Bridging the Skills Divide
iDiversity Group Starts Digital Literacy Classes for Homeless
Imagine needing a job, but having to apply in a foreign language.
That's the essential dilemma many homeless people face as employment searches increasingly require computing skills they lack, but an iSchool-based digital literacy project is providing some much-needed translation.
iDiversity, a diversity and inclusion-focused student group in the College of Information Studies, began a pilot program earlier this year to teach skills ranging from basic email use to posting resumes on social media to advanced computer use.
Mayanka Jha M.S. '19, the group's vice president, conceived of the project while searching for a way to meld a professional passion with a personal one.
"I was thinking that I'm a data person, and this entire school is about digital information and digital literacy," she said.
She's also a regular volunteer at homeless shelters. "It started one Christmas when I was alone in London, and my whole family was in India, and I just wanted to do something good," she said. "It's sort of stuck with me since then."
Jha and other iDiversity volunteers are partnering with Street Sense Media, a non-profit organization known for helping homeless people and those in poverty earn money by selling the Street Sense newspaper and through other media-related activities. Classes are held at the organization's downtown Washington, D.C., headquarters. Nearly 7,000 homeless people reside in the District, according to a federally mandated report from the city.
The one-day sessions have focused on three main skillsets: familiarity with search engines and email services; using productivity software like Microsoft Office and Google Apps; and basic operations of the Mac OS and Windows operating systems. iDiversity and Street Sense are now working to create improved biweekly classes that build on the results of the pilot program, Jha said.
Groups so far have been small—four to six people—with lots of one-on-one instruction. That helps because skills vary widely; some clients don't know how to send an email, while one man was preparing to take an online IT certification class and needed some tips, Jha said.
Leila Drici, events and workshop manager at Street Sense media, said Jha's classes fit well into the organization's portfolio of media trainings, particularly for people just getting acclimatized to the digital world.
"Many people don’t have regular access to a computer, or a cell phone or have an email address," she said. "They're not using them every day, so they're not accustomed to what Facebook is, what LinkedIn is, what Twitter is, and it's easy to fall behind."
Jha and iDiversity are helping bridge the digital divide, she said.
"Without these basic knowledge and skills," Drici said, "being able to apply for a job is 100 times harder."