Bridging the Digital Divide: Behind the Bars, Beyond Release
[bright music] - Hello, my name is Andre Ward and I'm the associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at The Fortune Society. Welcome to "Both Sides of the Bars," a discussion-driven show that examines the legal system from various perspectives, including people most impacted by the criminal legal system. We discuss critical questions about how the current system works, its intersections with social justice, and we highlight the efforts that are being made to improve the lives of everyone that's affected. We ask you -- the viewers -- to spread the word about "Both Sides of the Bars" and share your comments on Twitter @thefortunesocietysoc. Today's show is really important as we look to examine ways in which people who have come home from jails and prisons can explore and engage opportunities to deal with technology.
So today's show is entitled "Bridging the Digital Divide: Behind the Bars, Beyond Release." Technology is essential to modern life now more than ever, and the reliance on technology has only increased as we navigate society during the pandemic. But government research shows that people behind bars are among the most digitally excluded in society. To many people who have left incarceration ill-prepared to navigate a digital world. Upon their release, they can search to find organizations that offer technology training to help with their digital transition and advance technology training.
However, this process takes time and it requires patience, especially considering people seek to come home and focus on employment. Outside communities like New York City, finding these services can prove to be even more difficult. Offering digital literacy and advanced technology training while behind bars can help returning citizens with their transition, position them for success, and support their goals and seeking sustainable permanent employment. Today's guests we have with us join us. And they're obviously no strangers to "Both Sides of the Bars." Not that they've been on this show before, but they are my colleagues who hail from The Fortune Society.
And my colleague, one of whom is Adrienne Whaley. She's the director of our systems operations and IT training at New York City-based The Fortune Society. Adrienne is an information technology professional with a diversified background that includes services desk management, changes management, project management, technology training experience. She has been developing and delivering training solutions in a corporate, academic, and non-profit environment for over two decades. Adrienne is passionate about digital literacy and oversees the digital equity program at The Fortune Society located here in New York City.
And the other person that joins us is our other colleague who works closely with Adrienne in our digital divide work is Carler Dinnold. Carler Dinnold is a contract manager who works at The Fortune Society here in New York City. She supports transitional services, education, employment services, and the Center for Research here at Fortune. She's also involved as an inquiry and social justice person in the work that she does.
And she has worked in a non-profit sector for 10 years as of this year, with a specific passion for criminal legal reform and criminal justice and families impacted by social service in need of social services support. Carler earned her bachelor's degree in sociology from Spelman College. And she is a believer in the strength of data and technology to empower individuals and communities and commits her time to teaching and providing technological support to young adults and senior citizens. Adrienne and Carler, welcome so much to "Both Sides of the Bars." Thanks so much for joining us today. How are each of you feeling? - Thank you for having us today.
- Thank you. - Absolutely. - We're very happy to be here. - And so it's really important that we had this segment -- right? -- considering the work that each of you has done at Fortune to amplify the need for people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system and who come through The Fortune Society's doors to be able to access technology. We know that people who are returning home from prisons or jails are oftentimes at a huge deficit -- right? -- when it comes to them being able to access technology and you two got together and said "You know what? We need to begin to offer more broadly because Fortune does offer technology training in different ways, but to broaden that and to make it more popular and to make it more accessible." And you two came up with a beautiful idea and there was a technology fair that you put together -- and I'm gonna talk a little about that later on -- but I'll start with you, Adrienne. because this is your area of expertise, right? This is what you do day to day at The Fortune Society.
But what encouraged you to advocate for digital equity for the justice impact? - It would be working here at Fortune. So when I started at Fortune, the first year that I was here, I would get a lot of our participants passing by my door, reading my title, and at that point in time, I was a software engineer, technical writer, and people will stop and say, "What exactly is it that you do?" And when I start to explain exactly what I do, how I document systems, then I will get the "Oh, well, I was thinking about getting into technology. Are there any classes that will allow me to kind of like move into the IT industry?" And when I got more and more of these types of questions, I'm like, well, what services are we providing that can help our participants move into that direction to have an IT career? And one of the things that I said, we need to do more, we need to provide more programming around technology to prepare individuals that really wanna move into this arena. And that really started the passion. - Absolutely, Adrienne. And we know that the work that you and Carler are doing as you work with and at The Fortune Society is not just a local phenomenon, an issue.
