When the pandemic struck, many pivoted their lives online – to connect with family, to work, to attend school. But many others, living in cutoff communities, like several neighborhoods in the city of Detroit, Michigan, where generations of systemic racism and poor infrastructure has left them largely isolated, this wasn’t an option. Up to 40% of residents in these underserved areas have no internet at all, keeping them from the online world where everything had moved. But an enterprising team of “digital stewards” is changing this reality.
In this episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite tells the story of the Detroit Equitable Internet Initiative – a network of formal workers and grassroots organizations that are bringing low-cost or free high-speed internet to families, one connection at a time. Their ability to win trust from the community and strategize on the ground – even during a pandemic – has emerged as a case study on how to mobilize a network to reach people in hard-to-reach places. You’ll spend a day with Changa Parker and Kirk Teasley – the digital stewards – as they install WiFi door-to-door. You’ll hear from Janice Gates, Director of Equitable Internet Initiative, and you’ll hear from Nick Wilson, Network Manager at North End Woodward Community Coalition, as he leads the Digital Stewards on their daily missions. You’ll also hear from Norma Heath, a community organizer, for whom reliable and affordable internet is no longer a distant dream thanks to this amazing team’s work.
CLIP: intro kirk scene
Hi, so first, can you say your first and last name and tell us where we are? Uh, my name is Kirk Teasley junior. Right now I'm in the middle of a driveway. I'm looking at a couple of my coworkers running wire alongside a house. And what are we doing here today? Well, currently we are, we've already put up our internet dish. We're running wire down for our surge protector.
Kirk is a digital steward. He and his team, along with a group of grassroots organizations, are working to bring low cost or free, high quality internet connections to some of Detroit's communities without access to these resources.
Kirk Teasley Jr.:
It's like, I say, about seven blocks away from my house. And everything's in my backyard, I'm not leaving my neighborhood. And I mean, who can say no to that?
Kirk is part of the Detroit Equitable Internet Initiative and he’s here today with his teammates to install a wifi connection.
CLIP: Team problem solving on the go
You know how these have that kind of screws? You put these screws in it and it's working and it's working, you’ve tapped on it. Okay. So that's, that ended up being the solution. What’s going on mate? Hey Kirk, how are you doing?
On this episode of Teamistry, we're going to listen in as this collection of formal workers and grassroots citizens work to get families online. Along the way, we’ll hear about the bigger fight to get access for these neighbourhoods, where in some cases up to 40% of residents have no internet access at home, including a majority of public school children. At a time when more and more organizations around the world believe that internet access isn’t a service, but a fundamental human right.
just because you live in a community that's low income or you're located in a vulnerable area or that you're part of a black or brown population, there's this kind of unspoken thing where you're undeserving of high-quality high-speed internet access. And we just don't believe that.
Low cost, high quality internet was hard enough to get in some parts of Detroit leading up to 2020. But when the pandemic hit, internet access went from a good to have, to a must have.
We've seen with the pandemic virtually everything had to move online. All of the things from accessing health information and health resources, looking for and trying to apply for a jobs, grocery shopping, court proceedings. city council meetings, doctors appointments, and virtual learning and remote work. So if you don't have internet access you actually just really can't participate in this democracy. Which is further oppressing and marginalizing the groups in this city that have historically been marginalized which are the black and brown populations.
I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry — an original podcast from Atlassian, makers of teamwork software like Jira, Confluence and Trello. This show is all about the chemistry of teams – and how some teams can change entire organizations and even whole industries with new ideas and unconventional ways of working.
This story isn't just about delivering a service to people in need. It's a case study on mobilizing a network that reaches people in a hard-to-reach place. The push to get neighborhoods without access to the internet in Detroit online began, in earnest, in 2009. That’s when the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition was created, made up of over a dozen grassroots organizations. A group of organizations united by the principles they believe in.
They agreed that communication is a fundamental human right and that digital justice was how they would work towards realizing that right in Detroit. They also developed something called the Detroit digital justice coalition principles and those principles really focused on access, participation, common ownership and then healthy communities.
