By Nicole D. Batey
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches in the Black community closed their physical church doors out of caution and safety concerns. Pastors around the country worked to transition to online ministry, only to find that many of their congregants — especially seniors or those in low-income neighborhoods — didn’t have internet access or know how to navigate online.
Dr. Fallon Wilson and Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) is now working to close the great digital divide by bringing internet access to all — with Black Churches 4 Digital Equity at the forefront of the movement.
As Vice President of Policy for MMTC, Wilson leads the organization’s work on three focus areas in the tech, media, and telecommunications (TMT) sectors. The sectors include: Technology; Data Privacy; Artificial Intelligence and Civil Rights in the Digital Age; Infrastructure; Broadband Connectivity and Digital Inclusion; and Multicultural Media Ownership and Content Diversity.
Prior to joining MMTC, Wilson co-founded #BlackTechFutures Research Institute and is the former Research Director of Black Tech Mecca. At Black Tech Mecca, Wilson created the Smart Black Tech Ecosystem Assessment to support local city leaders with building a thriving Black tech ecosystem. Recently, she was awarded a Kauffman Foundation’s 2020 Open Knowledge grant to launch #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, which was created to build a national network of city-based researchers and practitioners examining sustainable local Black tech ecosystems.
AFRO: What is Black Church 4 Digital Equity?
Wilson: Black Churches 4 Digital Equity is the outgrowth of the work we did as Black Churches 4 Broadband last summer with six of our national Black church non-profits that included the National Council of Black Churches, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, the Balm in Gilead.
Our focus was on how the pandemic adversely affected internet access in our communities and pushing Congress to think about creating a permanent internet subsidy. We acknowledge that there was already a digital divide pre-pandemic. However, it became really evident and was exacerbated by the pandemic, especially with regard to Black churches and their parishioners.
I am a church council member in my own church, Ray of Hope Community Church in Nashville, TN, and dealing with these issues hits home, you know. ‘Deacon Montgomery’ uses a flip phone, and that’s not really helpful when we’re having a video conference online for a church meeting.
Black Churches 4 Digital Broadband organized African-American churches from all over to call on Congress. As a result of our efforts, Congressed passed the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and that was the first time in this country that there was a subsidy created for the internet. Anyone who cannot afford internet access can get assistance.
AFRO: How is internet equity a civil rights issue?
Wilson: We care about social injustices, we care about prison reform and voting rights. We also care about internet access for all.
Much of what we do now is online. Many of us are working from home or remotely, or we’re searching for jobs online. Some businesses had to close their brick and mortar doors and push their business online, students moved to online classrooms, and even doctors’ offices are using tele-health to connect with their patients for appointments. Having the internet is a necessity.
AFRO: Over 30% of Black homes in this country are without internet access. How does Black Churches 4 Digital Equity hope to address this issue?
Wilson: Because of the work we did last summer, we thought it’d be interesting to take a closer look at the long-term work that needs to be done at MMTC. Why not educate and build a group of Black, educated church leaders to be at the vanguard of organizing Black communities about internet access and helping them to see the relevancy of it for our people and our future.
If we know that jobs will be automated and taken off the market by machines and computers in the next 10 years, it really behooves us to begin thinking about how we level the field of internet access for everyone in this country, particularly in Black and Brown communities. What better place to start than in the church?
The Black church has always been cornerstone for us as a people in this country. The reason why we have HBCUs is because they came out of our churches. The reason why we have credit unions and some banks is because they came out of our churches. There is no reason why Black churches cannot lead this movement and this discussion around internet equity for all.
Black Churches 4 Digital Equity is building a movement of Black church leaders advocating for digital equity and how their communities can get connected with the Affordable Connectivity Program, Emergency Connectivity Fund, and low-cost internet options.
Black Churches 4 Digital Equity hosted a panel discussion in mid-March to discuss Black Churches Leading Digital Equity Conversations on Facebook Live. The panel highlighted some of the church leaders currently working with Black Churches 4 Digital Equity. Panelists include: Co-Pastor of Ray of Hope Community Church Rev. Dr. Renita Weems; Pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan; Pastor William Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church; and the Director of the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Scott Woods. Dr. Nicol Turner Lee of Brookings Institute was the moderator.
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