Linked: AT&T Connected Learning Center opens at Esperanza, plugs in the Clark-Fulton community

After a decade living in Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood, Sandra “Ivy” Fontanez had hit a wall in her personal and professional life. 

At 41, she had watched as her three kids left home to gain independence or land jobs out of state. While her managers at Home Depot, where Fontanez has worked since 2019, were able to Zoom-in from home during the pandemic, she had to go into work.

The center will be equipped with Dell computers, high-speed AT&T fiber Internet and Wi-Fi, as well as educational and digital literacy content.After a year of COVID-19, Fontanez needed change. Off a mentor’s recommendation, she signed up for career support at Esperanza, Inc., a job and education nonprofit centered at Clark Avenue and West 25th Street.

Not owning a computer at home—let alone having a reliable internet connection—Fontanez quickly learned basic skills in Microsoft Office in preparation for her enrollment at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro Campus.

“It’s kind of intimidating, you know?” Fontanez told an audience of about 40 people yesterday, Wednesday, Dec. 15 in a second-story conference room at Esperanza. “I don’t know where this is going to lead me—but I took some steps.”

The steps Fontanez took to balloon her career options in management are aimed to be replicated by Esperanza in the coming year. Opened yesterday, Esperanza’s  career literacy center is now host to AT&T’s fourth Connected Learning Center (CLC) in the nation, following recent installations in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles.

With 14 Dell PCs equipped with a range of software, the AT&T-Esperanza partnership aims to not just bolster aspirations like Fontanez’ but add ammunition to one of Cleveland’s sorest setbacks—fixing its digital divide.

Out of all U.S. cities with over 100,000 households, Cleveland is first for lack of connectivity. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, about 31% of homes are without broadband, and 46% have no wired internet connection altogether.

This stark reality—that almost half of Clevelanders can’t Zoom school without lagging—has been amplified by 20 months of a pandemic that does not seem to be letting up anytime soon.

And on Wednesday, a group of politicians, telecompany execs, nonprofit heads and Clark-Fulton residents proved that one entity’s fix isn’t the panacea.

Cleveland Mayor elect Justin Bibb speaking at the opening of the Connected Learning Center at Esperanza“As the next mayor, I cannot solve [this] problem by myself,” Mayor-elect Justin Bibb said at the press conference. “We’re going to need continued support and continued collaboration with the private sector to make sure we can truly meet the moment for our residents.”

Bibb, who spoke about healing the divide as a team effort during his year-and-a-half-long mayoral campaign, said that to him, disconnectivity is a personal issue.
He recalled the excitement of, at age 10, entering the East 131st Street branch of the Cleveland Public Library and getting his first email account on Hotmail. Jokes and Hanson fan clubs aside, Bibb said the library’s digital access wasn’t just a leisure activity, but “a lifeline for my family.”

“Because I could teach my mother about the importance of research, of going online,” Bibb said, “and really engaging in the digital world. And that’s what’s at stake right now in our city.”

A part of a $2 billion, three-year commitment to addressing the digital divide, AT&T’s fiber-driven learning center initiative comes at an interesting time for the telecommunications company.

After merging with Discovery in May, and dealing with $170 billion in net debt, AT&T is orchestrating a nationwide upgrade to 5G and phasing out 3G wireless in February 2022. This sunset date, when 3G users will be forced to upgrade, has caught some flack. According to the “New York Times,” the F.C.C. has received “numerous filings” about concern that the speedy shift will leave “ordinary” customers in the dark.

Mylayna Albright of AT&T speaking at the opening of the Connected Learning Center at EsperanzaMylayna Albright, assistant vice president of corporate social responsibility at AT&T, said that the 20 CLCs opening in the next year, including one at the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center in Glenville, are important investments for a telecommunication company like AT&T.

Albright and AT&T contracted Overland-Tandberg, a Black-owned computer hardware business based in San Ramon, California, to troubleshoot all of the Dell PCs.

And linking with Esperanza, to Albright, was a no-brainer.

“It’s important we work with them,” she says, “because they have direct outreach to the most vulnerable students and families that need it most.”

In Clark-Fulton, the largest Hispanic neighborhood in the state of Ohio, digital literacy is sought after in droves by recent Latin American immigrants and their families. Esperanza executive director Victor Ruiz says that the new computer lab will act not just as an educational springboard—as it did for Fontanez—but a centralized portal for job seekers.

The divide is so bad in his neighborhood that Ruiz helped create a text messaging blast full of job alerts and school notices to Clark-Fulton’s 11,000 residents. 

It worked. The alert system has “a couple thousand” registered, says Ruiz, but he says the neighborhood deserves more. He says he sees the CLC as a guarantee that “we have the broadband that we need.”

“Hey, children cannot control where they are born,” he says. “But we can arm them with the tools they need to make a better life.”

The same goes for Fontanez. After a year of managing COVID-19 stress as a shift supervisor at Home Depot, she voluntarily demoted herself to focus on school. She’s not certain what graduation spells for her, yet she knows that—digitally, speaking—she will at least have a place to do her homework.

“I feel like I don’t have to worry about whether or not my internet is working at home,” she says.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.