By: Destiny Gibson, Pivotal Scholar and 2021 Summer Marketing Intern

Technology has reshaped society forever: from the first computer, which took up an entire room for just five measly megabits of data, to the MacBook that I’m writing this article on now. As technological advancements change the world, the necessities of our everyday lives also change. But although things like computers and phones have become essential to our daily lives, they haven't become that much more accessible to the disenfranchised -- especially to foster youth. This lack of access to the technology needed to be a functioning member of today’s society is what is referred to as the “digital divide.”

The primary function of the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF)is to bridge the digital divide in our state. In early 2020, CETF awarded Pivotal a grant to research the impact of the digital divide on the foster youth they serve and to understand how many Pivotal scholars did not have access to the technology they needed. Pivotal surveyed 332 foster youth in their post-secondary and high school programs and asked them about their access to technology. They found that only 38% had access to a reliable laptop. That meant that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more than 60% of Pivotal scholars did not have a reliable device to take online classes, do schoolwork, or research post-secondary opportunities. Not only that, but 20% of the students didn’t have access to reliable internet, and 12% didn’t have access to a reliable phone. When the pandemic swept across the world and forced everyone into fully online learning, those without computers, phones, or internet were left scrambling to figure out how to continue their education.  

The survey results highlight how large the digital divide is for the foster youth that Pivotal works with and in early June 2021, Pivotal and CETF held a roundtable discussion with prominent figures in Santa Clara County to discuss why digital equity is so important to the futures of foster youth. The roundtable participants included Elise Cutini, CEO of Pivotal, Sunne McPeak, President of CETF, Cindy Chavez, President of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Mary Anne Dewan, Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools, and Serita Cox, the CEO of iFoster.

The conversation centered around the many reasons why digital equity is vital in the lives of foster youth, particularly for enrichment opportunities and community building. There was discussion around how technology provides a person with a means to receive an education, especially during this last year with COVID-19 pushing everything online. Technology can be used to apply for scholarships and to network with potential employers. I myself have found all of my jobs online since starting work at the age of seventeen. Not only that, but for people who may not feel like they fit into their everyday lives, technology provides a way to find communities with common interests or resources for mental health. 

However, to benefit from technology, you must first have access to it. Before I became a part of the foster system, I was already part of a disadvantaged community and I didn’t have a laptop. In order to do my schoolwork, I either had to spend hours at the local library, or write my papers on a tablet. I didn’t have a phone so the only way I could talk to my friends was through email or at school. I didn’t have internet at home, so I had to go sit on a random floor in my apartment building to borrow someone else’s internet signal.  

Imagine my surprise when I went into the foster care system and they gave me a computer! I was ecstatic. I used that computer to apply to colleges, I began writing my first book on it, and I used it through the entirety of my time in community college. Having access to technology changed my world and those are the scenarios that were discussed at the roundtable.  

But the digital divide isn’t just a problem around access to technology; the roundtable participants also discussed how important digital literacy is in today’s society. Tools like Microsoft Office are fundamental for not only education but also to be successful in the workforce. So, Pivotal not only provides computers to foster youth, they also offer workshops on computer literacy, ensuring that students have a strong understanding of some of the basic tools they’ll need to use the technology effectively.

The people who attended this roundtable have worked closely with children for many years and have seen the effect that a lack of access to the proper technology can have on them. COVID-19 brought the topic of the digital divide into the spotlight in society, but as the roundtable moderator, Delrisha White, said, “We should not have to wait to have a global pandemic to see the urgency in what people need to live well.”  This is yet another problem that is too often ignored by individuals in positions of power. The ones who suffer the most are not only foster youth, but low-income households, people of color, and other disenfranchised groups as well. To fix what society has ignored until now, we need to keep it in the spotlight. We need to talk about it more, we need to collaborate and work towards solutions. Technology is going to keep pushing the world into the future, and it’s our obligation to make sure that everyone has the ability to keep up.