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The impact of social movements hinges on bridging the digital divide

900 WURD hosted a panel on technology and social change for Philly Tech Week. May 5, 2016 Category: EventFeaturedMediumMethod
Social movements like #BlackLivesMatter are fueled by the internet.

The magnitude of impact those movements can make is inherently dependent on access to the internet — and the know-how needed to navigate social platforms. But there’s no abundance of access within the marginalized and impoverished communities that social movements like #BlackLivesMatter are born from — especially seniors in those communities.

How much impact can a social movement make if many of the people it represents don’t have the resources nor the means to get involved?

That’s why groups like the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice are connecting the elderly to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

“We’ve developed a buddy system with elders,” said coalition member and noted #BlackLivesMatter activist Asa Khalif at 900 WURD‘s Philly Tech Week panel on technology and social change. “They’re allowing us in their homes based on our consistency in the neighborhood. A lot of our elders want to continue to fight for social justice.”

Social media, Khalif said, has the power to bridge generational gaps and mobilize people around an issue. #BlackLivesMatter activists aren’t “sitting in somebody’s basement tapping away,” he said. They’re mobilizing and strategizing to shut down a “racist society and system.”

#BlackLivesMatter, Khalifa explained to a largely elderly audience, is like when James Brown sang “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.”

How much impact can a social movement make if many of the people it represents don't have the resources nor the means to get involved?

“It’s something we own, something that is real and raw to us as black people. It’s something our elders can understand, too,” he said. “It’s an umbrella of unity and power. When you put it out there boldly and you see it and stand with it, it encourages our community that’s been so hurt and beaten down.” 

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Plus, added Rutgers professor and Media Mobilizing Project board member Todd Wolfson, it’s a movement that knows no borders.

“What’s amazing about it is, it moved across the country and the world and organized people to that concept,” he said. “You could be in Ferguson but you could also be in L.A., in Philly … and organize yourself to that concept. You could talk about it and make it real.” 

The media, Wolfson said, has not historically done Black communities any services. Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms offer a more democratic forum.

“#OscarsSoWhite would have never been a story without Black Twitter,” said Beulah Osueke, communications director at POWER Philadelphia. “Finally, young black people have a space where they can say, ‘This is how I feel.’ Now we don’t have walls because we have the internet.” 

Mjumbe Poe, digital services architect with the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, highlighted the city’s KEYSPOTS program — facilities that offer internet access and digital literacy training throughout the city. Yet, Poe said, those access points are only open certain hours of the day when, in an ideal world where public funding is not scarce, they should be open at all hours.

Poe said OIT keeps digital literacy in mind by working to address the needs of the community first.

“What do people actually need us to do? What are the best tools we can build to give people access to the services they need?” he said. “We start from that perspective and build as little technology as we can to meet those needs.” 

“This city does still have a large digital divide that has to be dealt with,” Wolfson said. “It skews to the Black community, the poor community and seniors.”

If a large part of those communities are not online, he said, they don’t have access to that power.

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