Civic Tech Experience Fosters Digital Literacy in Charlotte, N.C.

The Knight Foundation announced a $1 million investment in a new civic tech initiative focused on connecting residents with technology to expand their economic opportunities.

by / November 16, 2018
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The Knight Foundation has announced a $1 million investment in that effort for a project called the Civic Tech Experience, which includes a series of programs for the West Charlotte community aimed at helping families there build better digital skills, as well as get access to technology.

Other functions of the Civic Tech Experience also include connections to economic resources and chances for community engagement. This program is the work of Project L.I.F.T., a public-private partnership that has worked primarily in West Charlotte over the past seven years to improve the schools there — most notably helping the graduation rate at one high school move from roughly 50 percent to nearly 90.

There are three foundational programs that make up the Civic Tech Experience. The first is the Digital Inclusion Institute, a digital literacy program for parents of students in West Charlotte schools. During a phone call with Government Technology this week, Project L.I.F.T. Technology Facilitator Lindsey Sipe said the group has taken a whole-family approach to digital literacy in the area.

The Digital Inclusion Institute is essentially a six-week computer basics course designed to empower the parents of students in the digital realm. After they complete the course, they receive a used laptop that has been refurbished by students at a local high school making $18 an hour for the work. The laptops come with a one-year unlimited data plan. The idea is to teach parents — and their children — how to use computers and then give households technology to use.

Sipe said this is vital work at a time when studies show that 70 percent of teachers give homework with online components. To date, the group has run eight cohorts of this program with six more set for January.

“I hear stories all the time about families having to hop on a bus to go to McDonald’s to use their free Wi-Fi so their child can complete their homework on a cellphone,” Sipe said. “That’s not a great learning experience for anybody.”

Another main component of the Civic Tech Experience is a pop-up villages program, where organizers from Project L.I.F.T. host festival-like events with music and food that welcome families to come engage with local educators, city staff, law enforcement officers and other groups that can provide resources.

The third component to the work is called Charlotte Trajectory, which Sipe described as a central hub for services that involves social work students from nearby Johnson C. Smith University to ensure that the families of students in West Charlotte schools have access to support services they may need.

The overarching goal is a multi-generational approach to digital literacy, creating an environment where parents are learning basic skills while kids are growing up doing fun activities related to digital skills and, perhaps most important, STEM fields.

Charles Thomas, director of the Knight Foundation’s work in Charlotte, said the group is excited to continue supporting the work being done by Project L.I.F.T.

“This represents an evolution of the community engagement strategy Project L.I.F.T. has had over the last few years,” Thomas said, “to really ensure that parents and families have access to technology, access to the Internet, and access to resources and information that are available.”

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.