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I started 2020 full of excitement about establishing and announcing The Knowledge House’s (TKH) plans to expand our technical skills and training programs from our flagship location in the Bronx, New York, to across the United States to three major cities — Atlanta, Los Angeles and Newark.

Then COVID-19 arrived.

Then George Floyd was murdered.

Then national race-related uprisings took place.

Our Bronx community, including many of our students, was extremely affected by death, unemployment, ongoing systemic racism and, worst of all, violence. We saw applications for our fellowships more than double since the pandemic, and today 20% of all jobs in the country are jobs in tech. With this increased demand and opportunity, we came together and continued to serve our students and engage with our partners and donors.

This year we announced our plans to resume national scaling. Earlier this month, we started a virtual listening tour with our partners and associates, per city, to learn what Black and brown young people truly need to prosper and get across the great digital divide. 

Here’s what we learned:

Lesson 1 — Internet Access Before Computer Access

Successful learning cannot happen without the ability to access the internet with a reliable connection and video capabilities. The pandemic made this abundantly clear as everyone was pushed to online learning and working. This has become a universal issue that spans across all sectors and generations. 

In order for students in NYC to learn during the pandemic, the Department of Education had to disseminate free wifi access as well as over 250,000 laptops, tablets and iPads to students in need. However, 25% of schools “with majority Black-and-brown student populations suffer(ed) a low attendance rate for remote learning,” compared to just 3% of schools without majority Black-and-brown student bodies. The discrepancy is attributed to a lack of supplies and poor internet connections.”

Lesson 2 — Foundational Skills For All

Youth are in need of more foundational math and science knowledge. Adult learners need more digital literacy skills. All learners across generations need more tech career exploration to understand that they don’t have to be a mathematician to excel in the tech industry.

Our partner city, Newark, is the largest in New Jersey, has not had a real STEM curriculum and is just now developing one with us.

A’dorian Murray Thomas, Founder and CEO of SheWins, a Newark organization focused on college and career readiness for young women, explains, “The district has been intentional in the last year and a half about instituting classroom to career pipelines when prior to this there was no district-wide, comprehensive science curriculum. With this new cohesion, Newark is now poised to prepare students for digital literacy and the future of the technology industry.”

Lesson 3 — Closing The Gender Gap

The technology industry is predominantly white and male, not reflecting the demographics of most cities, and especially not the cities that TKH serves. People of color, and Black women especially, are left out of training and higher wage opportunities that lead to gainful employment.

According to a recent report by SP Global, “Given how closely education is tied to productivity, if all the currently college-educated Black women had also been in positions that better matched their education and skillsets, the productivity boost would have generated a total $507 billion to GDP.”

Another of our partner cities, Atlanta, has a growing technology sector and a college and school system that prioritizes STEM, but the sector mimics national trends of being dominated by white males. This paradigm cannot persist — it only exacerbates a widening opportunity gap, made worse by the pandemic, in a city where the population is majority Black and female. An investment in creating more equitable pathways for Black women will close the gender gap over time. That’s why TKH recently joined NPower’s Command Shift coalition, which aims to advance women of color in tech and increase enrollment of Black and brown women in technology job training programs.

Lesson 4 — Working With Partners To Create Pipelines

It is crucial when addressing the great digital divide to collaborate with employers that are willing to change protocols that enable an increase in diversified support. Corporations support decreasing the gap by (1) providing resources through funding and/or staff support and (2) setting up nonprofits to be integrated into their business model, making workforce development more efficient.

Here are few success examples:

Ghetto Film School, a workforce development nonprofit in Los Angeles and the Bronx focused on digital storytelling, has partnered with Netflix to provide a documentary and filmmaking fellowship to highlight novice documentarians and nonfiction filmmakers. Netflix is directly investing dollars into talent development and, as a result, this initiative will create a diverse pipeline into a career at Netflix.

Next Shift Learning, also in Los Angeles, creates upskilling programs in partnership with SnapChat. The partnership seeks local community college students to train them and pipeline them into engineering roles at Snap.

Last but not least, Microsoft launched their Community Skills Program, providing The Knowledge House and 49 other workforce development organizations led by Black executives, program grants to expand access to tech education and employment.

Lesson 5 — Strengthening Infrastructure

The infrastructures as they currently exist are not strong enough to successfully prepare youth and adult learners for technological advancement. This includes access to a strong digital infrastructure where high-speed internet and technology devices are accessible to all.

At The Knowledge House, fellows are matched to laptops and MiFis, taught foundational computer science skills, supported by corporate partners that have pledged to invest in Black and brown technologists, and within a year, our fellows go from an average income of $14,000, underemployed or unemployed, to a salary averaging $80,000 at companies like Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs and Citibank. Every Black and brown person deserves the opportunity to overcome the digital divide, and we can collectively close the digital divide if we shift our focus from mitigating symptoms of digital divide to achieving systemic change.

There needs to be strong infrastructures and systems in place to ensure that low-income communities across the country can thrive in a world increasingly dependent on technology. By focusing on the other four lessons cohesively, the infrastructures will become more fortified to provide access and success. Systems change will only happen when robust partnerships have the capacity to tackle the digital divide from various angles in a meaningful way. We are looking for industry and community leaders in our expansion sites to become regional advisors, corporate volunteers and hiring partners to holistically support economic and racial justice within the technology ecosystem.

We can bridge the gap together.


Jerelyn Rodriguez is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Knowledge House.