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August 22, 2019

7/24/2019 3:12:00 PM
Removing Language Barriers to Narrow the Digital Divide
By Steve Johnson


Sergio Gonzalez, a technology trainer at Evanston Public Library (EPL), stands in a meeting hall at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) ready to hand out 15 diplomas. July 23 marked the final session of an eight-week course in computer basics taught in Spanish. All the students sit at tables satisfied with their accomplishment but also eager for the wide array of pot-luck dishes waiting as part of the celebration.

Mr. Gonzalez is a computer-system analyst and also a Microsoft Office specialist. He has been teaching tech classes such as Microsoft Office, basic computer skills, and online applications and social media for the last decade and with the EPL since last October.

“The library is not about just books. You want to learn something, come to the library… and change the point of view of what a library is,” Mr. Gonzalez says. “Right now, if you don’t have an email you’re out of the game. You want to check Social Security benefits, you need to create an account. It doesn’t matter how old you are; now you need basic technology knowledge.”

Per a 2018 National Telecommunications and Information Administration report, it is the “historically overlooked and underserved communities” that are at risk of being left behind in a world where reliable broadband access is critical for success. In the 9th Congressional District, which includes Evanston, more than a quarter of homes are still without broadband access, according to 2013-17 stats from the American Community Survey brought forward by Senate offices co-sponsoring the Digital Equity Act. The percentage of households without any Internet at all jumps to 46% when income hovers at $20,000 per year.

Spanish-language courses offered by the Library have had significant registration and participation. Both EPL Latino Engagement Librarian Mariana Bojorquez and ETHS Latino Liaison/Minority Languages Coordinator Mercedes Fernandez are very aware that some immigrants come to the U.S. without significant digital literacy skills, and in Evanston that is most true in the larger Latino community.

A 2016 Pew Research study showed the digital gap between Latino and white residents closing – even faster than the gap between the white and the black population. EPL added the Spanish-language classes as part of an effort to close all demographic gaps, and it is an objective libraries across the country have taken up.

“The adult students are not just learning basic computer skills, but they learn how to fill out school forms on-line … to keep updated on what their children are doing in school,” Ms. Fernandez says. “Part of the success is that our instructors understand the community and cultural differences; the teacher understands how to interact and keep them engaged.

“We have the privilege of having this type of technology infrastructure like the South Tech Center. But we also will collaborate with institutions like Oakton [Community College],” she continues.

The next course begins in late August to coincide with the beginning of the school year, but Fernandez is still working on getting other course topics approved.

“I expect to see classes offered in Spanish. It is inclusion for all of us,” says Computer Basics student Sara Castro. “Although my English is getting stronger, I was more motivated to come and join in when I heard the course was being taught in Spanish. I’m happy with this city because the community gives us opportunities to get stronger for our families, like with computers.”

And the impact can be immediate.

“A student said recently, ‘I have the opportunity to use the Internet to fix an issue with a company I’m dealing with,’” Mr. Gonzalez says. “She was able to follow the steps and send a document to this company to resolve the issue. She said, ‘Thanks to the class, I could resolve the issue and not have to bother my kids or husband.’”

The series of classes is expected to continue this fall.

 







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