It's a national phenomen and issue for people throughout the entire country -- right? -- who are coming home from prisons and jails, being able to access technology in some way. So I wanna talk with you, Carler. Carler, you are a leader obviously in different ways, in as much as Adrienne is, but you've also like taken up some specific leadership in the past and also still involve yourself in different ways in some work that Fortune does with what is called the Policy Center Collective, which is comprised of leaders like yourself at The Fortune Society who are interested in advocacy work and being able to learn more about that work and what it looks like and what you can do to make some meaningful change in policy. But talk to us like, tell us about yourself and what brought you to Fortune, and talk to us about the work that you engage in with the Policy Center Collective. - Absolutely. So what brought me to Fortune is I've actually been working in this sector for, it will be 10 years as of this year.
So criminal justice and reentry services is a personal passion of mine. I'm justice-impacted; I'm the child of an incarcerated parent. So whatever work that I can do to help this population has been very integral in my career thus far. And prior to working here at The Fortune Society, I was working at a church in Brooklyn called Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. And a lot of the digital equity concerns came up there as well. Most of the things were paper-driven.
So that's really where my passion for project management and just training people to get them up to speed and upskilled for this digital world kind of came about. Once I started working at Fortune and I met Adrienne through becoming a member of the Policy Center Collective, we and Adrienne shared, we'll walk around the hallways and we'll see clients who have just everyday difficulties. How do I turn on my phone? How do I upload a PDF document to this email to help myself apply for a job? Even today, a client came by and asked for a charger and a place to connect it. So a lot of people coming home are having to deal with this new digital world that we find ourselves in.
Many of which, when they were beginning their sentences, much of our latest iPhones and tablets weren't even created as of yet. So there's this big gap of skills for this population. And I'm just excited to be on a team with Adrienne and you, Andre, and being able to impact people and give them the skills they need for the digital world we're in today. - And obviously accrediting The Fortune Society by seeing the need to continue to expand the technology work and empowering each of you as leaders to move that stuff along.
And I know a little later on we'll talk about the technology fair. But, Adrienne, what have you done -- right? -- to really increase the awareness of the digital divide for justice-impacted people? - Well, I think we ... so last year, one of the things that we did to kind of like to bring awareness to the justice-impacted it's a population that people are not talking about and what Carler and I did through the Policy Collective, we organized two webinars to start talking about that. Like the digital divide is also affecting the justice-impacted. Also what can we do to start thinking about bridging that digital divide behind bars before release and we need to really start focusing on that.
And that's one of the things that we've been doing. And we also organize a tech fair that we use the tech fair as a platform to get our participants to understand the impact that technology has on society and are options that are available to them. So I get a lot of people saying they wanna do coding, or they want to get into IT, doing the help desk. And I'm like, well, the IT field is really broad. There's other things you can do and really think about some entrepreneur opportunities that can also come from using the technology. And so those are some of the things that we have been doing to bring awareness.
And also The Fortune Society, we have recently launched the digital equity program which expands some of the technology training that we have already been providing. But now we are providing workshops on a daily, on every Tuesday. On things as far as how to use a smartphone, Excel basics, Word basics, how to use Zoom. And we have expanded that to just daily skills, life skills that people will actually need just to navigate society. We're not even talking about work skills yet; just the daily living skills that they need.
- And Adrienne -- right? -- the technology fair obviously was a huge success. Can you tell us like how many people attended? I understand there may have been some media that have been present. Talk a little bit about that because I'm sure, as we have over 100 stations, we're on at least over 100 stations, close to 123 or more stations for this show in at least 29 different states, there's a likelihood of people may wanna reach out to you and Carler to see if they can replicate that technology fair. So talk about like how many people were there -- right? -- and was there media presence, etc., and the length of time, and I'm sure obviously if people are interested in learning more about the details they can reach out to you. - So the technology fair went from 10 AM to 3 PM.
And we had breakout sessions with different discussions going on in each breakout session where our participants had an opportunity to select which sessions that they wanted to attend. We had speakers talking about entrepreneurship opportunities. We had people talking about the developing websites that there are now in that created a business for them. We also had housing people to talk about how to fill out the housing applications. We had roughly about, probably about 90, I think, participants or so. And then when we calculate the participants, the volunteers, and our vendors, we probably had roughly about 110 people present.
And also News 11 actually showed up and did a segment on the technology fair and the success of it. - Got it. And I know obviously there are a lot more details to that. That's just like a tiny kind of like glimpse of all of the other things that you all put together for that workshop.
And again, if people are interested in learning about that -- right? -- they'll be able to get in contact with us and find out more and how that can be replicated in your state. But I wanna go to you, Carler -- right? -- because you spoke about the Policy Center Collective. How long have you been a member of the Policy Center Collective? And can you provide some of the details about the work of the Policy Center Collective? You've been a leader in that work as a part of the steering committee for over a year or so, and had been integral to supporting the movement that was happening there. So talk a little bit about that. - Absolutely. I was thankful that one of my colleagues actually shared about the Policy Center Collective.
