Lessons learned from the digital divide
“However, what is not being discussed — and should — is how the digital divide undermines workers’ ability to organize and build power, which is especially critical during crises in our digitally connected world. We must close the digital divide for all workers if there is to be any meaningful increase in worker power.”
Last week, I reviewed an eye-opening new report by Phela Townsend, an entrepreneur at Next 100, a startup think tank for and by the next generation of policy leaders. The piece, titled, “Disconnected: How the Digital Divide Harms Workers and What We Can Do About It,” is packed with insightful knowledge about the roots and implications of America’s digital divide, and includes a comprehensive set of solutions and policy recommendations.
I encourage you all to read the full piece and share it among your networks. For me, reading Townsend’s piece presented new lenses on age-old questions about power — what is it, who holds it, and how does it mold our country’s systems?
Her words, coupled with last week’s XPRIZE webinar about designing solutions with a worker-centered approach and next week’s impending election results, have me thinking more about the collaborative role that philanthropy organizations and policymakers can play in challenging inequities. Many of the lessons learned from the digital divide can be applied to a broader set of social challenges that we face today.
Retooling our funding models
To start, when it comes to combating the digital divide, Townsend argues that philanthropy’s pivotal role lies within its ability to deepen the capacity of worker organizations — funding “more entrepreneurial, community-based endeavors.” At New Profit, we recognize the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in this space. Community-led organizations understand the intricate, nuanced needs of their regions. In turn, these organizations need to have adequate capital to scale their impact. As part of this, New Profit has re-tooled our funding model to drive unprecedented capital and support to some of our nation’s most promising innovators — Black, Indigenous, and Latinx social entrepreneurs — who have a deep understanding of their communities.
Organizations led by this diverse set of leaders hold just 10% of nonprofit executive leadership roles and receive only an estimated 4% of total grants and contributions in the sector today. That funding is largely small-dollar, short-term, and restricted, leaving these leaders (many of whom are focused on solutions to empower workers) with little room to innovate and grow. From the digital divide and beyond, we hope to see more philanthropy organizations actively address the barriers that leaders of color face when sustaining their impact and scaling their organizations.
Centering worker voices
“At all levels of policymaking (federal, state, and local) and philanthropy, we should include workers at the table.” Townsend’s recommendations are squarely aligned with the Future of Work Grand Challenge’s approach to convening and designing. Our goal is to ensure that the workers who will benefit from the solutions we create have a voice in every step of the challenge process.
The Challenge’s worker advisory board is one avenue to increase the engagement of frontline workers from racially, ethnically, experientially, and geographically diverse backgrounds in the prize as co-designers, advisors, and judges through December 2022 when the initiative ends. Including workers in the design process means we can collaborate to create training and services that seamlessly integrate with and support their full lives.
Designing with a worker-centric approach
Beyond just having a seat at the table, we need our innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders to implement widespread worker-centricity. Goodwill Industries and Accenture, Future of Work Grand Challenge partners, are helping us ensure that these models are implemented effectively. Workers are not only embedded in every step of the innovation process, but they also will be a leading voice as solutions are tested and widely deployed among local communities in a way the takes into account the strengths and limitations of households. As Townsend shares, “Federal and state policymakers can better empower workers and close their ‘data disadvantage’ by promoting more ‘worker-centric’ policies on data and technology usage in the following ways.”
When most people talk about workers organizing, the digital divide often is not top of mind. What kind of barriers effectively undermine workers’ power? How can we better address the full experience of workers in order to implement solutions that are actually effective? Policy too needs to take a worker-centric approach to ensure that workers’ rights and priorities are understood, upheld, and protected. Any program addressing economic rebuilding and worker prosperity, including the Grand Challenge, must be complemented by and help inform policy changes in order to be sustained over time.