For years, API Chaya advocates and organizers have witnessed the impacts of lack of internet access in our marginalized communities. When COVID-19 and lockdown began, those impacts were exponentially heightened. API Chaya heard stories of survivors being unable to reach necessary and lifesaving resources, workers who were laid off or furloughed unable to apply for unemployment benefits or facing major barriers in navigating any support processes. With an already tumultuous school year, kids were falling behind in their classes and unable to seek help. All the while, lack of internet access exacerbated inequities facing marginalized communities. Breaking isolation and staying connected are the cornerstones of preventing violence, and internet connection became one of the only ways that was possible for the last year. Thus, the Wifi Is a Lifeline campaign was born.
The campaign began to meet with community members in the summer of 2020, connecting to students, youth workers, educators, and other community workers in Seattle and King County. The lived experiences and brilliance of this group led to creating a set of demands: survivors, workers and students need free, safe, reliable and immediately accessible internet access.
In recognizing the role the internet plays in being able to access basic services and resources, internet access becomes a basic human right. The internet is one of the only ways communities can navigate the world safely, since in-person interactions pose health risks for contracting COVID-19. We need the internet to find or do our jobs, to go to the doctor, or to go to school. The right to work, the right to healthcare, and the right to education are universally accepted human rights. But today, it takes access to the internet to make sure any of these needs are properly met.
Initial campaign efforts led us to eye-opening feedback. We found that our communities did not have energy to hold corporations (who have profited off of the pandemic) or elected officials (who have failed to provide necessary support to keep our communities safe) accountable to meet our demands. Knowing that we could not count on the systems and institutions that have so often failed us, we turned to community. We were introduced to Local Connectivity Lab, which is working to create community-owned and operated internet networks in Seattle neighborhoods with low internet adoption. Now we are pursuing our own community networks through Wifi Is a Lifeline.
Community networks allow neighborhoods and communities to own their internet. After purchasing equipment to create a main network site, we will work with community to install receivers to give people in-home access to the network. This cooperative model not only creates free internet networks, but also builds a network of community members who learn to operate and maintain the network. For our first network in Kent, we are working with ForFortyTwo (BIPOC youth organizing collective) and Kent Educators of Color Network (caucus of the Kent Educators Association) to identify a location for our first site and build a base of community members to learn the technical skills to deploy and operate the network. After the pilot site launches, we hope to expand to more locations in South Seattle and South King County.
These networks not only offer access to free internet, but also create shared ownership, sustainable infrastructure, deeper community ties, and opportunities for training. This model works against the corporate monopoly on internet access, under which internet service providers like Xfinity or Century Link have full control over our ability to connect, communicate, and access necessary resources. By creating community networks, we take ownership over our access to the internet, knowing we can rely on each other to provide for what our communities need. Outside of community networks, this campaign acts as a model for what we can create and own together. We hope these networks not only provide the access that our communities need in the short-term but can create long-term solutions by inspiring more shared ownership of the systems that create access for all.
API Chaya invites you to be involved in this campaign, and the broader call to own and operate all the structures that we need by ourselves, for ourselves. For the Wifi Is a Lifeline community networks project, sign up at tinyurl.com/wifivolunteer.