The Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship: A Participatory Action Research Project

DEAR CoverI am incredibly excited to announce the publication of our new report, titled “The Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship: A Participatory Action Research Project” published today by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

The report features essays from our amazing DEAR fellows and their hosts who participated in our six-city virtual fellowship program that began in November 2021 and wrapped up in January this year. As my colleagues from the Black Brilliance Research project and I describe in our introduction to the report up on the Benton Institute’s website today,

The DEAR Fellowship helped young adults, ages 19–24, learn participatory action research skills to examine and address the root causes of digital inequities in their communities…As part of this initiative, one organization in each of the six participating cities—Baltimore; Boston; Cleveland; Long Beach, California; San Antonio; and Seattle—took part in the fellowship and hosted one DEAR Fellow.

The end goal of the fellowship was to increase the skills and capacity of the DEAR Fellows and their communities and to identify and address the root causes of digital inequities while learning from peers around the United States. The fellows learned new participatory action research skills, an approach that brings together advocacy and research methods to create change with those closest to the problems in community settings.

During our short time together, we had an incredible opportunity not only to learn from one another, we met with Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks’s office during a Zoom meeting pictured below. The DEAR Fellows shared what learned during the fellowship and asked Commissioner Starks and his wonderful team questions related to digital equity policy.


I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to work with Shaun Glaze, Chris Webb, Sabrina Roach, and my colleague Malana Krongelb on this amazing fellowship program. As I wrote in the “Afterword” in the DEAR Fellowship report,

As states develop their Digital Equity Plans so they can qualify for digital equity funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, my hope is that the stories and examples found in this publication offer both guidance and inspiration for what’s possible when community members have a seat at the table. This participation not only benefits communities most impacted by the digital divide, it is also a requirement in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Next Century Cities Virtual Event: Baltimore’s Broadband Movement

Baltimore's Broadband MomentToday at 2:00pm Eastern Time, Next Century Cities will host the following event, titled “Baltimore’s Broadband Movement : A Virtual Event with Community Leadership.”

I look forward to joining these amazing leaders: Jason Hardebeck, Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, William Wells, Executive Director and Founder, aSTEAM Village and Digital KC Now, and Michell Morton, Broadband Program Specialist and Federal Program Officer, National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

During the event, I will discuss findings from my case study, titled “The Digital Equity Leadership Lab: A Case Study of Community Leadership Development to Promote Digital Equity and Justice” for the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation published earlier this year. Other cities and states planning to receive federal Digital Equity Grant funds will benefit from learning more about the City of Baltimore’s work to promote digital equity and digital justice.

Here is the description of the event:

“Unprecedented federal and state funding programs have changed broadband possibilities for communities nationwide. In Baltimore, a city where almost one and three residents face barriers to reliable, high-speed connectivity, broadband investments could help to revitalize communities that have been overlooked or excluded from the digital economy.

Join us for a conversation with local leaders who are developing ways to bring digital opportunities within reach for every Baltimore resident and the community organizers that make connectivity goals a reality.”

Here is a link to my presentation slides.

Digital Equity Leadership Lab Case Study Published

DELL Blog Post Cover

I’m super excited to announce that the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation published my case study of their Digital Equity Leadership Lab (DELL) today. The case study began with the following key research question: How might DELL serve as a community-based leadership training model to develop the next wave of digital equity leaders?

Through my interviews with DELL participants, outside experts who led DELL workshop sessions, and Deutsch Foundation staff, I discovered three key findings emerged from my qualitative analysis:

  1. bringing national policymakers and advocates together with community leaders is powerful and transformative;
  2. digital inequality is a social not a technological problem; and
  3. community leaders need access to a shared platform and each other to create change.

Following from these findings the following three recommendations were provided, particularly for other grassroots organizers, philanthropic organizations, policymakers, and other key stakeholders interested in promoting leadership in digital equity and justice initiatives nationwide.

