A man and woman sit on a bench, looking at each other, speaking

         Abrahatsion Deste talks with an instructor at Evergreen Goodwill, where she receives technology and computer literacy training. (Comcast)

         Abrahatsion Deste talks with an instructor at Evergreen Goodwill, where she receives technology and computer literacy training. (Comcast)

For Abrahatsion Deste, navigating the job market and working on her English skills was a challenge after emigrating from Ethiopia to Seattle. Technology especially felt like a barrier to finding her place in the community, rather than a useful tool. 

“When I first came here, it was very hard for me to use computers to help me with work and other things,” Deste said. “I didn’t know much English then, which made learning very hard.”

Evergreen Goodwill of Northwest Washington and Comcast have worked in partnership for over a decade to expand community resources for a digital world, helping people like Deste to not only access technology, but use it with confidence. 

“This has changed my life,” Deste said of the program. “My teachers are all so kind, and they show you how to do things by yourself. If you study and learn, you can change your life. Now I come here and know how to write my resume myself.”

On Monday, July 19, leaders from Evergreen Goodwill and Comcast, as well as community members and students gathered to celebrate the opening of an enhanced Lift Zone and Community Space, where anyone can access reliable internet and computers. The space is located at Evergreen Goodwill’s King County Job Training and Education Center, at 700 Dearborn Place South in Seattle.

The Lift Zone Lab was made possible by investments from Comcast totaling more than $246,000 over the past two years. The project is part of Comcast’s ongoing focus on digital literacy, which began in 2011. From the very beginning, Comcast has partnered with Goodwill for this work, working together to accomplish mutual goals of increased digital literacy and equity.

In addition to Comcast’s partnership with Evergreen Goodwill, Comcast provides digital services through its Internet Essential program, which offers a variety of online and in-person digital literacy classes, affordable internet access and heavily discounted computers. The federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program also provides grants for low-income households to help pay for internet access. 

A yellow 'Lift Zone' sign
Students at Evergreen Goodwill’s enhanced LiftZone and Community, where there is a dual focus on workforce readiness and community connectivity. (Comcast)

Embracing digital hybridity

Since creating the first Lift Zone in late 2020, Goodwill and Comcast have opened nearly 100 technology centers in King, Kitsap, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom Counties. 

Daryl Campbell, CEO of Evergreen Goodwill, explained that providing a space for community members to access computers and the internet became more important than ever during the pandemic. When schools and offices shut down in Seattle, as they did throughout the country, many households and families were left with no reliable internet access.

“Everything about the enhanced lift space was designed to provide the best experience that we can for our students, employees and learning workers who were dedicated to our mission of workforce development,” Campbell said.

At every Goodwill technology center in the state, free enhanced WiFi is available for all visitors, and students can check out free Chromebooks. Using these services, community members are encouraged to apply for jobs and to use any online services they may need in their day-to-day life.

The County Job Training and Education Center, on the first floor of the King County building, offers a variety of classes to prepare students to navigate technology and build job skills, with a focus on digital equity.

“Especially during the pandemic, it’s easy for lower-income people to be left behind,” said Diem Ly, Director of Community Impact for Comcast. “If the world is dependent on the latest technology to function in work and in life, then it’s our goal to provide those resources for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access.”

To that end, the space offers classes on using programs like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Excel and Google Sheets, as well as support for English language learning and job-searching.

At the July 19 Lift Zone Lab opening, Campbell appeared virtually, giving him the perfect opportunity to showcase the use of emerging technology in the gathering space. “I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with you through the power of technology, which, of course, is what this event is all about,” Campbell said.

The gathering space is outfitted with state-of-the-art technological equipment to make both in-person and hybrid virtual meetings run smoothly. New projectors and screens displayed clear images, visible to everyone in the large space. Several cameras mounted to the ceiling captured video from different points of view around the room. Microphones at the front of the room picked up audio projected through speakers. Each piece of equipment worked to create a seamless presentation.

Increasingly, these resources are critical to everyday life. As the pandemic continues, so does the need for virtual work and learning. The Lift Zones were designed to adjust to that reality and a continuing mix of in-person and online work and education.

“We live in a hybrid environment,” said Rodrigo Lopez, regional senior vice president of Comcast Washington. “We have to … be comfortable being able to learn remotely, learning in person, and teaching to both a live audience as well as a remote audience. And that’s not something that we were all necessarily skilled at just two-and-a-half years ago.”

 

Building digital equity

This year, Comcast will invest approximately $2 million in Washington to advance digital equity and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through partnerships with organizations such as Goodwill, Comcast hopes to close the digital divide by expanding access to technology for low-income communities, who are the most disadvantaged when it comes to keeping up with the digital world.

