With resources at Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Nga Le was able to use technology and education programming to help her look for work, build her language skills and settle into life in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Comcast)
When Nga Le immigrated to Seattle from Vietnam five years ago, she needed assistance finding work and building her language skills. With resources at Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Le was able to use technology and education programming to help her pursue these goals — and settle into life in Seattle.
Looking for a job isn’t the only reason folks need internet access and skills these days. From scheduling a doctor’s appointment and video-chatting with friends, computers and the internet have become invaluable tools for modern life — especially during the pandemic. But these resources are not equitably distributed. That’s why Comcast is partnering with Seattle-based ACRS to bolster their mission with critical tech support.
Le has used these resources at ACRS, an organization that seeks to empower and improve the well-being of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and other underserved communities. Le is currently taking ACRS’ Ready to Work ESL class and a computer class.
Through a translator, she said when she moved to the United States, she didn’t know any English. American culture also took some getting used to. She also wanted to learn English and build computer skills in order to land a job. So when a friend told her about ACRS, she decided to register for a computer class.
“If I want to apply for a job or if I want to do anything, I need to use the computer so that is really beneficial for me,” Le said.
Alexandra Olins, employment and citizenship director at ACRS, describes the organization as a community center, one where folks can eat a meal, connect with therapy services and access resources to bolster job-searching. The organization serves the community holistically, providing what are known as wraparound services – what Martha Reyes, ACRS development director, describes as encompassing everything a person may need to thrive.
The organization serves roughly 30,000 clients per year with offerings in more than 40 languages and a location in Seattle’s 98118 zip code, which is among the most diverse in the country, and two satellite locations in Kent and Bellevue to expand the organization’s reach beyond King County.
Improving lives with digital equity
It was ACRS’ work in the community that drew Comcast to partner with the organization over 10 years ago. “We recognize that they [ACRS] are meeting some of our most vulnerable community members across multiple generations,” explains Diem Ly, Comcast’s director of community partnership. Comcast’s support has included a $158,000 investment, a state-of-the art technology makeover and free internet connectivity.
The partnership between Comcast and ACRS is focused on using digital resources to further ACRS’ mission by training job-seekers in computer basics and internet skills, Reyes said.
That support has been especially important over the last two years. “Human services and social work is all about people helping other people,” Reyes said. When social distancing measures were in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, ACRS’ services went virtual. At the beginning of the pandemic, said Reyes, Comcast approached the organization and asked what it needed, and with the company’s support, ACRS ramped up their WiFi and distributed laptops to every member of their all 300-person staff. “By being able to connect one-on-one with clients, with our colleagues, we were able to help our clients and also the community heal,” Reyes said.
ACRS will continue to offer virtual classes established during the pandemic, and the entire first floor of the organization’s building is now known as the Digital Empowerment Zone, housing virtual classrooms, digital literacy workshops and wellness groups. This digital space was made possible by Comcast Lift Zone.
“It's a rare space where they have the full power of all of this technology at their disposal, to be able to open doors for their own opportunities,” said Ly. Reyes of ACRS envisions the Lift Zone supporting youth who engage with ACRS.
These services fit into ACRS’ larger mission of building greater digital equity. While their programming is open to anyone, most clients do not speak English as a first language, and may not have the economic resources to maintain internet access at home. ACRS also has a digital literacy lab, which houses internet and technology resources alongside culturally responsive training.
Providing resources through culturally appropriate programs and one-on-one support is essential to building equity, Reyes said. Ly agreed, saying that digital equity means providing internet connectivity and access to technology but also education and training.
Teaching skills to succeed
Since 2017, Comcast has been the sole supporter of ACRS’ digital literacy program, said Olins. Four times a year, it offers classes that run for ten weeks, three hours a week, and guide participants in setting up an email account, managing passwords, and using social media.
Drawing on experience as a digital literacy instructor and employment case manager at ACRS, Jeff Ng said many students who take the digital literacy class are not native English speakers, so assistants who speak other languages are on hand to provide support.
In this nurturing environment, students grow and transform. Ng said sometimes people are unsure of their abilities, but he always gives them the opportunity and encouragement to try. Often, Ng said, students know nothing about using the computer or internet when they begin, but by the end, he watches them send emails to their instructors, share pictures online, or search for jobs.
“It takes time and patience, and you have to encourage the students to try a little bit, a little bit more,” Ng said. “By the end of the class, I can tell they are all improving in terms of digital literacy skills, and also their confidence, most importantly.”
One student Ng taught virtually was reluctant to talk or ask questions in class. He could tell that she might have something to say but was uncomfortable doing so. He encouraged her to ask questions, which she started doing through the chat option in Microsoft Teams. Soon after, she began to ask her questions actively in class, and would even clarify with emailed questions afterwards. She eventually shared a Google doc with Ng containing her favorite recipe from her home country.
“That is very encouraging, because she now knows how to express herself with the tools that I have taught her during the computer class,” Ng said.
Seeing this improvement and empowering students is what Ng likes best about his work. With the Lift Zone lab, Ng said students will have more opportunities to use the internet, allowing them to engage with resources like distant learning and job searches.
“I believe with the tools that we are going to provide, we are going to help even more clients to empower themselves and to achieve independence,” Ng said.
In every program at ACRS, participants are assigned culturally competent case managers who often share a common language with the participant, Olins said. Working with the case manager helps students develop an education and career plan. In the early days of the pandemic, when resources went online, caseworkers went to clients’ homes to troubleshoot connectivity problems, Olins said. In compliance with social distancing protocols, caseworkers would help people from their porches or direct younger family members with more digital literacy on accessing programs.
Even before the pandemic, Olins said it was clear digital literacy was a crucial skill for many aspects of life, like making medical appointments, viewing children’s grades, applying for unemployment, or even looking at a bus schedule.
“The emphasis is making people full members of their community and you really can't do that without digital literacy,” Olins said.
And once COVID came along, digital literacy became even more crucial. “You couldn't do any part of the class without digital literacy,” Olins said.
But students learned quickly. “People overcame some of their digital literacy anxiety, because they had to do things over and over and over again to get into the classes,” Olins said. “And then they sort of took ownership and really went forward at a faster rate than I think was happening before COVID.”
Le, the ACRS client, has come a long way. After taking the classes, Le said she is confident in her ability to use the computer. She uses it to send out her resume and search for jobs. “Now I am able to [use] the computer to send email to my friend and my family in Vietnam,” she said, including her sons and other family members still living in Vietnam.
Through her training with ACRS, Le has been able to overcome the initial difficulty of learning a new language and culture. She’s able to use digital resources for goals outside of language-learning and job-seeking. Recently, Le has been using the internet to find recipes to cook for her family — and, she says, she has made a lot of friends at ACRS.
Students participate in digital literacy class at ACRS. Over ten weeks, students are guided through setting up an email account, managing passwords and using social media. (Photo courtesy of Comcast)