Trang Hoang, Neighborhood House family center support and education specialist at High Point Center in West Seattle. Photo credit: James Tabafunda.

The “digital divide” is the ever-increasing discrepancy in access to information technology across demographic groups. About 100 million Americans still don’t have broadband Internet access. A disproportionate number are minorities and those with little education.

This divide continues to be a problem for Asian and Pacific Islander (API) immigrants in the Pacific Northwest despite Seattle’s second-place honors on CNBC’s 2011 list of “America’s Most Wired Cities” and third place on Forbes Magazine’s “Most Wired Cities” three years ago.

Efforts to close the digital divide include city programs, state policies and corporate initiatives such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which provides Internet service at the discounted rate of $9.95 a month for families with children participating in or eligible for the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

At the federal level, the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke about the importance of digital inclusion in a 2011 speech.

“Broadband is no longer a luxury. It is necessary for full participation in our 21st century economy and society,” he said. “The costs of digital exclusion are rising, too, when it comes to education and health care. That’s why closing this divide is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.”

For API immigrants, there are unique barriers that keep the digital divide in place.
The Zhao sisters are recent immigrants to Seattle from China. They emigrated with their parents from Jiangmen in the Southern province of Guangdong.

Hui Ying, 21, Zhulian, 22, and Hui Wen, 20, arrived last month. Improving their ability to speak English is their first priority, a major cultural barrier they share with many other Asian immigrants. In China, they learned mostly how to read and write in English.

Their oldest sister, a resident of Washington state for the last three years, urged them to take free English speaking classes at Seattle Goodwill. They followed her advice and are now among the 12 students from China in instructor Jim Blackburn’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class.

“The language barrier can become a technology barrier, I think, for many people who have not been here for very long,” Blackburn pointed out.

The Zhao sisters also signed up for Seattle Goodwill’s computer basics class. After their first week of classes, they learned how to use a mouse and can type 50 words per minute on the keyboard, says Hui Wen Zhao. Once she completes her classes, Zhulian hopes to attend Seattle Central Community College and eventually work in graphic design. Both Hui Ying and Hui Wen want office jobs.

“We want to learn more,” Zhulian Zhao said.

She acknowledged her parents do not use the family’s computer because such technology wasn’t even available decades ago in China, another barrier that many Asian immigrants have in common. Her parents learned to live their lives without a computer.

From left to right, Hui Ying Zhao, Zhulian Zhao and Hui Wen Zhao. Photo credit: James Tabafunda.
From left to right, Hui Ying Zhao, Zhulian Zhao and Hui Wen Zhao. Photo credit: James Tabafunda.

The cultural barrier of poverty is another reality faced by Asian immigrants. Trang Hoang is a Neighborhood House family center support and education specialist at High Point Center (HPC), a “home for anti-poverty services” in West Seattle for mostly Vietnamese, Cambodian and Somali families. It, too, offers a computer lab.
She says poverty is a barrier for Asian immigrants, making them less likely to use information technology.

“For people with low income, the Internet is not cheap,” Hoang said. “[For] a lot of people who come over here as immigrants with not a lot of resources, it’s hard for them to navigate the system here. It has been a barrier just to locate these people and have them come to us.”

Once cultural barriers are overcome, Hoang said Asian immigrants become empowered to achieve even more in their lives.

She said one Vietnamese woman in her 60s who uses HPC’s computer lab went on to use what she’s learned on an Apple iPad.

“They go beyond technology,” Hoang said. “It’s just seeing that growth. When you see it, I feel that’s when you see that moment of success.”

Seattle Goodwill and Neighborhood House are both partnering with Comcast Washington to advance digital literacy to its thousands of clients across the Puget Sound.

For additional information about Seattle Goodwill or Neighborhood House, please visit www.seattlegoodwill.org or www.nhwa.org/high-point.

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