Janice Gates is the director of Detroit’s Equitable Internet Initiative, or EII, which grew out of the Digital Justice Coalition. EII is the umbrella group our story is really about.
Something else that first grew out of the Digital Justice Coalition was the “Digital Stewards” program, teams of community members who would work on the front lines of this fight.
The digital stewards are my favorite people. They build, design, and maintain the network infrastructure. They are primarily people of color. They live in the neighborhoods that they work in, and they have varying backgrounds. So there are neighborhood leaders, artists organizers, educators, and media makers. And as part of the Digital Stewards Program, they trained Detroit residents in digital engineering skills to design and build community mesh networks. And then EII was later formed in 2016 as a way to build on the Digital Stewards Program. In addition to training in the technology skills, we wanted to add community organizing to that.
Janice explains why this really matters in Detroit.
Up until 2019 Detroit was listed among the National Digital Inclusion Alliance's worst connected cities. Detroit is a majority black city. At that time there were about 40% of Detroit residents who had no internet access at home at all. There were also about 70% of the Detroit Public Schools students who had no internet access at home.
Sadly, this isn’t a new problem. It is rooted in a legacy of systemic racism. And, as Janice points out in this case, can be traced to the legacy of redlining.
The history of redlining in Detroit really dates back to the 1930s, which was when banks and mortgage, and insurance companies wouldn't loan money to residents, specifically black people who were living in certain neighborhoods, so that they couldn't and wouldn't move to other neighborhoods. And what has been found, it's been in a number of reports, is that those very same neighborhoods that faced that early redlining, face very similar marginalization by what I call them, are corporate ISP providers. We call that digital redlining
But EII isn’t just trying to bring internet access to Detroit. It’s trying to change the community itself by involving it in the solution.
People are really excited about the idea that the intention is for them to be community governed, and that it's not such like a transactional relationship with your ISP provider. The thing that I've been most proud of, aside from the connections, is to really see the excitement within the community, and just how they are feeling about the idea of a community-based network in their neighborhood. Like, oh, I actually get to participate in how this network is built, and how it is used, and what it is used for. They actually have a voice in that. I actually know the people coming to my home, to either install the Internet or do some maintenance, or troubleshooting on my equipment.
CLIP: Team problem solving on the go
we haven't gotten into the house yet. So when we go outside in, since we have an existing hole in the outside...
The digital stewards team has just settled in for a few hours of work at this house in Detroit. They’re installing a system that will connect to a point-to-point network. That starts with a strong signal coming off a really tall building, which gets relayed to centres spread out in the different communities. And then individual homes connect to those signals, as long as they have a direct line of sight. The advantage is much higher bit rates. The problem is having that direct line of sight to the local hub. In this case, it means getting high up along the house’s chimney.
CLIP: installing around chimney inside
So I feel like the way is to go around this chimney and come down here. Well, we gotta move it a couple inches...
One of the team members here today, Kirk, studied IT in school. His day job is building circuit boards for a local electronics company but as a digital steward, he gets to go back to his original training, which involved installing internet. Something he likes about being a digital steward is that the team plays to its members’ strengths. Even now, when there’s a ladder involved.
Kirk Teasley Jr.:
I love working with my team and helping with the ladder, but I'm not always going to be able to get up on the ladder. I'm a bigger person, you know what I'm saying? So, I feel like my ground game should be at its best, at its peak. Because people getting up on the ladder, you got to give them a break man, you know what I'm saying? They are drilling, they're working hard. I just feel like I should want to be more for my team. Give them as much ground support as I can, on a technical aspect. Running the wire to try to make it as easy as possible for them. Tell them to take their time, if we're just getting overwhelmed.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk about how the EII is structured and where Kirk’s team fits in the organization. There are three anchor organizations based in three main neighbourhoods: Southwest Detroit; Island View; and North End Highland Park. Which is where we are today. Each of those has a project manager, that’s who Janice works with.
my specific role is around supporting the project managers with sustainability planning, developing the trainings for the digital stewards, supporting them around expansion support, media communications, program management.
As part of a literal “distributed network” itself, the project managers are responsible for ensuring the program is implemented in their specific neighborhoods.