As you stated earlier, it's a collective of staff who work here at The Fortune Society, who participate in advocacy-related engagement programming and just idea cultivation outside of their normal job duties. So, for instance, I work with contracts and administration and budgets all day, but this gives me a time, at least monthly, to kind of create advocacy awareness and engagement outside of my normal role. So it's been very exciting. I was a steering committee member for about one year, and I've been on the Collective for a total of 2-1/2 years, I think, at this point.
And, as Adrienne shared, this idea around the digital equity webinars and the tech fair were birthed out of the Policy Center Collective, especially during the time of which we were at home during the pandemic, we really had to be more creative about the way we engage participants and advocacy. So all of our awareness shifted to Zoom. So we needed to think about what are the ways that we can still create awareness and engagement on a Zoom platform, and that the webinars were ideal for that. And, as Adrienne shared, that birthed the idea for the tech fair, because just for, so for many of our participants in employment services, all of the group workshops were held on Zoom. Many of our case managers oftentimes had to take hours and hours just to get participants set up to use Zoom.
So that's where really the functionality and the capability of using all these technological platforms and that ease needed to be created for the participants here at Fortune, which is the reason why we ended up doing the webinar and just birthing more ideas to create more digital equity for everyone who comes through our doors. - And it's really important -- right? -- when you speak about the Policy Center Collective, you talk about idea cultivation, right? And getting together as thought leaders, to again, bring about ideas in real time that's actionable that can effectuate meaningful change, not only on individuals, but also on systems themselves. So we're gonna get back to you, Carler, but, Adrienne -- right? -- tell us about like the digital equity work that you're doing, right? We know there's a digital equity program at The Fortune Society. Talk about the digital equity program. - So I look at the digital equity program at Fortune as having four components to it. So the first component is we wanna make sure that our participants have the necessary Internet connectivity and tools that they need to connect just to do necessary things, such as schedule doctors appointments, maybe have a Zoom meeting with their case manager.
So one of the things that we doing, we actually are providing them with tablets and a data plan to go with the tablets, if they are eligible to receive that. We are also picking up the cost for the tablet. That's what Fortune is doing. The other part of the digital equity program is support. We provide them with these tools and then a lot of them, our participants need support. How do I create an email address? How do I download or fill out an online application? So we have created the IT support desk for participants, and they can go to the support desk to get assistance with any technology issues that they're having.
And I just wanna share that I feel that the support desk is so important because, for example, two weeks ago, a participant comes to me and she's reading the sign at the desk about the support that we provide at the desk. And she's like, "So you can help me get paid?" And I'm like, "I'm not quite sure what you mean." And she says, "Well, I've been trying to log onto this website so I can get paid and I haven't been able to get paid for two months.
And every time I call the company, they're telling me to go to the paper that they send me to go to the website." So I sat down with her and we were able to figure out what was going wrong. And it wasn't what she was doing. It was that the link that they gave her was no longer working.
So because I already had that experience to troubleshoot, I was able to get to the website she needed to go to and help her log into the account and start to change her information so that she can get paid. And, I mean, I was happy to help her, but she's just one of many that walks around needing help and needing assistance and can't really get the support that they need. And sometimes it's that they're too embarrassed to ask for the support because they feel like it's something that they should know. So that's one part of the help desk, and the support is very important. And then we also have training. So training is basically broken up into two parts.
We do what we call workshops and they last for about an hour and they give you chunks of information in small chunks. And this could be anywhere from learning how to work on how to surf the Internet, how to digitally protect yourself. It can be giving you a basic intro class to Excel. And then we have what we call career classes, which are longer classes in duration and can take couple of weeks to actually complete.
And we do have a certification program that we also have also where they can actually sit for an exam, take that exam. And if they pass, they can get a certification that verify their skills in that particular application. - And all of this -- right? -- Adrienne, this can be replicated obviously, right? - Oh yes. - Adrienne,
from state to state, from city to city, from organization to organization, and you and Carler -- right? -- and other folk who are at Fortune -- right? -- have created this model -- right? -- that we feel obviously that people should have access to throughout the country. So it has national implications. That's why, again, if people are interested in this work, you'll be able to reach out to The Fortune Society and obviously we can support with technical assistance around the digital divide and equity work that we're doing. And Carler and Adrienne, what were the factors -- right? -- that drew each of you -- right? -- to create this campaign surrounding this whole notion of digital divide and impact on justice-involved individuals or justice-impacted individuals? - I can just start. I think for me, it was really just seeing the participants every day dealing with some concerns that I think we take advantage.