  1. Capacity building and train-the-trainer models are important for community leadership development, but without access to policymakers and advocates on a national level, community leaders may lack a holistic view and understanding of the problems and community- developed solutions to these problems.
  2. Community leadership development programs to promote digital equity and justice must provide support systems for community leaders to come together through a shared infrastructure, including both platforms to share ideas and spaces to convene, to continue the work after the training is over.
  3. Digital inclusion work is vital to help those without access to computers and the internet. However, this work must be rooted in an understanding of how power, privilege, and oppression shape digital inequality, as well as how this knowledge can be used to address systemic barriers to social and racial justice.

Here are links to the Executive Summary and the Full Report.

Many thanks to my CI Lab colleagues, Malana Krongelb and Jie Jiang for their research support with this study and to amalia deloney, Vice President and Director of Digital Equity at the Deutsch Foundation for inviting me to conduct the study.

Joining the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Benton 40th Anniversary Logo

The thread throughout my career over the past twenty years, beginning as a young scholar in graduate school at Emerson College and proceeding shortly thereafter as a community media and technology practitioner at Cambridge Community Television, has been a focus on equity in access to information and communication technology (ICT) particularly for vulnerable populations. This passion has persisted as a beating drum that has helped move me and my family from Boston to Illinois to Oklahoma and back to Boston during these past twelve years. I am grateful for the privilege that I’ve had during this time to complete a doctoral program, gain tenure at an academic institution, and have the choice and opportunity to pursue an alternative pathway.

This week, I am starting off on this new path as the Senior Director of Research and Scholarship at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. While I’m sad to leave so many amazing colleagues at Simmons University, I am quickly realizing how perfect this new opportunity is for me. I’m also incredibly overwhelmed by all of the support I’ve received from friends and colleagues, as well as others online who I’ve not yet had the privilege to meet.

In this new role, I will be overseeing Benton’s research initiatives and invited fellows and their projects. I look forward to working to recruit a cohort of fellows that reflect the diversity and passion that exists in the fields of digital equity research, advocacy, and practice. I also look forward to continuing my work to better understand, document, and highlight the digital equity ecosystems that exist in communities across the U.S. The purpose will be to help guide and further inform research, policy, and practice to support social and racial justice in communities both with and without access to ICTs.

I am also looking forward to moving the Community Informatics Lab to the Benton Institute, which will continue to be a home for our work to better understand and co-design community responses to local information challenges. As local, state, and federal support and coordination builds to promote digital equity nationwide, it will be even more critical to document the challenges and opportunities facing digital equity ecosystems now into the future.

I am grateful to Benton’s Executive Director, Adrianne Benton Furniss, the Board of Directors, and Trustees for this amazing opportunity and honor.

Six-City Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship Launched

DEAR Fellows


Shaun Glaze (they/them)
Research Director

Colin Rhinesmith (he/him)
Benton Senior Faculty Research Fellow

Six-City Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship Launched
First-of-its-kind fellowship targeting digital inequities

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Community Informatics Lab at Simmons University, and Black Brilliance Research Project (BBR) launched the six-city Digital Equity Action Research (DEAR) Fellowship. The DEAR Fellowship is a participatory action research program for young adults, ages 19-24, that helps examine how digital inclusion coalitions understand and address the root causes of digital inequities in their communities. The fellowship started in November and will conclude with a celebration and community event in mid-January.

As part of this initiative, one organization in each participating city—Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Long Beach, San Antonio, and Seattle—will take part in the fellowship and host one young adult to serve as their Benton DEAR Fellow. The fellows and their host organizations receive a stipend for their work on the project over a two-month period. The end goal is to increase the skills and capacity for communities to identify and address the root causes of digital inequities while learning from peers around the United States. The fellows will do this through learning new participatory action research skills, an approach that brings together advocacy and research methods to create change.

“We are proud to launch this effort in collaboration with two research institutions, Black Brilliance Research Project and the Community Informatics Lab at Simmons University,” said Adrianne Furniss (pronouns: she/her), Executive Director of the Benton Institute. “We will continue to invest in research that aids data-driven policy decisions. We also understand the importance of participatory and community-led work in striving for a more just world.”