And from there, each network has a network manager and the network manager is really kind of the on the ground manager. So they're managing the work of the digital stewards; so as they're actually going out into the neighborhood building the infrastructure.
Working with our team of stewards today is network manager Nick Wilson.
CLIP: Nick talks to resident and her friend about internet installation
We rely on consent. We're not trying to do anything outside of what you understand and know what we're doing. So if we have his permission, even if he's not home, we can throw a ladder up against the side of the house. Uh, we can do a signal check and then we can schedule a full install after that.
It's not difficult to get excited about the mission. It's a fantastic mission that is bringing digital justice to the community here in Detroit, so it was my local community and something that I'm passionate about.
Nick explains the EII’s approach to building a team of digital stewards.
It's kind of “let's get a team of really awesome, cool people together and see what skills that we can add together and what we can do with that” versus “here's what the job is and here's a list of things that we're looking for. Who can fill that role?” It's more based around the people and what they're good at and what they bring to the table, rather than designing a program and then finding the people to fit it.
And it isn’t just the internet they’re trying to make equitable, it’s the whole way they work.
I know it's a trope, but I like to see team structures as an upside down pyramid, rather than a right side up pyramid, because it really is on the leadership or the upper management to support the team that's above them. And any of that support that's missing is going to lead to a shaky and dysfunctional foundation. And that's going to take away from the work that they're doing.
Part of striving for an equitable work environment is having leaders who support, not command.
Looking at yourself as a support role, as someone who fills in the gaps, as someone who supplies what the team needs and then lets the team do what they're supposed to do, which is kind of the role that I see myself in, that is team success. That is a functional team in my opinion.
CLIP: problem solving and Kirk finds scissors
We were able to shoot right through those trees. And we got a pretty decent connection. So, uh, we got a twenty-five, um, download, the upload was shaky, it was like a eight...
I would say although we each have titles, I feel it's really important to include the other people on the team in the decision making processes and then to gather their feedback if it's something that you're trying to think through. I think it's really helpful to get input from someone who's not so involved in that particular program or project.
Janice explains that their collaborative work approach extends beyond the stewards, managers and EII leadership to the community itself.
We believe that those who are the most affected should be at the table, helping to generate the solutions to the problems facing their communities. And we use that still to this day, despite how long things may take
In explaining his role in more detail, Nick touches on the goals of EII, which are not just internet installations and network management.
We are kind of managers of the team, so we co-run the team of employees and who we call digital stewards, who are on the ground doing most of the work. We're the knowledge base, so we've gone through a bit of extensive training and history with the organization to be able to problem solve the larger problems. And we just generally manage the different pieces of the network, from community outreach to installations to maintenance to digital literacy education.
The primary people who I would say really took that philosophy to heart are the digital stewards. ...so that we weren't like those developers moving into the city, assuming that you know what people need, they actually did a lot of door-to-door canvassing, to determine what people actually wanted to see as part of a community-based network, to see what the needs were, and to see what else. Because Internet access actually intersects with a lot of things, like poverty and unemployment.
Changa Mire Parker:
I seen a lot of families get access that didn't have access or now have quality access with the internet they was getting. So seeing that digital divide got closed up a little bit.
That’s Changa Mire Parker, a digital steward working on site today. A good part of his training was around community engagement.
Changa Mire Parker:
...interacting with your neighbors, getting meetings together. Trying to galvanize the community to get involved with this because it's really the network is for the community. A lot of internet networks is for profit. This network, we have an intranet where if the internet goes down, everybody that's on the network can communicate with each other. So, we try to make the network for the community. So half our training was based off of community engagement.
But community engagement was actually one of the early challenges the EII program ran into, as Kirk explains at the work site.
Kirk Teasley Jr.:
The only part I can say about on hands community training, is walking up and down the block, getting to know people and trying to introduce them to something that they don't think is real. Who would believe that it's a company out here giving free internet because a lot of people don't believe in the word free, they think something's going to come right behind it. Like, you want us to pay a bill later on six months? Nah, it's free, we just want to give it to you.
