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3 Powerful Ways Western New York Is Building Will for Digital Equity

3 Powerful Ways Western New York Is Building Will for Digital Equity

By Eman Quotah

The urgency of closing the digital divide was never clearer than during the early days of COVID-19. 

Having access to the internet and computing devices—as well as the skills to use them and tech support to keep them running smoothly—meant kids could go to school. Families could see the doctor virtually, schedule appointments for vaccinations, and order COVID-19 test kits. Struggling households could find out where food would be delivered in their communities. Families and friends could stay connected. Many workers could continue to work while also taking care of their families at home. 

More than ever before, lack of digital tools and skills meant being left behind. 

Three years later, In Western New York as in many corners of the nation, people are coming together to ensure the lessons of the pandemic are not forgotten and investment in digital equity continues.  

As facilitator for the Western New York Digital Equity Coalition, which formed in 2020, Don Matteson knew the group needed to be able to mobilize the community behind long-term, systemic change.  

Each member of the coalition of local funders, nonprofits, businesses, schools and universities, libraries, government representatives, and community members has its own mission, goals, and priorities. They needed to share—and get others to buy into—a vision of Western New York as a place where people of all ages are prepared for an ever-more digitized future.  

And Matteson knew the time was right. With the federal government and New York State making large investments in digital inclusion and equity, Matteson says, “This is the time to make the case to local, state, and federal governments about where those funds need to be spent. We’re arguing for a more equitable distribution of resources and dollars.”  

So, Matteson, who works as chief program officer at the Peter & Elizabeth Tower Foundation, in Getzville, New York, turned to TheCaseMade to train coalition members in Strategic CaseMaking™. 

“Our goal is systems change,” Matteson says, “and Strategic CaseMaking™ has a powerful blend of systems thinking and systems orientation, communications, and a liberal use of behavioral health sciences strategies to move people from support to action.” 

Through its partnership with TheCaseMade from January to March 2023, the Digital Equity Coalition aimed to prepare its members for ongoing conversations with legislators and funders. Each member would come from the angle of the problem and its solution that they knew best, whether that was broadband expansion, access to low-cost equipment, workforce training, digital skills for young people or the elderly, or accessibility for the disabled.  

High on the list of folks to convince is New York’s ConnectALL Office, a governor’s initiative to bolster the state’s digital infrastructure, deliver internet access to New Yorkers, and boost digital equity. 

As training went on, Matteson says, “people quickly saw the value of CaseMaking, not just to the coalition’s mission, but also to their day-to-day work as well.” 

Here are three of the coalition’s top takeaways, according to members who participated in the six-session training cohort: 

Lead with joy and optimism. For Matteson, Strategic CaseMaking™ brought a seismic shift in mindset from “highlighting the doom and gloom and challenge to credentialing the solution.”  


"Instead of making people feel bad and horrible about where things are,” he says, “we’re helping them get excited and optimistic about where things could go with their help. That’s a critical change.” 


Heidi Ziemer, outreach and digital equity coordinator for the Western New York Library Resources Council, says libraries must be part of any digital equity solution because anyone can go there. At the library, folks can respond to the census, check email, do homework, and work remotely— using library Wi-Fi on the library’s devices or their own. People can also gain digital skills and literacy at libraries’ free trainings and workshops. 


Yet libraries have often played up the crisis of limited funding, rather than underscoring their part in solutions, she says. "Libraries often say, ‘Without funding we can’t provide services to patrons, then lives of job seekers and students will be ruined!’ Now, we’re trying to share a positive message about the role we play in digital equity and help people see the true value of libraries.” 


Be a resource to the bigger cause. Ziemer says Strategic CaseMaking™ helps her show how her members—three public library systems, five school library systems, hospital libraries, academic libraries, and special libraries in six counties—are vital partners for the state’s larger ConnectALL efforts to advance digital equity.  


"We’re not just a tool for the state’s goals or adversaries vying against other organizations for dollars,” she says. 


Christine Carr-Barmasse is exeutive director of Mission Ignite, which works to end the digital divide in Buffalo, Western New York, and surrounding areas by offering STEM programs for kids and selling low-cost refurbished computer equipment. She says local organizations can build trust and engage with folks in ways statewide efforts cannot.  


“We’ve had a lot of communities that have been continually left behind,” she says. The state is leaning on regional coalitions like the one in Western New York to conduct listening sessions and surveys and connect to the aspirations of people who need help the most.  


Tell stories that call people in and get them off the sidelines. Jeff Sanderson, vice president, strategic initiatives, at People Inc., which serves older adults and people living with developmental disabilities in western New York and the Finger Lakes, says the Strategic CaseMaking™ training sessions made him see the power of stories to both move and persuade.  

“We’re encouraging participants in our programs to share personal stories that we provide to ConnectALL to help them see what’s important to people and how best to approach the digital agenda across the state,” he says.  


Real-life stories show what’s at stake and drive people to action, he says. “You listen to real people explaining their situations—situations most people would find unacceptable—and most people go, ‘Wow, we’ve got to do something about that.’” 


“CaseMaking is moving us in a constructive direction,” Sanderson says. “When you have pervasive problems, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Now, we have clear energy moving us forward.” 

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