Surviving the Digital Divide

Date: 20 February 2021

On 20 February 2021, we mark the World Day of Social Justice. As the theme is “A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy”, we asked Katoya Palmer of YMCA Greater Seattle in the USA, to talk about the impact of the digital inequalities on communities and individuals.

Portrait of Katoya Palmer smiling at the cameraAlthough faced with extreme poverty growing up in Louisiana, some of my oldest and fondest memories are of my experiences with technology. This includes the pure awe and wonder felt at the first site of my Aunt’s Atari gaming console as a young girl; and as a teen, the pure joy I felt at the sight of our first household computer. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how access to technology contributed to my (third generation) single parent family’s pursuit of education, knowledge capacity, and career advancement.

For most of the last year, as a result of COVID 19 I have been on leave from my role as Senior Director of Aquatics at the Meredith Mathews YMCA of Greater Seattle. Just as many of our community organizations have had to limit their operations, my organization could not offer all the opportunity to work from home. About four months into the pandemic, I began to brainstorm options for alternative temporary employment, but had limited options.

In 2008, we saw the emerging importance of the mobile and digital economy, not least with the success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign which used multiple digital platforms.  We heard the warnings about the growing need to close the gap on access to tech and tech education in our communities, but time did not permit.  And now the COVID pandemic has unfortunately exacerbated our need for digital access and policy reimagining.  We are behind on job growth globally, and will need just over half of a billion more in the next 9 years.  This only leaves me to wonder what the future looks like for us.

In 2008, during the infancy of ToyBox Consulting, educating peers on the digital economy, on the importance of social media, and the importance of stakeholders providing digital access to constituents became a top priority.  Perhaps I was before my time.  Little did I know that we were to face a pandemic. Suddenly, I had to lean on the digital economy more than ever before alongside many others.  Four months into this pandemic and two months into a furlough, I could see what was happening. Our community was suffering, and still is. We need to do something.

While for me the story is one of filtered light, I know there is darkness for many in my community. Not only are we suffering as a global community from political unrest, but – with poor digital infrastructure unable to sustain our connectivity in daily aspects of our lives – so many challenges have come up, with the largest being the barriers created by disparity of wealth:

  • Businesses struggling to keep up with technology demands
  • Internet access serving as the only way for families to communicate
  • Inequitable policies to govern international relations on digital platforms
  • Parents of young children forced to adapt to online schooling from mobile phones
  • Peers with learning disabilities struggling to learn mobile platforms
  • Special needs educators left resourceless
  • Access to COVID-19 vaccination appointments limited
  • Identity theft and other network security issues on the rise
  • Employers failing to create new and fair working conditions

Most impactfully, I’ve noticed sisters and brothers from communities around the world using social media to get the help they need to survive and overcome challenges.  Notably, YMCA Malawi Africa utilizes Facebook and other channels to let the community know when they need critical supplies such as face masks and handwashing stations to battle the pandemic.

I share these examples to note how critical it is to drive conversations which steer us towards social justice in the digital economy. It is evident and most apparent that competent and reliable digital infrastructure is a basic utility, which should be accessible to all.  Wealth disparities should no longer prohibit communities from access to equitable policies relating to the digital economy, security, and access to people.

Income gaps between rich and poor countries are on the rise as we recover from this pandemic, experience social unrest, navigate climate change, adapt to change in our legal systems, ponder true wealth redistribution, witness Black and Indigenous cultural liberation, strive for decolonization of indigenous communities, fight forced labor, modern slavery and human trafficking, and many more social issues as a global community.

The sustainability of the digital economy is an important factor. Period. Perhaps it’s the most important factor, aside from health, in uniting, teaching, rebuilding, and healing our most delicate communities.

Watch her video

Katoya Palmer began her career in the real estate sector. In 2008, she founded ToyBoy Consulting, a company supporting leaders in strategising and innovating, during a time when she was committed to caring for her special needs child. In 2016, she started working at YMCA of Greater Seattle (USA) and was promoted in 2019 to Senior Director. Katoya is an activist and community advocate passionate about ending systemic racism in all communities through building shared languages and equitable strategies to provide feedback.