The digital equity team of BBR is led by Research Director, Shaun Glaze (pronouns: they/them) and Chris Webb (pronouns: he/him). Glaze’s expertise is Participatory Action Research and they facilitate dozens of community research projects advancing racial justice, particularly for Black, Indigenous, disabled, trans, and queer people of color. Webb is a Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Business (STEM-B) department faculty member at Seattle Central College.

Glaze said, “Participatory Action Research (PAR) centers the wisdom, leadership, and expertise of those closest to the issues. Doing this work well means disrupting systems of oppression and creating spaces where communities can explore — and create — their own solutions. By listening to those closest to the issues, we’re not just listening to the problems created by digital injustice, we’re co-creating the solutions we need for Black and Brown people to thrive.”

Colin Rhinesmith (pronouns: he/him) is the Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons School of Library and Information Science and a Senior Faculty Research Fellow with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Rhinesmith said, “The DEAR Fellows are working to share their vision of what digital justice looks like in each of their communities. I feel incredibly privileged to have this opportunity to learn from them and other members of our team while helping to facilitate our popular education workshops each week.”

Stephanie Martinez (pronouns: none) is a DEAR Fellow and co-designer of the DEAR fellowship. Martinez explained, “This fellowship means change for myself and the Black and Brown community. Not only does this opportunity enhance the knowledge of many young minds, but it also cultivates the gifts and talents of each participant, and creates liberating spaces where game-changing visions come into fruition. As a DEAR fellow and a team member of BBR, it has been an honor to learn, observe, and aid in this beautiful process as it comes to life each day. Youth leadership is essential to invest in because it gives us a chance to use our powerful voices, channel our focus on impeccable solutions, and break the barriers of effective communication, overall creating an unforgettable experience for this generation, and generations to come.”

Robert W. Deutsch Foundation is serving as a Baltimore partner on this project, supporting the fellowship funding for a DEAR Fellow at Village Learning Place. amalia deloney (pronouns: she/her), Vice President of the Foundation, said, “We’re longtime colleagues and friends of both the Benton Institute and Dr. Rhinesmith. When we learned about this innovative program, we immediately wanted to be supportive. We’re excited that Village Learning Place, whose work we respect, was chosen. We know that internet access is a precursor to social and economic inclusion and we’re happy that Baltimore, a city with 96,000 households, majority Black and Latinx, who lack internet, will benefit from the approach and thinking of DEAR.”

Fellowship partners include: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Black Brilliance Research Project, Community Informatics Lab at Simmons University, Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, East Cleveland Public Library, Long Beach Forward, San Antonio Digital Inclusion Alliance, and Village Learning Place.

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society: is a non-profit organization whose goal is to bring open, affordable, high-performance broadband to all people in the U.S. regardless of where they live or who they are. The Institute believes communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities, strengthen communities and ensure a thriving democracy.

Black Brilliance Research: BBR is a Black queer-led community research collaborative dedicated to changing the material conditions of the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. BBR’s goal is to explore and amplify community leadership and expertise. In 2020, BBR launched what is believed to be the world’s largest Black community participatory action research project, hiring over 100 community researchers from a wide variety of lived experiences with: racial injustice, incarceration, gender, education, immigration status, disability, language, age, religion, caregiving, national origin, healthcare, foster care, artistic expression, and professional research. Together with their local communities, BBR has been researching and implementing digital equity solutions through primary and secondary research and launching community networks in Washington State. BBR’s participatory action research and digital justice expertise offer DEAR fellows an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the leadership and direction of the work.

Community Informatics (CI) Lab at Simmons University: The CI Lab engages in digital inclusion research, practice, and policy to promote socially just and equitable communities. The lab is led by Dr. Colin Rhinesmith and is located in the School of Library and Information Science.

The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation: Founded 30 years ago, the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation (RWDF) invests in innovative people, programs, and ideas that improve the quality of life in Baltimore and beyond. The Foundation’s grantmaking focuses primarily in the areas of digital equity, community development, and arts and culture. RWDF believes the internet is a powerful catalyst for change; a job creator, an education provider, and a driver of innovation, creativity, and social change.