Lack of reliable Internet and computer access in low-income communities, known as the digital divide, has major implications, especially in terms of education.
But residents of Liberty City’s historic public housing development Liberty Square no longer have to worry about this, thanks to a community initiative introduced by School of Journalism and Mass Communication professor Moses Shumow and FIU’s Education Effect faculty liaison Maria Lovett, which aims to establish a community-wide Wi-Fi network that residents can access for free.
The Liberty Square Community Wi-Fi Initiative, which was launched in collaboration with Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development and the Liberty Square Residents’ Council, began with installing a Wi-Fi connection in the Liberty Square Community Center. Now, about 200 users at a time can connect for free to the community center’s Wi-Fi, whether from their own computers or from the center’s computer lab. But this is only phase one.
Phase two aims to expand the connection to the entire Liberty Square housing project, bringing Wi-Fi into the homes of a community where nearly 70 percent of residents do not currently have access to the Internet.
“It starts here in this community center, but it’s going to expand to the rest of Liberty Square, so that all the residents of Liberty Square have the same opportunity that anybody has in this county,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at an event last week “flipping the switch” on the Liberty Square Community Wi-Fi Initiative. Commitment from Miami-Dade County, FIU and the community played a key role in making this service free for residents, as Shumow pointed out at the launch.
Joyce Fleming, a 30-year resident of Liberty Square and a member of the community’s Residents’ Council, said she thinks being able to access Wi-Fi for free in the community center will make her neighbors’ lives easier, especially for those with children.
“I think it’s gonna be wonderful,” Fleming said. “You know, a lot of people, they’re coming up. And a lot of people can now purchase computers—now that’s the only thing we gotta do is help them get a computer for their home, and that’ll be perfect.”
High school students in the state of Florida are required to complete one online course in order to graduate with a standard diploma. Though schools are required to offer access to computers on campus for students to complete their course, finding the time to do so can be difficult, as Miami Northwestern Senior High School graduate John Gamble pointed out.
Gamble, who plans to attend Bethune-Cookman University in the spring, grew up in Liberty Square. Like many of his neighbors, Gamble didn’t have Internet at home while he was in high school, so he found himself having to complete his online course on the train and the Metrobus to and from school. He’s what Shumow would call a “Wi-Fi nomad,” someone who travels around looking for places that offer free Wi-Fi to do work, like the library or a McDonald’s.
“You do it by any means necessary. If you do not have that required online course, it will hurt you in terms of graduation. I was one of the late bunch of people to jump in,” Gamble said. “That involved me taking public transportation, which is a good thing, I wanted to point out, because it has Wi-Fi, and I took advantage of that.”
High school students aren’t the only ones who need Internet access nowadays. Many primary schools, including Holmes Elementary School in Liberty City, a feeder school for Miami Northwestern, have started issuing students laptops and tablets to enhance classroom learning in response to a state mandate that half of classroom instruction must use digital materials beginning this school year.
In the future, FIU will use the network to engage local students and community members in courses that will teach them how to use their time online safely and successfully, as well as to create a digital-based internship program.
“We hope to involve as many young people as possible. Come work with us, help us build the network, help us maintain it,” Shumow said, addressing the high school students who attended the initiative’s launch. “Let’s make it something that really is a part of Liberty Square that people can be proud of and really take ownership of.”
At the launch, President Mark B. Rosenberg commented that working together to bring Wi-Fi to Liberty Square will open opportunities for the next generation, because the future of knowledge and content is on the Internet.
“You’re going to hear a lot over the next few years about the digital divide,” Rosenberg said. “This digital divide, ladies and gentlemen, is not inevitable. We’re going to turn the impossible into the inevitable by closing the digital divide right here in this community, in Liberty City, starting in Liberty Square.”