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Mar 26, 2020

Overcoming the Digital Divide and Literacy Crisis

The past few weeks have ushered in unprecedented challenges and unsettling uncertainty for our society. With the outbreak of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, many businesses, schools, and anchor institutions have been forced to close their doors. In hopes of preventing the spread of this virus, major cities like San Francisco and New York  ordered residents to “shelter-in-place,” a dramatic, yet necessary action that was soon followed by other cities across the country. Under these restrictions, many people have been forced to move their day-to-day activities—everything from work to worship, school to the gym—online. 

 

But what about those with limited or no access to fast, reliable internet service? According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an estimated 21.3 million people across the United States lacked access to broadband internet in 2019. In rural areas, this divide is even more extreme, with only two-thirds of residents reporting that they have a broadband connection at home. The spread of this virus has highlighted the weak, or in some cases nonexistent, digital infrastructure of these communities. It has revealed the stark and ever-widening digital divide in our country. 

 

From our founding, Libraries Without Borders has worked to provide all people, regardless of their circumstances, with opportunities to pursue knowledge, art, culture, education, and life-saving information. At the heart of these efforts is a commitment to digital equity, which is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services or information. 

 

Given the nature of our work, the current public health crisis has forced us to change many of our practices and programming in order to protect the health of the communities we serve, as well as that of our team. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, we have doubled down on our commitment to providing access to information and education, especially to those who need it most. With your support, we will be able to provide rapid response services to children, families, and other vulnerable individuals impacted by the coronavirus. For children who are not in school, this means providing them with laptops and Internet access that will allow them to participate in distance learning or other educational activities. For families, this means signing up for free or low-cost Internet services, or connecting them to local nonprofits equipped to support parents facing extreme hardship because of the pandemic. 

 

To support our rapid response to the coronavirus, please visit our donation page. 



For updates on our programs since December 2019, please read on…

 

The Baltimore Wash and Learn Initiative

 

In February 2020, LWB organized our first-ever tax intake program, which took place at our Baltimore WALI sites. Through this program, we have helped low-income laundromat patrons complete their taxes — completely free of charge! To date, we have helped 17 clients through this program, which was made possible with support from the Cash Campaign of Maryland. 

 

Earlier this year, our partners at the Enoch Pratt Free Library launched an English Class for Spanish speakers at one of our Baltimore WALI laundromats. The class brought in 12 participants on its very first day! 

 

Following the success of our first half year, the Baltimore City Department of Planning awarded Baltimore WALI a grant to support census outreach efforts. With this support, we will host a community event that brings the census directly to Baltimore residents at our WALI sites. 



The San Antonio Wash and Learn Initiative 

 

According to the Department of Community Initiatives, the illiteracy rate in San Antonio is 25% — that’s 373,250 people who are unable to read and write. In response to this literacy crisis, LWB is fully committed to continuing and growing our San Antonio WALI program. Over the past four months, we have partnered with local organizations to  provide more than 100 hours of programming at our WALI laundromat sites. Program activities ranged from story time sessions to voter registration drives, and participants included everyone from toddlers to senior citizens. In total, we have served more than 250 people! Stay tuned for our expansion to two new laundromat sites! 



The Oakland Wash and Learn Initiative 

 

After a whirlwind first year, Family Laundry is gearing up to expand programming for Fruitvale residents. Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, the laundromat has decided to host a “Free Laundry Day” entirely for senior citizens in the community on March 23rd.  If you’d like to support this event, or a future “Free Laundry Day,” please contact Adam Echelman: adam@librarrieswithoutborders.us 

Dec 18, 2019

Leveraging the community to overcome inequalities

San Antonio WALI Launch
San Antonio WALI Launch

Approximately 32 million adults in the United States are illiterate. Additionally, 35% of lower-income households with school age children do not have access to a broadband Internet connection at home. When talking about the realities these communities face, we often throw out terms like “digital divide” and “homework gap.” Setting aside the jargon for a moment, these numbers indicate that for households with an annual income below $30,000, applying for a job, completing homework, and contacting friends or family is exponentially more difficult. Imagine going one day without the Internet. Now imagine going one day without being able to read. 

By providing access to information and transforming informal spaces into places of learning, Libraries Without Borders reaches precisely these communities. Through partnerships with libraries, nonprofits, and community members themselves, we narrow the digital divide and increase literacy rates across the United States. 

Since our last update, we have continued to expand the reach of our programs, forge new partnerships, and broaden the scope of the services we provide.

 

Updates from the Wash and Learn Initiative:

On October 18th, we brought the Wash & Learn Initiative (WALI) to San Antonio. Borne out of a partnership with Google Fiber, the San Antonio Public Library, and BiblioTech (the library of Bexar County), this program has transformed two laundromats into places where members of the community can access books, technology, and other wrap-around services. To learn more about this program, check out our website!

 Following an accident that killed a young boy and his mother upon leaving Family Laundry (our Oakland WALI site), the laundromat became a center for activism and healing. In November, Family Laundry dedicated the WALI reading room in honor of their memory. The laundromat also organized an all-day event that brought community members face-to-face with their elected representatives, and gave them the opportunity to demand a traffic light for this deadly intersection. You can learn more about this program here

On November 16th, LWB hosted its first ever "Digital Resource Fair" at Laundry City, one of our four Baltimore WALI sites. The event brought together nonprofits, community-based organizations, and laundromat patrons for a day of fun and learning that also gave various groups the opportunity to showcase their online resources. 

