We must make digital equity a fundamental part of the conversation we are having in this country about racism and structural inequity. Our report shows not only how systematic segregation and underinvestment in Detroit’s communities of color have perpetuated a racialized system of digital inequity -- but also how community leaders, adopting a holistic approach, have started to reverse these unjust dynamics. Detroit's example -- led by communities of color -- shows how to build digital equity sustainably, from the ground up.  

- Maya Wiley, Founder, Digital Equity Laboratory

The Digital Equity Lab is thrilled to release our new in-depth case study, Growing Digital Equity: the Origins and Promise of Community Internet in Detroit, drawing on years of collaborative in-depth research with community technologists and organizers.

The pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on digital inequity and its roots in structural injustice. While policymakers and institutions search for new solutions to the old problem of the digital divide, communities in Detroit have innovated for more than 15 years to address neglect by the broadband industry. Community leaders have built digital justice by building their own digital infrastructure.

This case study offers a deep dive into how an ecosystem of community and non-for profits organizations developed a model for internet provision that is owned and led by the community and its leaders. It features the work of the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP)’s Equitable Internet Initiative, which has spearheaded this effort in partnership with community organizations in three Detroit neighborhoods. The North End Woodward Community Coalition, Grace in Action and Church of the Messiah -- in the North End, Southwest and Southeast Detroit neighborhoods respectively -- co-developed the model with DCTP and maintain the infrastructure to the present day. The case study focuses on the North End and focuses on the networks - both human and digital - that formed to create digital equity in a place where systemic racism and redlining has resulted in neglect by local government and telecommunications companies. You can read the full executive summary below and download the full report here.

The research team thanks Monique Tate, Greta Byrum, and Christopher Mitchell for their feedback and comments. The New School is grateful to the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations for their support for this case study. We also acknowledge the Knight Foundation for their years of commitment to Detroit. We especially thank the local leaders in Detroit, the Allied Media Projects, the Detroit Community Technology Project, North End Woodward Community Coalition, Rev. Joan Ross and the Digital Stewards who opened up their communities to us, shared their wisdom, and without whose generosity and hard work this case study would not have been possible.

While the Digital Equity Laboratory is sunsetting its work as a university center, its leaders will continue to lead digital equity initiatives, directing critical energy and resources to build directly with community partners like DCTP. We intend to lift up long-term organizing in service of digital equity, and to radically reimagine how digital advances might be directed to build more justice and more peace, especially for black and brown communities who have previously experienced neglect or oppression by the telecommunications industry and big technology. We are thrilled to offer this case study of communities claiming and exercising their power to build and own their digital future.

Executive Summary

Certainly on time. The case study, 'Growing Digital Equity', is a "catalyzing" inspiration for communities across the country.  The steps in setting the course for an equitable future must include community governed Digital Equity. Looking at where we are today, we must accept nothing less.  

- Rev. Joan Ross, Director Detroit's North End Woodward Community

In a digital age where our lives, politics, and economies are increasingly negotiated online, digital equity is central to fair and inclusive cities. As a baseline, digital equity requires that all members of society have affordable access to reliable, high-speed Internet. But more than that, it requires the ability of communities to understand, know how to use and drive technology and its outcomes to solve local problems and support local innovation.

We do not live in a digitally equitable world. Existing social and economic inequalities also mean digital exclusion of marginalized communities. Digital inequities stem from a toxic stew of residential segregation and redlining, as well as outsized power in the telecommunications industry (Mabud and Seitz-Brown 2017). In Detroit, over 40% of the population lack access to home-based Internet and, as a result, have fewer tools to participate fully in our society, democracy, and economy.

While cities with more resources than Detroit have approached the problem through public infrastructure investments and public-private partnerships, we argue that deep community engagement and leadership in deploying technology and solving community problems is critical in achieving digital equity. Municipal governments, especially ones with limited public resources, should consider investing in hyper-local, community-scale work that ties together infrastructure, digital literacy, and extensive community engagement.

In this case study, we focus on Detroit and the predominantly Black and lower-income neighborhood of the North End as an example of innovative, community-scale projects that are locally generated. In the North End and two other communities, the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) (sponsored by Allied Media Projects), have launched the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII). EII exists in partnership with North End Woodward Community Coalition in the North End and Grace in Action and Church of the Messiah in Southwest and Southeast Detroit respectively. EII has three components: 1) train residents, known as “digital stewards” to build and maintain a gigabit speed wireless network; 2) provide share gigabit speed service to fifty households in each neighborhood, including the North End; and 3) create neighborhood-based Internet service providers (ISPs) that explore alternative sustainable economic models to the private sector.

Exclusionary market-driven broadband alternatives are the norm (Mabud and Seitz-Brown 2017), but DCTP’s  approach provides an experiment to challenge the for-profit models of expensive service that price communities out, while also providing communities with tools to consider how to make use of the technology. Sustainability of these networks remains a challenge but is a worthy part of the experiment. In the absence of government support and private investment, nonprofits, community services agencies and community-based groups have worked to support meaningful broadband access and digital literacy (Byrum & Gangadharan 2012).

This deeply researched report shows what happens when we understand digital inequity as a structural issue interwoven with other forms of discrimination and marginalization. It also illuminates the strength and holistic healing found in a community-rooted and holistic response led by people who are already doing critical work in their neighborhoods. We hope that this research will encourage policymakers, funders, and advocates to support long-term, structural ways to address the digital divide, rather than dropping in with quick fixes.  

- Greta Byrum, Lead, New School Digital Equity Initiative

Photo: Digital Stewards installing high speed broadband internet in the North End neighborhood of Detroit