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How one West Baltimore church is bridging the digital divide | COMMENTARY

Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, reads books in his home office. His church is helping to bridge the digital divide with its own cyber center.
Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, reads books in his home office. His church is helping to bridge the digital divide with its own cyber center. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

When Union Baptist Church began its journey to bridge the digital divide in 2007, it repurposed the lower level of its Harvey Johnson Community Center on Druid Hill Avenue in historic Upton in West Baltimore to create a cyber center that would serve the African American community. Union Baptist Church understood the importance of creating opportunities for this low-income community by providing training and resources so people of color would not remain locked out of high-paying jobs, particularly those in technology. For Union Baptist, this was a matter of social justice and just made good economic sense.

The Digital Harbor Foundation developed the cyber center’s state-of-the-art design. The space was then successfully transformed by a young man who needed a community project to earn his Eagle Scout badge. The space features call center capability, desktop computers, 3D printers, a three-sided white board for strategic planning, movable desks for team meetings and audiovisual equipment for presentations.

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The young man became an Eagle Scout — which is the highest achievement in the Boy Scouts of America — and went on to graduate from North Carolina A&T State University with a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering. He then landed a job as a computer engineer with Northrop Grumman in Fort Worth, Texas.

This is the power of bridging the digital divide in a low-income community and providing residents with opportunity, access and resources. But we couldn’t stop here.

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The renamed Harvey Johnson Cyber Center, in honor of our church’s fifth pastor who served for 50 years, hosts a thriving African American Girls Who Code Club. These young women meet regularly to develop their skills in coding and computer programming. The Upton Girls Who Code Club has made presentations to Gov. Larry Hogan in Annapolis and members of Congress in Washington, D.C. The girls also visited Mindgrub, a technology innovation agency that creates custom mobile, web and digital marketing solutions.

The cyber center also boasts a Boyz Who Build Club that teaches technology to young men through constructing model race cars and building 3D designs. To ensure there is intergenerational learning, the cyber center provides computer access and training for its cyber seniors who want to develop their technological skills so they can communicate with younger family members and each other. While all these steps are important to bridging the digital divide, having access to affordable internet service is also key.

With the coronavirus outbreak that forced schools to move to distance learning, we witnessed firsthand the digital inequities that existed, particularly for people of color. We donated computers to students at Booker T. Washington Middle School so they could begin learning from home. A local foundation provided funding for our cyber center to purchase laptops. Members of Girls Who Code began using the laptops to participate in virtual Zoom meetings.

We then partnered with Comcast on its Internet Essentials program, which provides free internet access for community residents using the cyber center and the Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. Conference Center located at Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street, along with central district police officers. Comcast recently extended its offers of 60 days of free internet service for all eligible, new Internet Essentials customers and free access to public Wi-Fi hot spots through the end of the year.

Major steps are being taken to bridge the digital divide in Baltimore, but it takes a village. No one person or entity can do it alone. We must work together to level the playing field and create equal opportunities for all people. Union Baptist Church is proud of its public-private partnerships to bridge the digital divide and improve the Upton community. We invite others to join us in this effort.

Al Hathaway Sr. (alhathaway@gmail.com) is senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.

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