He’s working to close the digital divide in Kansas City

Rick Deane, cofounder of Connecting for Good, wants to ensure that low-income people and others can tap into the vast potential offered by computers and the internet.

David Karas
Rick Deane poses next to equipment at the headquarters for Connecting for Good, the nonprofit he cofounded.

For nearly two decades, Rick Deane has focused his time and talents around addressing the digital divide.

His commitment to this issue began in 1998 when he worked for a nonprofit and was tasked with building a website for neighborhood leaders to be more effective in their work. Later, Mr. Deane founded his own tech company to support nonprofits, providing a service usually available only to for-profit companies with tech budgets.

So when Google announced in 2011 that it had chosen Kansas City, Kan., for an initiative to bring ultra high-speed broadband to communities, Deane was excited – but his optimism was tempered by concerns for those who would not be able to afford such a cutting-edge service.

“That gap is going to get so much bigger,” he recalls thinking at the time. “The ‘haves’ were going to have so much more, while the rest of us just got left behind.”

That worry prompted Deane to join forces with Michael Liimatta, and the duo worked with city officials to lobby for Google’s promised free connections to reach low-income communities. The advocacy gave rise to an idea that stuck.

“That launched us into the press and made us a household topic almost overnight,” Deane says. “We at that point realized that we had to get serious about the digital divide.”

And that’s how Connecting for Good (CFG) – a nonprofit with Kansas City branches in Missouri and Kansas – began. The organization, which the pair started shaping in 2011, works in a variety of ways to ensure that thousands of low-income people and others throughout the Kansas City area can tap into the vast potential offered by computers and the internet.

“Ultimately, we want people connected,” says Deane, who currently serves as CFG’s chief technology officer. “We want to make people digital citizens.”

A month after its official launch, CFG installed its first free Wi-Fi network at an apartment complex for low-income residents, effectively bringing the internet to nearly 400 people. The following year, the team partnered with the Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority to bring service to Juniper Gardens, a public housing project across the street from one of the organization’s computer centers.

With the nonprofit’s focus on low-income and vulnerable urban residents came other realizations: “They need an internet connection, but that connection doesn’t do any good without a computer attached to it,” Deane says. “And neither of those does any good without the knowledge to use it.”

CFG addresses both of these concerns. First, it has a workroom and extensive storage area for repairing, refurbishing, and selling computers to low-income residents. The nonprofit sells some 30 computers a week, Deane says, each for as little as $50. “We are pretty affordable,” he says.

The organization also offers courses – all free for participants – that cover everything from basic computer and email skills to advanced virus resolution techniques. “Last year, we had almost 10,000 students in a classroom learning something,” Deane says.

An open computer lab

On a recent morning at the computer center on North Third Street in Kansas City, Kan., staff and volunteers were on hand. Several clients came and went to take advantage of the open computer lab and receive some instruction and help accessing email and the internet.

The center was formerly a troubled nightclub. The site was purchased by the housing authority and provided, free of charge, for the nonprofit’s operations. Today, the organization operates on an average $500,000 annual budget, with programming funded almost entirely by grants.

Deane reflects on his own entrance into the tech world, which was something of a surprise given his upbringing in a small town with little economic opportunity.

“When I was growing up, I thought my best option in life was to become a union sheetrocker,” he says, referring to the building material. “That was the best I could ever hope for when I was growing up. I had no idea what kind of work lay out there ahead of me.”

Deane didn’t “meet a computer,” as he puts it, until he was 18 years old and took a course in basic computing. It was there that he learned typing and the fundamentals of computer use. “I was completely blown away and amazed: I found my geek in that class,” he recalls.

He also picked up a passion for service and social justice while studying at St. Bonaventure University in New York. “That’s what got me into social justice,” says Deane, who describes himself as a “geek by the grace of God.”

Not surprisingly, Deane is quite passionate about the positive effect that technology can have on the most vulnerable. It can facilitate access to education and other resources. For those living in public housing and searching for a path forward, it can be a means to help them exit the cycle of poverty.

“What we want to do is to provide them with the tools and give them access to the resources they need,” Deane explains. “If that is their goal and they want to get out, they can.”

No more six-hour trips to the store

At one housing project, Deane remembers hearing about the six-hour trip families would take, often with children in tow, to go to and from the grocery store using public transportation. After CFG installed a wireless network at the housing complex, some residents began ordering groceries and other necessary items online.

Deane also recounts the many stories of low-income parents spending hours at the public library to secure a 45-minute slot in which to use a computer and access the internet. That setup especially didn’t work for the online job application process for a local hospital, because the process took more than an hour. CFG has now developed recruitment and job application programs with local employers to help remedy this access gap.

Although smartphones have also mitigated some of these challenges, they can’t fully replicate the capabilities of larger computers. And for many of CFG’s clients, smartphones aren’t an affordable option.

John Bond, property manager for the Juniper Gardens housing project, doesn’t need convincing of the benefits of connectivity for residents at the complex and at other Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority properties. He has been engaged with CFG since he took on his role at Juniper Gardens in September 2016.

“We are kind of on an island out here – there is nothing around,” Mr. Bond says. “It is a hardship for my residents to attempt to get a face-to-face interview, or even to get to a workforce partnership to help them write a résumé. Most of the residents here know Connecting for Good by name.”

CFG has joined his team on many projects, and it’s brought enhancements to community spaces in the complex, Bond says. And after school, he notes, children hit the computer lab for lessons, homework help, and other supports. CFG does “a lot for the community,” he says.

Once a client, now teaching others

Richelle Phillips was living in a housing authority high-rise when she learned of CFG by attending a free course. In short order, she went from being a student herself, to volunteering, to becoming a staff member for the nonprofit – teaching courses to those who are using a computer for the first time.

“We get a lot of people coming in – like grandparents raising grandchildren – [and] a lot of them have no computer skills,” Ms. Phillips explains. “Since everything now is going online, a lot are coming to get that experience.”

She also notes that anyone can learn the skills: “Everybody is teachable – there is no such thing as ‘I’ll never get it.’ ”

For more, visit connectingforgood.org.

How to take action

UniversalGiving (www.universalgiving.org) helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups leveraging technology:

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to improve levels of literacy in Ghana. Take action: Donate funds to build information and communication technology systems.

Teach With Africa coordinates a reciprocal exchange of teaching and learning in Africa and the United States. Take action: Bring technology to students in rural South Africa.

One Mobile Projector per Trainer uses low-cost technology in the education of the world’s poorest people. Take action: Make a donation to train and equip educators in Gambia working to prevent the spread of malaria.

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