You think it would be easy, because we're offering free or extremely low cost, high speed internet access to communities that don't really have good access to that. But these communities are so used to being scammed and all that, and so the first part of the process is doing the community organizing, teaching these people that what we're doing is not trying to take advantage of them, but to provide them with services and to uplift the community as a whole. That's the biggest challenge
And it’s EII’s structure, their servant leadership model, that's helping face that challenge. Each of Detroit's neighborhoods has a network manager, someone who organizes digital stewards. Those digital stewards engage with community spokespeople, who serve as references for residents on the ground, vouching for EII. And that word of mouth support is helping to overcome hesitancy. Norma Heath is one of these community spokespeople.
Because I was in the mix, I was able to be one of those people that can go to the neighbor, and say that we're doing this, we're doing that, so it won't be such a surprise to them. When I tell them even doing with the computer when I went out, and telling people what I do with the computer, some people was like, "Nah".. they are amazed to know when they get the stuff that's going on they like “whoa”. It's like now, it's the lady down the street from me... Now she's going to get the EII internet. She's buggin' me... But now she's going to get it. Now she realize now this is not all a hoax, you know? Something is happening here in the neighborhood
In business terms, this structure of network managers, digital stewards and community spokespeople is similar to someone working at an enterprise’s headquarters and managing a distributed network of team members. Team members who are developing customer relationships that help create advocates, as well as peer referrals.
CLIP: Kirk looking for scissors and problem solving
I think we should pull this up through this metal thing. You so we're just because I do, because I've already got this one, not through it. I don't want to do a double, like you are saying.
Now, you may have noticed that as we’re following the digital stewards around today, some of their voices sound muffled. That’s because, of course, they’re wearing masks. When the pandemic began, and everyone in Detroit was locked at home, internet access became absolutely essential for work, school and community. But it was even harder to get.
It was really hard for them to do installations safely. So everything early in the year, last year, pretty much came to a halt, until the teams were able to sit down and think through, okay, we can't do residential installations right now because it's not safe. So what can we do?
And the need was desperate, as Kirk and Nick explain.
Kirk Teasley Jr.:
With COVID going on, it's a whole lot more Zoom, Skype, Face Time. Who wants your bill to sky rocket where you can have wifi in the house and hook the phones up to the wifi? That's free, versus giving Xfinity over a hundred something dollars like I do from month to month.
We had a grandmother who has custody of her grandson, and he's in sixth grade. During the pandemic they were completely online. ... and the only computer they had was a cell phone. She very quickly ran out of data, and so they would drive and sit in a Taco Bell parking lot for several hours, so he could sit on his grandma's cell phone, use the Taco Bell internet to do his homework.
But what could the digital stewards do if they couldn’t enter people’s homes? This situation required a pivot, and some innovative thinking. Was there a way these teams could somehow get their expertise, creativity and skills into homes they couldn’t themselves access? Janice explains what they came up with.
The teams in the north end and Highland park developed something called "internet in a box", which is their solution to safely doing a residential install. And that's when they give the box of indoor installation equipment to the resident, the digital steward then talks them through the in-home installation process. And then the digital stewards' team works on the outside to install the outdoor equipment.
These "internet in a box" packages expanded the installation process, a process normally performed by digital stewards and now converted into a self-service model. In a way, it was like residents became extensions of the team. Which makes perfect sense because, as Nick says, EII users are partners, not clients.
It was also very important for us to make sure that the people we were serving were comfortable with the level of communication and the physical contact that we had to make. We were always masked and all that. We over-communicated about where we were going to be and what we were going to be doing.
...it was beautiful to see how the teams made that pivot, which is, pivoting is what we have to do internally all the time. Because we work in technology, but also seeing how each of the teams were able to pivot last year.
CLIP: problem getting wire through
Um, uh, that one went in. Cool, cool. kind of just tuck it in. Okay. I mean, cause it's being held now. Okay. Here that's even better. Cool.
But as Janice points out, the pandemic wasn’t the only challenge the group faced, and are facing, since the summer of 2020.
