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The Juneteenth National Digital Equity Bible Study aims to increase digital access among Black Americans

Rev. Dorothy S. Boulware

It’s not unusual to see Black children using smartphones or tablets throughout the community, as well as in school or church. But a good number of them return to homes with inadequate or non-existent internet service, where dependable computer access, such as laptops or desk computers, isn’t available.

Only 71% of Black households have broadband internet service, only 69% have home computers, and only 50% of Black workers say they have proficient or advanced digital skills. Statistics such as these are why the late Congressman John Lewis called access to the internet the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Now Black Churches 4 Digital Equity, an advocacy group that “organizes and empowers Black church leaders to use their trusted voices to advocate for digital equity, raise awareness of low-cost internet options, and encourage our community to sign up,” is doing something about it.

Refusing to accept the digital divide within their communities, BC4DE is hosting its inaugural Juneteenth National Digital Equity Bible Study on June 19.

The event aims to foster digital equity and literacy among Black Americans. Stakeholders from faith, technology, education, and government sectors will convene on Zoom and at Greater Grace Temple of David in Detroit, invited by its senior pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III.

As the group says about the Black church, “This is where digital equity starts.”

The role of the church in digital equity

On the BC4DE website, Dr. Fallon Wilson, Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council vice president for policy, pointed out “the critical role Black churches play in their communities and their mission to serve, Black Churches 4 Digital Equity Coalition believes they must be involved in significant initiatives such as the Juneteenth National Digital Equity Bible Study to bridge this digital divide.”

The advocacy of Black churches in the digital equity space is needed because “In our increasingly digital society, the gap between those with access to technology and those without has become more apparent, influencing areas such as education, health, employment, and the ability to maintain connections with others,” Wilson said.

“We can’t let the world leave us behind and then decide we’re going to catch up,” Wilson tells Word In Black.

As Wilson explains, Black churches are “community anchors” that “occupy a valued role in guiding their congregations spiritually and navigating the complexities of today’s world.

Indeed, Ananda Leeke, MMTC’s chief social media officer, says, “The church does have a voice, and it touches predominantly in our community.”

Who are the catalysts of change?

“African-American women, who hold the purse strings, who are the caregivers, who are all of these different roles — the mothers, the tutors, the teachers, the lawyers, all of this,” Leeke says.

But Black women can’t bring digital equity to their communities without help.

Congress didn’t authorize additional funding

The Affordable Connectivity Program, which had helped ensure households could afford much-needed broadband since 2021, ended June 1 due to a lack of additional funding from Congress.

The benefit provided qualifying households a $30 monthly discount toward internet service along with a one-time discount of $100 to purchase hardware.

“Members of Congress have introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation, The Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024, to continue to provide affordable, high-speed internet options. Congress must act on this legislation to help close the digital divide, a divide that has kept many from economic opportunity,” Rep. Kweisi Mfume wrote in an op-ed along with Cody L. Dorsey, executive director of the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition.

“More than 20 million Americans rely on the subsidy, including 800,000 veterans, 1 million college students, more than 3 million families with school-age children receiving free or reduced lunch and 5 million older adults.”

But in the meantime, families no longer have the connection they’ve used for the past two years.

“And Congress cannot get their act together — because it is a presidential election season —  to figure out where to get additional funding to keep that program going. And so all of the churches that we’ve worked with over the last two years to sign people up for this subsidy, now they have to unsign 22 million people,” Wilson says.

In coming together for the Juneteenth event, Wilson says, “We’re letting America know that Black churches are here to do the work, and we will be paying close attention to how federal dollars will be spent for digital equity in the states in the fall. Not only will we be paying attention, our Black churches — our Black church nonprofits — will all be applying for grants from their states to address digital equity in their communities.”

A vision for the future

Key to addressing digital equity are fellows who will drive action in their communities. The fellows are volunteers, so far from 17 states — from churches, nonprofits, and other community leaders who are lending their time and talent to help ensure equal access to the families they serve. Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems will deliver the keynote address at the Juneteenth National Digital Equity Bible Study. Weems, who is a world-renowned preacher, biblical scholar, and author, was in the first cohort of the fellows.

In the next five years, Wilson wants to see computers and other electronic devices in Black households and internet access for them. She envisions a future where Black folks are aware of today’s tech realities.

“I will hear the children in their room talk about, well, I’m not going to give my data freely to TikTok because my data is profitable for my data is profitable for myself. I am not putting free content on the web. And then I will hear on the other side of the house, in the parlor, as my grandmother would say, I would hear her talking to her sister in Kansas, that it is so important that the elections are not stolen by these AI machines,” she says.

And there is great hope and excitement around the Juneteenth action meeting.

Leekes says she’s excited about the “intergenerational community impact this is going to have,” and how it “will bring together all ages.”

Wilson is looking forward to being “in the presence of people worshiping and then talking about how they’re going to build and dream of digital futures for themselves and for their family members within a safe space or a community anchor of a church. It makes me happy that we’ll all be on one accord, worshiping and thinking about the future for our community.”

This story first appeared in Word In Black.

Black churches, digital equity, juneteenth