Counties across North Carolina are readying residents to succeed in an increasingly connected world, thanks to support from North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and CoBank. Through CoBank’s Sharing Success matching grant program, each company donated $10,000 to the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) at N.C. State University’s BAND-NC program to increase digital literacy – and propel economic growth – through digital inclusion planning workshops and the creation of a peer-learning network.
Attendees gathered at the Jackson County Public Library on May 16 to kick off the Southwestern Commission digital inclusion planning process. Stakeholders from community colleges, libraries, schools, nonprofits, and local government collaborated on asset mapping and needs assessment activities by county.
“Ensuring that all North Carolinians can participate in the digital world will create new opportunities for individuals and strengthen our communities,” said Nelle Hotchkiss, senior VP and COO of North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “Partnering with CoBank and IEI to advance digital literacy across our state supports our vision to build a Brighter Future for generations to come.”
The funding will support a series of four workshops that empower county leaders with the knowledge and partnerships to create and implement digital inclusion plans. The groups will also map out available resources in their region to further digital access and adoption, and a new peer-learning network will be convened for information and resource sharing.
The initiatives will build on the success of last year’s digital inclusion planning workshops, also supported by N.C. Electric Cooperatives and CoBank. More than 150 North Carolinians participated in the workshops last year virtually. Since launching the program in June 2020, BAND-NC has supported 17 counties with developing digital inclusion plans and expects to support 36 more plans by June 2023.
Maggie Woods, policy and program manager at IEI and the Director of BAND-NC, said the program is working to solve immediate issues and implement long-term solutions, adding that broadband adoption drives job creation and economic development.
“Our goal is to ensure that every county in the state has a plan,” Woods said. “Connecting these leaders with new resources for targeted implementation is important to powering our economy and creating new opportunities, and we appreciate the continued support of electric cooperatives and CoBank in achieving this goal.”
According to Woods and IEI, digital inclusion aims to enable all residents to access and effectively use technology to participate and succeed in today’s digital environment. Woods outlined three elements of digital inclusion: affordable access to high-speed internet, access to devices that meet the needs of the user, and knowledge of digital skills, also known as digital literacy, ranging from turning on a computer and sending an email, to coding and using databases.
“Moving along the digital literacy spectrum enables residents to move to higher paid positions. Increasing digital skills is a workforce development issue,” Woods said.
IEI’s annual planning workshop series will be offered this fall. Now in its third year, the workshop will teach participants the process of creating and implementing a digital inclusion plan. Experts will also teach a variety of topics, including developing a digital inclusion asset inventory to gather local resource knowledge.
A national cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America, CoBank has contributed tens of millions of dollars to important causes nationwide through its Sharing Success matching grant program.
Since 2012, North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and CoBank have contributed $145,000 in Sharing Success grants to programs that make a difference for North Carolina’s rural citizens.