New Orleans Digital Equity Award Goes to Youth Art Programs

Advocates seek to enhance digital skills in the community by giving young people opportunities to use tech in service of art, using their passion and the city’s rich artistic fiber to help bridge the digital divide.

From a field of 28 applicants, New Orleans has picked a winner for its first Digital Equity Challenge Award: Arts Council of New Orleans, which is collaborating with other long-running youth arts programs on its winning proposal.

Arts Council’s project, dubbed the Creative Digital Equity Initiative, seeks to capitalize on New Orleans thriving creative culture, teaching young people tech skills by integrating digital components with the artistic pursuits the kids love, subsequently sending them home with new knowledge to their friends, family and neighbors. As winners of the contest, Arts Council will receive the city’s $50,000 Edward Wisner Grant to launch a 12-week introductory visual and digital media studio for as many as 20 students, partnering with New Orleans’s Office of Technology and Innovation to make it happen.

Arts Council, a private nonprofit that has been around for 42 years, has long mentored groups of students in the city as they complete design projects with digital components, but this has generally meant that an adult instructor handles all the computer work while the kids focus on the art. The new initiative seeks to change this, said Heidi Schmalbach, an associate director with Arts Council. The group wants to lower the barriers of access to tech, while also providing a more engaging way to learn digital skills, one that is more effective than just getting a bunch of kids together and saying, "OK, now we’re going to learn some Photoshop."

One of Arts Council’s key partners in the work is YouthForce NOLA, a citywide collaborative that prepares high school students to pursue careers. Once the program launches in January 2018, it will help teach the selected students the foundations of art and design, basic digital literacy, studio habits, critical communication skills and more. Eligible students will likely be between the ages of 14 and 24, organizers said.

This contest is part of New Orleans’ ongoing work to help all citizens get access to the Internet and technology, as well as to skills they need to use that access and technology in meaningful ways. Efforts to bridge the so-called digital divide and foster digital equity have become increasingly commonplace in recent years as life migrates into the online arena, and New Orleans is one of many cities focused on such work.

“With digital equity, the biggest driver is economic opportunities for our citizens,” said Kim LaGrue, New Orleans' acting CIO. “If we’re going to be the competitive city that New Orleans is to become, we have to provide these opportunities to everyone across this city.”

The reason Arts Council’s proposal stood out from the other 27 — some of which came from nationwide applicants — is that it took a very New Orleans approach to the issue, incorporating the rich arts and community that have long defined the Louisiana city. The idea is that the kids who participate will be great ambassadors for digital equity, taking their excitement about their new skills and sharing it with peers, family members, and the overall community. Organizers envision a future where the 20 students chosen this year will eventually become instructors.

The city has also praised its partnership with 100 Resilient Cities and Citymart as vital to the launch of its Digital Equity Challenge

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine