With empty offices, big tech called to help bridge digital divide in San Francisco

It wasn’t long ago, a mother and daughter were homeless in San Francisco. Now they’re not only living in an apartment, but thanks to a neighborhood nonprofit and a tech giant, Janelle Acasio’s 9-year-old is able to log onto a refurbished computer and go to school.

They, like many who live in San Francisco’s underserved communities couldn’t afford the basic things needed to connect. But it isn’t top of mind when there are worries of just putting food on the table or having a comfortable place to sleep each night.

“From not having anything and being in the shelter and now being able to sustain her and myself, that’s a great feeling,” Acasio said.

Their Tenderloin neighborhood apartment also serves as a classroom for Acasio’s daughter, Alyxis Montero, attending daily Zoom calls and doing her virtual learning, but that too has it’s challenges.

“It’s just stressful as a parent,” Acasio said. “I have to be home and then make sure my child is learning.”

She said she’s thankful for Dev/Mission, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that for several years has helped get computers and laptops to families in need. 

In fact, thousands of families in the city still need computers and high-speed internet. Right now, more than 2,500 requests have been received by the nonprofit but that’s just the need that is known.

“Just imagine high school kids trying to apply for college on a cell phone. That’s not going to work,” Dev/Mission’s founder and executive director Leonardo Sosa said. “Having a computer at home is essential. The family can benefit. They can become financially stable and there are a lot of resources online.”

The truth is there’s a link between the Tenderloin, Hunter’s Point and the Mission District. They’re all communities where families struggle to make ends meet. 

A 2019 San Francisco study shows 1-in-8 families don’t have high-speed internet. And 1-in-7 don’t even have a computer.

“It’s really part of our responsibility to reinvest into the local community,” Uber’s engineering manager Luis Madrigal said. “I often think about my childhood and my father couldn’t afford the full encyclopedia so he would by those two that covered A-M and N-Z and that was my Google growing up.”

Madrigal convinced his company to donate hundreds of laptops and computers to Dev/Mission. Uber, among other tech giants in the Bay Area are being called on to deliver the tools needed for an estimated 100,000 families.

Data shows the Latino community suffers the most from digital exclusion. It’s one of the reasons why Dev/Mission has helped teach dozens of young adults technology skills. Graduates of its programs are currently racing to refurbish and give out computers as a way to give back.

“I’m really hoping I can be there for them,” Dev/Mission student and IT technician Michael Villalobos said. “”I want to offer my support.”

In many ways, the support is limited. A city grant supporting the educational work just ended and with budget cuts isn’t being renewed, Sosa said.

“I love helping communities because when I was growing up, I didn’t get that help,” he said. “I want to close that cycle.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sosa noticed many San Francisco offices are empty with equipment left sitting inside. Being in what he described as the home to the largest tech companies in the world, Sosa convinced companies like Uber and Twitter to donate.

That community effort is helping solve a statewide problem. The California Department of Education estimates nearly a million students don’t have the tools needed for distance learning.

“If we didn’t have the equipment, I don’t know what she’d do,” Acasio said. “I don’t know how she’d be able to learn.”

New state guidelines require school districts supply devices and Wi-Fi connectivity to students. Additionally, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state securing another $5.3 billion to help schools achieve that.

But why some families are left waiting, Dev/Mission has its mission to open windows of opportunity – one computer at a time.

“I think a lot of families out there are beginning to understand, this is a new norm,” Sosa said. “I got to get on the wagon because if I don’t, I’m going to be left behind.” 

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU

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