Comcast to invest $500K at Chicago YMCAs to create tech hubs as part of digital equity project

Six Chicago YMCAs will be outfitted with tech hubs and digital navigators, who will help residents use digital resources available to them.

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Children were given laptops as part of the Digital Navigator programs at six YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago locations in the city. Wednesday, July 20, 2022. 

Thirty children were given new laptop computers Wednesday at the announcement of Comcast’s $500,000 investment in tech hubs at six Chicago YMCAs.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Comcast will invest $500,000 in Chicago’s YMCA facilities to help make the internet more accessible to residents.

The company will, over three years, create tech hubs with computers and internet access that will be free for the public to use in six YMCAs in Irving Park, Humboldt Park, Lake View, Logan Square, Little Village and Woodlawn.

The commitment is the largest Comcast has made to a community organization in Chicago, the company announced Wednesday during a bustling day at the South Side YMCA in Woodlawn.

“When I look at these young faces, I know you are our future leaders,” Dalila Wilson-Scott, executive vice president at Comcast, said as she stood in front of a group of 30 squirming 10- to 12-year-old YMCA members. “We need to make sure that all of you are equipped with the best tools, resources, connectivity and skills so that you can lead us into a new era.”

The project is part of Comcast’s $1 billion digital equity initiative, Project UP, to advance internet access for those in disadvantaged areas.

Part of the partnership includes training “digital navigators” in the facilities, employees who help visitors access, build digital skills with and use the internet, as well as help them be aware of the programs available.

The Tech Hub at the South Side YMCA which is part of the Digital Navigator programs at six YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago locations in the city. Wednesday, July 20, 2022. 

The tech hub at the South Side YMCA.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“There are a good number of people who take access for granted,” Wilson-Scott said. “We wake up, we’re connected and we can fully participate in the digital economy. But there’s still many people in the country, especially in many cities around the U.S., where people are simply not connected.”

Wilson-Scott said digital equity is not just connecting to the internet but connecting people to skills, tools and resources via the internet.

“There’s not a career that you can enter without a baseline of digital skill sets. There are jobs that you can’t even apply for unless you have access to the internet,” she said. “But we also know when people have access to the internet, it affords them access to quality health care and to access government benefits. In today’s society, there’s no way you can fully be on a path to economic mobility without being connected.”

The broadband company picked the YMCA facilities in areas where there is limited access to the internet. Wilson-Scott said the tech hubs will also be crucial to students and children who need access to the internet to do their work.

To kick off the partnership, Comcast gave away new Samsung laptops to the 30 children present at the announcement, who, upon hearing the news, cheered, grinned and murmured among themselves.

Kenne’quia Howell, executive director of the South Side YMCA, said internet access at the facility before the Comcast announcement had been spotty and difficult to navigate on their older computers.

“The internet worked the best at one spot in the whole building, which was by the pool,” Howell said.

Now, YMCA visitors of all ages will be able to use the tech hub, which has 10 new desktop computers along with much faster Wi-Fi throughout the building, Howell said.

Having access to the internet isn’t enough, Wilson-Scott said. That’s where the digital navigators come in.

“We know from a study we did earlier this year that when there’s a digital navigator that can help a senior citizen get connected, that person can now sort of access other resources, and we know that people are likely to pursue job training or get employed,” she said.

The study, published with Boston Consulting Group, revealed that about 20% of Americans — predominately people of color and those in low-income communities — do not have access to the internet in their homes. Digital navigators, when employed in these communities, can help people learn about the free Wi-Fi options available for low-income residents.

The COVID-19 pandemic has multiplied the number of services that are now only available online, making digital access imperative, Wilson-Scott said.

“I mean, you’re cut off from so many things if you’re not connected,” she said.

Howell said she hopes that the addition of the tech hub and the Comcast partnership helps the South Side YMCA be even more of a home to the community.

“Here at the South Side Y, our goal is to make sure that everyone that walks through the doors feels like they have just entered another dimension of their home,” Howell said. “So welcome home.”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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