind of attention deficit. This kind of exclusion creates a culture of separation in these communities and, at the end of the day, a lack in the kinds of resources they need to address the challenges they face. Specifically, Imperial is a perfect example of a community that is part of the digital divide.