There's a lot of trauma being experienced, especially in the black community, seeing state sanctioned violence on TV and having to hear all of the political rhetoric around there. So I would say just not only acknowledging, Hey, there's this work, there's this project that we're supposed to be doing on it, but also acknowledging that what happens in the world has an impact on the people that you are working with, as well as your partners. So I would say that was, that was at least a lesson for me it was to acknowledge what's also happening in the world and how that is playing a role and how people are showing up to work, and giving them space to not show up to work.
Part of the EII’s strategy to try to cope with this trauma and support the stewards was opening up space for people to talk and share and be open with each other.
One of the things that we did internally to get through that time was outside of our regular meetings and check-ins with each other, we just had some zoom calls or hangout calls where it was just us as the staff kind of sharing our feelings, sharing our fears, sharing our thoughts about what was happening at the time. Cause on the one hand you have this scary pandemic, and then you have all of the protests and all of the, like I said, having to watch violence happened to people that look like you and that brings up anger and we created space for each other to discuss that and discuss it how people felt comfortable.
In facing this trauma herself, and what it means to her own life, Janice found an even deeper significance for the work EII is doing.
I felt like especially as someone who identifies as a black person and as a black queer person, when you're constantly seeing images like that and no accountability, I felt like I couldn't do anything, like what else can I do? Cause I have an autoimmune disease, so it wasn't necessarily safe for me to go out into the streets and be physically part of the protest though I supported them and the reasons that they were out there, but you know at that time I often felt like I'm not doing anything. And so to me, I was like a critical piece of this, a way that I can participate and help is to ensure that the organizers, people protesting that we get internet access to as many of them as, we can, so they can connect online, they can use social media, they can communicate about any resources that they need, people can share stories, they can share information.
Back at the installation site, the team is wrapping up and Nick is telling the homeowner the good news: they’re online.
CLIP: Nick talks to resident and her friend about internet installation
we got a really good connection up there. We did a speed test. I don't know if they told you yet. Well, we got 90 download and like, I think it was like 45 or so upload. Like we were a nonprofit raising money to do this for folks in the city. And so the team that we pull is all local folks that we pull people from Highland Park and Detroit and Hamtramck. Uh, so we've always got people around. Uh, so if you have any trouble, we can be here pretty quick and, and resolve any issues you've got.
EII's objective is not just to bring internet access to people’s homes. Ultimately, they’re providing both a service and enablement. A model that prioritizes empowerment over repeat customers. They want to help build resilience into these neighbourhoods - resilience against threats they’ve already seen - like the pandemic - and threats they'll likely face in the future.
And for us, that resiliency means that we're leaning into the relationships that the digital stewards have. We want these communities to be self-determined, safe and resilient, particularly during natural or political disasters or an emergency, cause what I think we've seen in this country is when there is an emergency disaster, it affects, it impacts black and brown communities and communities where there are large populations of people of color. It impacts them more and not in a good way.
In the face of a legacy of systemic racism, the pandemic, even community hesitancy, the EII project is growing, challenging the traditional model of corporate internet access and building community as an extension of the EII team at the same time.
We're growing, we're growing really fast. We're expanding in the Southwest network. We received a grant from US Ignite, which was underwritten by the National Science Foundation to build a fiber network in a part of Southwest Detroit. And that is, I think, huge, bringing fiber to an area that most would say is low income because a lot of the corporate ISPs don't invest in building out that fiber infrastructure in those neighborhoods and that's what we're doing and it's going to be actually affordable to the people that live there. And I think finally I'll just say that we always say that EII is, as part of EII, we’re creating the world that we want to see
For more stories about amazing teams, check out atlassian dot com slash teamistry. In our next episode, we hear how Campbell’s soup went from having the most toxic work environment in the industry, to the highest level of employee engagement in the Fortune 500. That’s next time on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. Thanks for listening.
CLIP: Nick talks to resident and her friend about internet installation
So anybody, you know, in our network where we're trying to, to, to hook everybody up, so. Yeah. Yeah. And I love your website when I watched a little video. Yeah. Good, good, good. Yeah, Vice did a video on us a while back. That was really good. One. Yeah. Thanks so much.