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Boston Increases Size of Popular Digital Equity Fund

The city has nearly tripled the size of the fund that supports programs aimed at increasing digital resources available to Boston residents.

Boston has expanded its Digital Equity Fund from $35,000 to $100,000 for 2019. This growth follows a successful round of grant-making last year in which the city helped fund a tech-related college prep program for high school students.

The Equity Fund is a unique city-funded initiative aimed at fostering digital inclusion among residents, which means helping them use the Internet, gain digital skills and have access to tools they need to pursue goals like health care and employment in the modern world. The fund was started in 2017 to help local community groups support the work.

Starting with $35,000 in 2018, Boston increased its size to $100,000 this year. The city will likely give out three to five grants between $20,000 and $35,000 this year, according to Anne Schwieger, broadband and digital equity advocate for Boston.

“We owe this in large part to the fact that the grant-making we did last year was really successful, had a significant impact and really demonstrated how nonprofit organizations can push the bounds of what’s typically considered to be digital equity or digital inclusion initiatives,” she said.

Last year, the Boston Digital Equity Fund Council, which reviews and decides on the grants, received more than half a dozen applicants for the money. The council awarded one grant last year to the Castle Square Tenants Organization Square Tech program. Castle Square, which is a nonprofit tenant-owned affordable housing complex, then used the grant money from the fund to create a technology audio/visual college course in partnership with the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, located right across the street from the apartments.

Schwieger described it as “a particularly excellent example” of how two entities thoroughly rooted in a neighborhood could work together and use money from the fund to create something that lives beyond a single year. The two organizations created a college course for high school students, one that enrolled 10 local high school students, gave them college credit and also oriented them to the real world of higher education and employment.

The Square Tech program that the college course grew from has existed for the past decade, said Irene Chan, manager of Square Tech. The program has been steadily expanding, growing from a cramped space to the 1,000-square-foot area it now occupies. It has two main components, one that trains teens on marketable tech skills and a business side that sees those same teens using their skills for the local community, asking for a small donation to be put back into the program.

The money from the Digital Equity Fund enabled Square Tech to advance their work, partnering with Benjamin Franklin to have their students spend two afternoons a week earning college credit, said Carolyn Grimes, interim program director for Castle Square.

The program now supports digital inclusion in myriad ways: it sends high school students to advance their tech-based education and job training, it enables those same students to take their new knowledge back into their communities and it helps them do a better job of executing the tech-based assistance they provide for the community through Square Tech. It also bridges some of the gaps between high school and college for the young participants.

“This is something the students want to do in the future,” Chan said, “and this is something we want to make sure we’re preparing them for in the future, so that when they get to college they have a little knowledge, a little extra prep before they go off into the real world.”

Schwieger said Square Tech was an ideal candidate for digital inclusion support from the city, because it built on work and expertise that was already present in the community and gave it a push to accelerate its efforts.

“There are many organizations across Boston who have already been very innovative and very high impact in the work they’re doing,” Schwieger said, “and with a grant from the Digital Equity Fund, they could do something similarly unique and high impact.”

The application deadline for this year’s round of funding is set for March 1, 2019, and interested parties can apply now through the Digital Equity Fund webpage.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.