May 6, 2022
‘This is right where ECCF wants to be’

ECCF sponsors Digital Equity Challenge; MakeIt Haverhill Wins First Place

MakeIt Haverhill, an organization that focuses on workforce development initiatives for the city’s residents, was the winner of the Digital Equity Challenge, a pitch competition for innovators working on projects to bridge the digital divide in Essex County.

The Challenge – which featured pitches from six finalists – was presented by the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF), EforAll Merrimack Valley and the UMass Lowell RIST DifferenceMaker Institute, with additional support from Pentucket Bank.

“It was really great,” said Tim Haynes, MakeIt Haverhill’s digital literacy and equity program leader, who presented the group’s idea at the competition, held on April 27 at the Innovation Hub’s Haverhill location. “It was a wonderful celebration of the organizations that are working hard to bridge the digital divide and we are so appreciative of the support.”

MakeIt Haverhill won $5,000 towards their efforts to expand access to the internet for city residents, particularly for those that reside in the Mount Washington neighborhood where the organization is located.

The group plans to open a new outdoor internet hotspot adjacent to its 301 Washington Street location and connect more qualified families to the existing, federally funded Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The ACP provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households, and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. MakeIt Haverhill will hire a bilingual digital ambassador to distribute information about ACP and develop and manage workshops at which residents, many of whom do not speak English, will receive sign-up support.

“Only about 12% of eligible households in the state are taking advantage of the ACP,” said Haynes. “It’s one thing to have a program. That doesn’t mean people necessarily know about it or if they should access it. It takes a local organization that’s developed trust with the community to make this happen.”

According to research recently commissioned by ECCF, only 76% of Haverhill residents have access to fixed Broadband; that number drops to 64% for Haverhill’s Latino community. Across Essex County, one out of every five households lack a basic computer and 60,000 households lack secure broadband.

The pandemic highlighted and exacerbated many inequities, including the widespread digital divide, which has now become one of the region’s most pressing challenges because of our increased reliance on technology. ECCF has made a three-year, $3 million commitment to empower thousands of residents with the access, tools and learning to fully participate in the digital world, and the foundation has been leading countywide efforts to convene residents and cross-sector leaders to collaborate on digital solutions that are for, from and by the community.

“This is right where ECCF wants to be,” Kate Machet, ECCF’s director of strategic initiatives, told presenters, judges and guests at the Challenge, which was also livestreamed for people at home. “This partnership with the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub and EforAll has been a tremendous opportunity to see the type of innovation that is taking place right here in our own communities as we seek collaborative ways to bridge the digital divide for people living in the 34 cities and towns of Essex County.”

Judges for the Digital Equity Challenge included Rajia Abdelaziz, co-founder and CEO of InvisaWear Technologies Corporation; Josh Brien, director of innovation and special projects at Winn Companies; Beth Francis, president and CEO of Essex County Community Foundation and Marvin Venay, chief advocacy officer of Tech Goes Home.

In addition to MakeIt Haverhill’s first place finish, second, third and fan favorite awards were also given.

  • Nonprofit Aaron’s Presents, based in Andover, won second place and $3,000 for their plan to provide laptops and comprehensive courses in Microsoft Excel to college-bound seniors from Lowell and Lawrence who participated in the organization’s mentor program.
  • The City of Lynn was awarded third place and $1,000 for a program that will bring together the city’s Council on Aging, public library, public schools, Greater Lynn Senior Services and others to enroll older adults in the Affordable Connectivity Program and connect them with high school students who will offer regular tech support in the new Senior Center Computer Lab.
  • Haverhill Public Schools was selected as the “fan favorite” by event attendees and awarded $1,000 for their efforts to develop an interactive curriculum for educating students of all ages about healthy and unhealthy types and amounts of social media usage.

“All of the ideas have so much value, and even if you don’t win today,” Stephanie Guyotte, associate director of the Innovation Hub, told participants, “There are opportunities to fund these projects in other ways. There are opportunities to make new connections. There’s a lot happening in this area…there’s a lot of potential here.”

“The conversation doesn’t end today,” said Machet at the event. “It’s just the beginning. We look forward to continuing the journey with all of you to learn, adapt, evolve and listen.”

For more on Essex County Community Foundation’s work to bridge the digital divide, please visit eccf.org/digital-equity/.

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