So we take advantage that we have YouTube and can always just pop on YouTube and learn something very quickly. If they don't know how to navigate, to turn on their tablet or laptop to then go onto YouTube, they would never have that capability. Just as Adrienne shared earlier, someone's pay. If someone cannot access the payroll system website, they cannot get paid. So there's these everyday things that have been now transformed where it has to be done in a technological space, whether it be via website, an application that if someone doesn't have the basic necessity or skills to create an email account or not even having the skills to assess it, but also having the actual technology. So through our new tablet program, we're able to distribute tablets to the participants.
Depending on what program they're in, they might be able to access a phone, a smartphone. If people don't have the necessary technology they need, they cannot engage in this world in a safe way. - And, Adrienne, as we talk about people being able to access these things, in the end, we want people to have the technological smarts - - or learning if you will -- that would position them much more strongly to access employment opportunities, right? And to engage your families and their communities, right? So what are some of the career opportunities, Adrienne -- right? -- that are available for individuals who are knowledgeable and comfortable with technology that are justice-impacted? - So I'm gonna start out with saying, there's two that always come to mind.
People always talk about coding, right? They wanna do coding, they wanna do Java, they wanna do Python, or they wanna do IT support. And one of the things that I'd like to do through our program -- through our digital equity program -- is broadening that like that's only two avenues career-wise that you can travel in the IT using technology. So if I don't wanna do coding, right? Maybe you're good at organizing, problem-solving, and you can do project management. IT project management is something people don't think about.
IT training, being able to train others, how to use technology. That is a career path. The other one I can think of is let's think about social media, right? There's a career path that if you're comfortable with technology with social media, right? You're writing blogs for other organizations, you're posting, you're maintaining organizations, Facebook accounts, and so forth. So I just want our, I like for people to start thinking IT in the broader terms. It's not just getting into the IT field that you wanna look at it.
You wanna really think about the skillset that I can pick up that would allow me to do technology work, but not necessarily in IT, because technology is in everything that we do. - Absolutely. - Yeah.
- Absolutely. And Carler -- right? -- as we move towards beginning to close out this segment, like what are your suggestions for really like creating more equity, a more equitable surrounding for people in the area of technology for Fortune participants and just beyond. - I think for Fortune participants and justice-impacted people nationwide, Andre, the main things that we need are funding to provide this skillset.
So digital equity kind of falls outside of the normal funding streams right now. So we need to ensure that we have funding to give people the training they need. I think the other thing is also access to the most recent technology pieces in hardware.
It's very difficult to train someone on the most up-to-date technology using technology from six, seven years ago. You can do upgrades and things like that. But if we can get some of the newer hardware pieces to people, that's important as well.
And I think also, to Adrienne's point, just diversifying people's options about how can tech impact their career and employment opportunities. You have to have some technological experience or comfortability using something as essential as a Microsoft Office Suite for entry-level office jobs. So diversifying their options and creating pathways for them into roles of opportunity, and also employers being sensitive to that and allowing the space and time to train them and up skill them so they can be the employees that they need. - Absolutely.
And we have maybe a minute left or so, and so what's coming up next, right? You guys are always thinking, right? Always cultivating these ideas. What might be a couple of things that are coming up next? I'll start with Adrienne for 30 seconds and then Carler. - Well, one thing that we are working on right now, we're working to the tech fair. We'll be planning the tech fair for next year. We'll be starting that next month, thinking about who will be attending and speaking and so forth.
We're doing that. And the digital equity program. We'll be launching our Microsoft Excel certification course.
So that's kind of like in the pipeline and continue to expand this service and promote the program and continue to bring awareness, have another webinar in talking about the success of the program when we are engaging our participants. - Carler, anything? - Absolutely. Really just supporting Adrienne and our internal departments to create more digital-equity programming, giving more access to technology pieces, and also thinking about how can we be more collaborative and create and improve the model so that this can be something that's shared nationwide and really impacting people on a nationwide scale.
- Absolutely, Carler Dinnold, Adrienne Whaley, my colleagues from The Fortune Society here in New York City who obviously are really amplifying the need to act to create access to technology support for people impacted by the criminal legal system. Thank you so much for joining us here today on "Both Sides of the Bars." And we thank you, the viewers, for joining us all for this really thought-provoking conversation as always.
In the meantime, however, on behalf of The Fortune Society, we like to thank you so much for tuning in to "Both Sides of the Bars." If you're interested in finding out more about The Fortune Society, please check us out on the Web at fortunesociety.org; that's www.fortunesociety.org. My name is Andre Ward. I appreciate you all for joining us here as we critically look at "Both Sides of the Bars."