 

Engaging our Supporters


On November 7th, LWB hosted a book talk with scholar Stephanie Hom, the author of  Empire's Mobius Strip, which traces the roots of the present-day migrant crisis in Italy to the country's early imperial ambitions.

San Antonio WALI Launch
San Antonio WALI Launch
Book Talk with author Stephanie Hom
Book Talk with author Stephanie Hom
Digital Resource Fair in Baltimore
Digital Resource Fair in Baltimore
Digital Resource Fair in Baltimore
Digital Resource Fair in Baltimore
Sep 25, 2019

We Take It For Granted...

Many of us don’t think twice about going online to catch up with family and friends, check our bank balance, or send an email. However, for the 21 million Americans who do not have access to broadband internet, these activities cannot be taken for granted. Beyond binge-watching Netflix, a high-speed internet connection gives us access to information and the tools needed to carry out everyday activities. 

Just think about the student whose grades suffer because they can’t do their homework or download the study resources their teacher posted online. Or the new small business that needs a reliable internet connection to process payments and sell their products on the global marketplace. Or the elderly person living in a remote, rural area who depends on telehealth services to receive medical care because the nearest doctor is nearly 100 miles away. 

Of course, access to information alone cannot fix the inequalities borne out of the digital divide. That’s why Libraries Without Borders takes a community-driven approach to bridge the gap between the internet-haves and have-nots. By setting up pop-up libraries and learning spaces in public places—laundromats, community centers, playgrounds, mobile home parks—we create “connectivity oases” for people who would otherwise remain offline. 

Through our programs (which you can read more about them below), we equip people with the skills and technology they need to actually get online and access the information and tools relevant to their lives. Take for instance our Wash and Learn Initiative in Baltimore. Launched in June 2019, WALI Baltimore has transformed four laundromats in underserved parts of the city into community centers where patrons of all ages can use laptops and tablets, connect to the internet, or ask a librarian for help. Through this hyper-local approach, WALI Baltimore provides a more integrative, holistic approach to promoting digital literacy among the most disconnected residents in the city. It is a crucial step that lays the groundwork for building a more digitally inclusive city. 

None of these programs would exist without your generosity. As we enter into fall, we wanted to send our sincerest thanks for your continued support—along with an update about our programs.

We cannot thank you enough! 

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The Wash and Learn Initiative: Expanding a National Movement 

At present, LWB is running the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI) in laundromats in eight states across the country. Each WALI site features library programming and is equipped with iPads, computers, books, and arts and crafts materials. At every WALI site, both children and adults have the opportunity to learn new skills from experts in basic, digital, health, and legal literacy, among other topics.

On Septmber 9th, we launched three new WALI sites in Detroit, Michigan. On September 16th and 21st, we launched two new WALI sites in San Antonio, Texas. 

In the months to come, we’ll upgrade WALI sites across the country, making sure every laundromat is up-to-date with high-speed tech and new, exciting books! 

The Ideas Box in Puerto Rico: Engaging the Youth 

Following the success of last summer’s pilot program, LWB continues to provide educational and cultural programming with the Ideas Box.  

Through your donations, and with generous support from SONY, we have expanded our pilot in Loíza into a full-year program. Additionally, winners from last May’s successful make-a-thon, “Empréndete: Loíza”, have further developed their ideas by designing strategic business plans. We are gearing up to use these plans to transform their ideas into reality! In further exciting news about results from the make-a-thon, everyone from the winning team received a laptop. One young adult, about to start university as an agriculture and engineering major, was especially happy; he finally had a computer that he could bring to university! 

In further news, this summer, two communities in Loíza organized summer camps for youth and young adults. In El Ancón de Loíza, community leader, Moreno, organized workshops focused on sustainable agriculture, health literacy, entrepreneurship, culture and dance, design thinking, and marketing. Young adults that participated in the camp all received stipends for their hard work and commitment to the trainings. In Sector 23 y las Gardenias, community leader, Danaliz, organized two summer camps: one for kids aged five to eleven and the other for kids aged twelve to twenty-two. These camps focused on sports, environmental stewardship, healthy eating, and entrepreneurship. Participants also received stipends based on their attendance and commitment to the program. 

The Legal Literacy Initiative: Addressing New Needs in Washington, D.C. 

In partnership with legal aid providers, local libraries, and nonprofits, we have curated, contextualized, and simplified legal resources to meet the needs of the communities we serve. With oversight from our Legal Literacy Advisory Board, we will continue to provide these communities with a steady stream of relevant and reliable legal information.  

Recently, we were awarded a grant by Immigrant Justice Legal Services (IJLS) to pivot our focus to the Asian community in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs. While we still provide legal information, the needs of this community have largely centered around health literacy and access to books. Consequently, we have switched our focus and are now working on bringing library services to centers serving this community, such as the Chinatown Senior Center.

Increasing Rural Literacy Rates: Building on the Success of Wash and Learn  

Building upon the best practices gleaned from the Wash and Learn Initiative, we plan to launch a program for residents living in manufactured housing communities in suburban and rural areas across the country. The pilot will begin in Fridley, Minnesota, where we have partnered with a local library and Park Plaza Co-Op,  a resident-owned  manufactured housing cooperative. Through this pilot, we will set up iPads, laptops, arts and crafts materials, and a space where residents can participate in library programming inside the co-op’s storm shelter. By working with the library and other community-based organizations, this pilot will provide residents with opportunities to develop basic, digital, health and legal literacy skills.

Links:

 
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