Improving digital literacy throughout Seattle, as with elsewhere in the state, means addressing the significant disparities in internet access in different regions. Bridging the digital divide requires improving broadband adoption rate — the percentage of people with daily access to reliable internet at home — starting with areas where people are least likely to have access.

The International District and Chinatown, for example, make up one of the poorest regions in the city, and have a broadband adoption rate of less than 20 percent. By comparison, the wealthy, downtown Magnolia neighborhood has a broadband adoption rate of over 80 percent. 

Digital literacy increases the labor pool and promotes economic development, as the internet is an unmatched resource in connecting people with jobs and online resources that improve work skills. This means that those with limited internet access are greatly disadvantaged in finding and maintaining work. Worse still, those living on the wrong side of the digital divide are disproportionately low-income and minority people. 

Closing the digital divide is more complex than providing computers and the internet. Research has found that those who struggle with digital literacy and lack of perceived benefit to having internet access at home are by far the most significant factors in the persistence of the digital divide. Other substantial barriers include a lack of access to an adequate computer, and the cost of a monthly internet subscription.

The Lift Zones also create space where users can feel confident and supported as they get comfortable with technology. “Technology can be so intimidating,” Lopez said. “It’s hard feeling forced to learn technology in order to find a job, keep that job, grow in that job, or take care of your family, take care of people around you.”

For Lift services to function well, it’s important to emphasize support in teaching, so that students are inspired to believe in their own abilities. This, according to Eileen Aparis, vice president of mission for Evergreen Goodwill, is what will allow students to develop confidence and apply new skills to other areas of their lives.

“If we believe in someone, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to believe in themselves,” Aparis said. “They’ve got to believe it first.”

The digital equity team at Goodwill laid out three strategies toward this goal: building access to devices, providing access to the internet, and nurturing the development of digital skills. These three services allow students to take control of their own learning.

“We’ve seen time and time again that once a student finishes training … they say, ‘I'm going to go ahead and teach someone else through this, because I already have access to literacy, learning, as well as hardware; therefore, I’m competent on my own,’” Aparis said.

Services by and for the community

Partnerships have been key to creating and maintaining each Lift Zone. “We don’t just sign a check and just walk away. We’ve never been that way, and a lot of partners … will have amazing insight into what is really happening in our communities.” Diem said. “And if there’s some place where we can kind of intersect and provide resources and support and ongoing sort of program management together.”

By working in collaboration with Goodwill, a trusted institution in many communities known for job training and philanthropy, Comcast can make the most of its financial resources. “Comcast was super strategic to partner with organizations that already are in the community and are trusted by the community and has all these additional resources to utilize,” Aparis said.

Together, Comcast and Goodwill decide what technological and educational services are needed in each community space, after learning about the needs of each community they serve. The result is that each Lift Zone Lab is created with its surrounding community in mind; each of the 93 labs looks a little different. 

The King County Lift Zone, for example, prioritizes remote instruction, job training, and digital skills. Meanwhile, in Whatcom county earlier this year, Goodwill worked directly with an organization handling the intake of refugees from Ukraine, offering English language classes. Bremerton’s Lift Zone is filled with accessible technology geared toward serving individuals with disabilities. And the Lynwood lab was built in the middle of a housing development, where it’s easy for kids to access.

What all of the Lift Zone Labs have in common is access to computers and the internet, as well as virtual services. Over the past three years, too, there has been a substantial uptick in people needing job training skills for remote work. “We assessed our student population and what they need,” Matt Peel, digital equity manager for Evergreen Goodwill said. “And when the pandemic hit, it was pretty obvious that they needed devices. They needed access to the internet.”

By partnering on the shared goal of developing digital literacy, Comcast and Goodwill set a strong foundation for the shift to virtual learning that unfolded during the pandemic. “Once COVID hit, we immediately pivoted together to ensure that we responded to the need, we knew that we had a foundation that we’ve had for 10-plus years;  therefore, we were able to pivot quickly to ensure that every person had access,” Aparis said.

Still, addressing the barriers that prevent people from utilizing Lift Zones is an ongoing process. Students who must take multiple buses to get to a Lift Zone, for instance, are much less likely to utilize them. Comcast has built nearly 100 labs in the past several years, working with various partners to expand access. The company is also working to increase awareness of rural Lift Zone Labs, building capacity beyond Washington’s urban centers.

“We’re invested in the success of the community, we’re invested in the success of our state,” Lopez said. “And we’re happy that we can bring our expertise and our technology to be a part of the solution.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated the amount Comcast donated for digital equity in Washington state. We regret this error.

A man teaches in front of students
Cuong Do instructs students at Evergreen Goodwill’s enhanced LiftZone and Community Space. (Comcast)