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Digital Equity Champions for All Learners: How United Way Supports Communities in Southeast Wisconsin

United Way is a global nonprofit organization in which each local chapter champions different causes based on specific community needs. United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County (United Way) serves four counties in Southeast Wisconsin. By partnering with various community-based organizations, they support more than 200 programs in health, education, mental health, financial stability, and most recently, digital equity. Operating under an initiative titled “Techquity,” United Way focuses on four digital equity priorities: broadband, devices, skills and literacy, and advocacy.

In the urban and suburban communities served by United Way, lack of large-format devices like desktop and laptop computers is one of the main barriers to digital equity. David Berka, project manager at United Way, recognizes the correlation between household income and the type of device used to access the internet. Lower-income households are more likely to use mobile devices to connect to the internet, which makes tasks like completing school assignments and applying for jobs difficult. Additionally, broadband affordability challenges severely limit connectivity options for low-income households.

United Way is addressing these issues through various programs that seek to identify and scale impactful solutions, often serving as a funder, partner, and convener.

Because no single organization can tackle these issues by themselves, Berka emphasized the importance of assembling a network of trusted relationships and partners. For example, United Way is working with local leaders to fund the development of permanent kiosks in public spaces and community organizations that will walk people through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) enrollment process and administer a digital skills assessment. United Way has also partnered with a local device refurbisher, Digital Bridge. While United Way donors fund the initiative, Digital Bridge and United Way facilitate refurbishing and distributing devices at a no cost to the recipients.

In building trusted relationships and partnerships necessary for success, Berka emphasizes the importance of engaging directly with community leaders and members to understand what resources are most needed and co-create solutions. He takes every opportunity available to speak with the communities that United Way serves to ensure that all perspectives are heard.

Recognizing its platform and capacity to amplify community voices, United Way also engages in advocacy. For example, in collaboration with organizations like the United Community Center and Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, United Way collected input on the experiences of communities with low broadband adoption rates, which tend to be majority Black and Latinx in this area. By engaging in these conversations, the organization can relay data, stories, and policy suggestions to local agencies, officials, and the general public.

Berka challenges other philanthropies to engage in the work exemplified by United Way. Many overlapping factors currently prevent communities from accessing digital resources necessary for learning, well-being, and social mobility, and continued leadership from the philanthropy sector is necessary to identify and scale solutions that advance digital equity for all.