Oak Hill Collaborative Bridges the Digital Divide

By Patrick V. Kerrigan
Executive Director, The Oak Hill Collaborative

YOUNGSTOWN – The pandemic has highlighted the critical need for significantly improved Digital Inclusion programs, particularly in socio-economically depressed areas of the Mahoning Valley, and primarily in three aspects of modern life: schools, telehealth, and job training. At the Collaborative, our digital advantage program is based on the acknowledged “tripod” of digital inclusion: enhanced computer skills training for adults and students, more economical distribution of personal computer equipment, and cheaper and faster broadband capacity for the community.  As the sole local champion for these combined goals, we have had considerable success in 2020, given both our financial limitations and contact and other barriers caused by the pandemic. We have relied on collaborative partnerships with multiple Valley agencies, including Youngstown Area Goodwill Industries, United Way, the Youngstown Foundation, Eastgate, and the City of Youngstown, among others. With their support, our Digital Advantage program has been highly successful.

The signature education program is our acclaimed “raspberry pi computer after school” class where we teach middle school students how to build and program personal computers and give the assembled computers to the students upon satisfactory completion of the six- to seven week class.  In-person participation at schools has not occurred in almost a year, so we have produced our own six hour video series to teach this class virtually, which we hope to share with local schools. Currently we are producing other on-line videos for robotics, coding, video game development, 3D printing and other computer based educational offerings. These classes will be available in person once pandemic restrictions are lifted, as well as Cisco network engineering, digital audio recording, drone operation, Microsoft certifications, resume writing and other adult job preparation and training courses. 

In an effort to get more computer equipment into the community, the collaborative collects used desktop and laptop computers (primarily from companies and institutions), refurbishes them, and then resells them at deeply discounted prices to the public. We are looking to expand this initiative substantially in 2021 through a partnership with PC’s for People and Youngstown Goodwill.

Regarding broadband, the collaborative has maintained a long -tanding position of advocacy with local, regional and national organizations, most recently by serving on several Eastgate committees supervising regional broadband feasibility studies and conduit placement in the city of Youngstown. We are actively working with partners on public and commercial alternatives to trenching fiber and coaxial lines which would result in quicker and cheaper expansion of coverage, a partnership that also could bring manufacturing and more job training to the Valley. We also are developing our own local wireless network.

We will not achieve lasting and equitable success unless we enable all our residents to participate fully in our modern, digital world. The digital divide is very real, and demands attention from government, business and community leaders.  The Oak Hill Collaborative will continue to do its part in this initiative.

The Collaborative also will continue to provide free of charge a 15-station computer lab, a digital audio recording studio, and 3D printers, as well as community organization and leadership, public meeting space, ex-offender reentry, small business incubation, a community Makerspace and neighborhood beautification and revitalization.