The COVID-19 pandemic has created a sudden, massive public need for trustworthy digital inclusion services. Millions of Americans need support from digital inclusion programs: to get connected with affordable home internet, find affordable computing devices, and learn basic digital skills. “Digital Navigators” is an adaptation of traditional digital inclusion programming to this new reality, providing one-to-one dedicated support via phone service. Let’s explore the power of networking to see how these challenges are being overcome in the small town of Pickens, SC, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.
There are many organizations that have come together to work on this common goal to help the public in need of short term assistance to overcome the challenges of digital access. Let’s start with the Hagood Mill Foundation (HMF), the most unlikely collaborator to this cause. HMF is the non-profit organization that runs the day-to-day operations of the Hagood Mill Historic Site. HMF is dedicated to the protection, preservation, and study of South Carolina Upcountry life and culture.
The historic site itself is named for the Hagood Mill, the oldest operating grist mill in South Carolina. Built in 1845, the mill is celebrating 175 years this year! Over the years, the Hagood Mill has been a food hub and a place to gather and share stories. While the general public no longer brings their home grown grains to grind at the Mill, it certainly comes to enjoy the running of the Mill every third Saturday at the Folklife Festivals, where folks can see living history demonstrators and purchase their grits, cornmeal and other especially flours fresh from the grinding stone.
The Vice Chair of the HMF, Dr. Betty McDaniel, serves as a full time volunteer with multiple organizations, now that she is a retired school teacher. Grant writing, networking and cross collaborations are some of her strengths. She was notified of a last minute grant opportunity by her colleague, Bob Reeder, to work on the very important issue of digital inclusion. Bob Reeder is the Program Director of Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), where he oversees a portfolio of 72 Community Development Corporation (CDC) Partners in over 43 states. One of many of Rural LISC’s programs is digital inclusion.
Rural LISC has teamed up with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) to make this project possible. The NDIA is a unified voice for home broadband access, public broadband access, personal devices and local technology training and support programs. They work collaboratively to craft, identify and disseminate financial and operational resources for digital inclusion programs while serving as a bridge to policymakers and the general public.
When Dr. McDaniel was approached by Mr. Reeder, she put the Hagood Mill’s Assistant Director, Katie Mann, to the task of applying for the grant. With the event cancellations due to COVID, and the need to expand virtual offerings at the Hagood Mill, the grant has also supported the Hagood Mill in expanding its own digital capabilities. Thus far with the grant monies, the Hagood Mill has invested in expanded WiFi around the site and a new computer in the Hagood Creek Petroglpyh Site, a museum dedicated to prehistoric rock art and Native American art and artifacts, which is also located on Hagood Mill grounds. The general public is welcome to come use this computer during regular operating hours to conduct research or simply surf the web.
Ms. Mann has networked with Barbara Nesbitt, the Assistant Superintendent for Technology Services at the School District of Pickens County, to identify families in need of digital assistance. Ms. Mann has begun distributing computers, laptops, and cash vouchers to those in need of help paying for their internet service. The funding allows HMF to support 50 clients with $250 allotted for each client. We are still seeking clients to assist, so if you are in Pickens County and could use help closing the digital divide, reach out to Ms. Mann.
The Hagood Mill has also networked with the Public Library in Pickens, who have not been able to offer their digital literacy trainings due to the COVID pandemic. They will use the Heritage Pavilion, a large, open-air pole barn to schedule trainings in a space that is easy to remain socially distant.
The power of networking is highlighted here in this digital inclusion story. As individuals, it is hard to achieve our goals, especially when we are trying to overcome challenges presented by the COVID pandemic. Together we can achieve so much. If Mr. Reeder had not reached out to his colleague Dr. McDaniel, the HMF would not have this opportunity to assist community members in closing the digital divide. Keep networking y’all!
Author Katie Mann, is the Assistant Director at the Hagood Mill Historic Site, and is serving as the Digital Navigator and dispersing the funds of the grant to those most in need of assistance. You can call Ms. Mann to learn more at 864-214-6504. The Hagood Mill Historic Site is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 am – 4 pm. Hagood Mill’s number is 864-898-2936. www.hagoodmillhistoricsite.com