Innovation Ecosystem

Healing the digital divide

ONE Neighborhood Builders seeks to build out a wireless mesh network to bring high-speed Internet services to more than 1,500 households in Olneyville, addressing a critical unmet need

Image courtesy of ONE Neighborhood Builders

ONE Neighborhood Builders has launched an ambitious plan to build out a mesh network to provide more than 1,500 households in Olneyville with access to high-speed Internet.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/7/20
ONE Neighborhood Builders has developed a working plan to build out high-speed Internet for more than 1,500 households in Olneyville, a critical component in moving forward in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
How can the work being done by ONE Neighborhood Builders be replicated and scaled up in other communities crippled by the digital divide in Rhode Island? When will bottom-up innovation as an economic development strategy gain at seat at the table at CommerceRI? When will WPRO’s Gene Valicenti invite Jennifer Hawkins on his show to talk about ONE Neighborhood Builder’s successful strategies in community development? Will Dr. Ashish Jha, the new dean of the School of Public Health, in his efforts to learn more about Providence, be willing to take a walking tour of Olneyville led by Jennifer Hawkins as well as a walking tour of the West End led by Angie Ankoma?
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PROVIDENCE – At every turn, it seems, the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island have exposed many of the shortcomings and disparities in the state’s infrastructure for public health, public education, the wage and gig economies, and the exploitation of the “essential” workforce, mostly women and minorities.

The current “dialogue” – which may be too nice a word to describe the confrontations occurring between Gov. Gina Raimondo and her team, teachers, parents and local school committees – revolves around a push-and-shove conflict about the risks involved in whether or not to reopen public schools, the apparent lack of participation by teachers and parents in decision-making, and the gaps in what can be achieved through a hybrid model of virtual learning outside the classroom. More than a “dialogue,” the disagreements appear to resemble  a scrum in rugby.

The scrum appears to be eerily similar and reflective of “wrong assumptions” made about access to testing for the coronavirus. The initial concept was that access to testing would be funneled through a person’s primary care provider, only to confront the reality that many folks, particularly those who were most vulnerable to health and wealth disparities, lacked access to a primary care provider.

Another “wrong assumption” was that folks would be able to access a testing site set up in Lincoln, given that many did not have access to transportation to get there. It took some time, but the state finally figured out that it needed to set up local testing sites in Central Falls, in Pawtucket, and in certain neighborhoods in Providence to address gaps in access that reflected social and health disparities.

The disconnect around virtual learning
When it comes to plans to create a system of virtual learning, there has been a similar kind of disconnect around “assumptions” about who has access to high-speed Internet services.

Many of the neighborhoods most vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus are the very same neighborhoods that lacked the broadband connections to make such virtual learning programs feasible. Once identified, the question became: How do you come up with a solution?

In response, ONE Neighborhood Builders is leading efforts to create a wireless mesh network over the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence. Those efforts were bolstered recently by a $10,000 grant from Tufts Health Plan in support of that goal, announced on Friday, Sept. 4.

“The COVID-19 health crisis has brought great suffering to a Providence neighborhood that already suffers from some of the highest poverty in Rhode Island – and average lifespans that are nearly nine years lower than those of other Providence neighborhoods,” said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, in the news release announcing the Tufts Health Plan investment.

The engineering plan designed by Brave River and CommScope has been completed, according to a Twitter post made by Hawkins on Sunday evening, Sept. 6. In addition, the fundraising goal to complete the project of $200,000 is a step closer, thanks to the latest corporate sponsorship by BankNewport.

In a previous story published by ConvergenceRI, Hawkins had provided the detailed evidence of how the neighborhoods served by her organization have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. “The communities in 02908 and 02909 [ZIP codes] have been exceptionally hard hit by COVID-19,” said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders. “In fact, these two ZIP codes report the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the entire state.”
[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “When life gets in the way.”]

The focus on creating access to Wi-Fi has become a critical part of ONE Neighborhood Builders’ response to fighting back against the spread of the virus. “What may have been considered a convenience before the pandemic, is now accepted as crucial for learning, working, socializing, and accessing important services,” Hawkins said. “We thank Tufts Health Plan for their leadership on this issue, as their contribution will enable us to continue our important work to ensure all Rhode Islanders have equal access.”

Identifying the need, creating the solution
One of the consequences of the pandemic is that it has shuttered libraries, coffee shops, community centers, and other public places that generally offer free Wi-Fi, Hawkins explained. In response, ONE Neighborhood Builders has launched a fundraising campaign to bring free, high-speed Internet to this community, though a program called “ONE Neighborhood Connects: Community Wi-Fi,” with the goal of providing Internet services to more than 1,500 households.

“As many Rhode Islanders continue to work from home and students are faced with remote learning environments, having accessible and reliable internet connection is crucial,” said Domenic Delmonico, executive director of Rhode Island Medicaid at Tufts Health Plan, in the news release. “The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the digital divide and made us aware of the vast inequities that exist in our communities. This collaboration with ONE Neighborhood Builders is just one small way we can offer support to those who need it most.”

Bottom-up innovation
The approach being taken by ONE Neighborhood Builders is reflective of its overall strategic plan to build up the communities the community development corporation services by making investments based on community needs and priorities.

Allegra Scharff, MPH, the Health Equity Project Manager at ONE Neighborhood Builders, detailed the importance of the approach of bottom-up innovation at the community level in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI.

“Our work is grounded in resident need as identified by residents in our communities,” Scharff said. “We get this information from community-wide needs assessments and through continuous feedback loops from our community health workers, who are both residents themselves and working with their neighbors every day. There is so much that we learn from the people that we serve, and I cannot imagine doing community development without this information.”

When mission, vision mesh together
In this context, the clarity of the mission of ONE Neighborhood Builders is worth sharing: “Our mission is to develop affordable housing and engage neighbors across Greater Providence to cultivate safe, healthy, vibrant communities. We achieve our mission through robust housing development, addressing root causes of health disparities, and embracing innovation and building the community development field.”

The community developer’s record of achievement is impressive: the development of more than 500 affordable homes, as well as more than 50,000 square feet of commercial and community space.

“We strive to generate the social and economic conditions in central Providence that prolong life expectancy and work to eradicate systemic barriers that lead to health disparities,” ONE Neighborhood Builders said, in articulating its strategic approach.

One of the key components of the ongoing work by ONE Neighborhood Builders is the fact that the developer is the backbone agency for the Central Providence Health Equity Zone, a collaboration of more than 25 community stakeholders who work collectively to identify and eliminate barriers to health.

Further, ONE Neighborhood Builders has made clear that it is pursuing “an enduring commitment to equity” as a core organizational value, maintaining a highly diverse staff and board, reflective of the communities being served and representing a wide constellation of identities.

Translated, many corporations, in developing their strategic plans, could learn a few lessons from ONE Neighborhood Builders about “intention” when it comes to investment in racial equity.

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