Techlandia Issue 3 - 2019/2020 - Page 61

At the other end of the spectrum, companies developing some of the most cutting-edge technology to come out of Portland are becoming increasingly vocal about taking on the region's digital disparities.

The most active in that effort include Cloudability, the Portland cloud management firm has participated in panels and roundtable discussions on diversity and inclusion in Portland's tech workplaces, in partnership with Free Geek and the Technology Association of Oregon.

"The way Free Geek has impacted Cloudability is by helping us further understand and offer access and insight on accessibility around digital technology," said Marcus Carter, the company's former talent acquisition partner now working for Instrument. "Really helping us understand, 'What is the deficit? What are the disparities, and how can we use partnerships like Free Geek or other organizations to start to have the conversations within the digital inclusion framework, versus omitting that topic from the conversation?'"

For both companies and nonprofits, those disparities are often most apparent in communities with lower rates of access to the internet.

Oregon has the ninth highest rate of household internet access in the country, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. But a survey that year by the American Community Survey of thousands of American households found a direct link between educational attainment and access to the internet within a home: Desktops or laptops were in the homes of 93 percent of households headed by someone with a bachelor's degree or higher, versus just 45 percent of households without a high school diploma.

And a Pew Research Center survey this year found 44 percent of adults nationwide with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year lack broadband internet in their homes.

"I think sometimes as tech companies, it's easy to think we just need to post our jobs at certain sites and get jobs in front of certain people," Carter said. "But when you're talking about digital inclusion and just access in general, there's a series of questions and answers that you need to address within the framework of digital inclusion, which helps you better address class and socioeconomic issues as well."

For Shohoney, Free Geek's development manager, addressing those issues has meant better understanding those communities' barriers to access, and reevaluating how the nonprofit reaches them. Among the most common reasons people cited for not utilizing Free Geek was the distance from their homes in some of the edges of the metro area to Free Geek's southeast Portland office.

"When we asked why certain audiences weren't able to engage with Free Geek, weren't working here or volunteering here, what we heard was we weren't accessible for a lot of people. We're in the city, and it's hard to get here if you don't have a car," Shohoney said. "A lot of kids further out (from Portland), their parents don't have a car, or they work a ton of hours a week. So instead of perpetuating imbalances in the system, we're being proactive to solve these problems as quickly as possible."

That means reaching members of the Portland metro area hungriest for inclusion in the region's growing digital economy where they are: in their schools and community centers.

Last year Free Geek worked with nearly 30 students at César Chávez School in North Portland in a pilot program to bridge the students' digital knowledge gaps. It has also begun working with migrant students through the Multnomah Education Service District, providing them with computers and basic skills.

"One of the things we've tried to do is be out more in community," Shohoney said. "A lot of our classes still take place here, but we've been able to take our original digital inclusion programming and plug it into Portland schools, where we can go to schools and do a pilot program. That's the biggest change I've seen in Free Geek, and something we're really proud of, being responsive to the community and really finding ways to include folks, including trying to find ways that aren't always traditional."

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