Sandhya Nankani, one of our founding members at DIA, has a piece up on the Cooney Center blog that does a really nice job rounding up the plans many companies have. Disney, Mattel, DC Comics. What they're doing to empower girls. Sandhya actually writes about the companies that presented a few weeks ago at the White House at a conference that I'm sure I've mentioned a couple of times on this podcast focused on breaking gender stereotypes in children's media and toys. Definitely check that piece out. It links back to some other companies as well. Sandhya actually touches on the Misty Copeland doll that Barbie recently launched, and we have an article in the newsletter that delves a little bit more into it. For those of you who don't know, Misty Copeland is the first African American to be named principal ballerina at the very famous American Ballet Theater. Obviously right away, the doll looks different. She has defined muscles. Her face obviously looks like Misty's. They talked about how they made her eyes and lips a little bit different, and obviously the skin color is different from the typical Barbie. One of the things that I was surprised to learn was that Misty actually played with Barbies up until she was 14, sewing clothes for them. But one of the things she's doing that she talks about in the piece is how this is a step in the right direction, and obviously she's really excited to see this, but it doesn't really stop there. She's taking steps to encourage more people from underrepresented communities to get involved with ballet. She's partnering with the Boys & Girls Club to help make things happen, so it's good to see that sort of continuing to happen and not something that is just a one-off piece. Barbie is a huge company. It's making diversity strides. Really, it's part of Mattel.

And our newsletter talks about some start-ups like I Am Elemental whose CEO Julie Kerwin we had on a few weeks ago on this podcast. In our newsletter this week, we talk to Willowbrook Dolls. They just had a successful Kickstarter to create modern girl dolls with ambitions as diverse as computer science to journalism. Really they're focused on creating dolls that they don't exist right now in the market. We also talk about two new companies that are actually targeting boys with their dolls. The first is Wonder Crew which wants to bring a focus on social emotion learning. Mostly toys that talk about relationships, friendship; really just these things around teamwork. Social emotion learning is normally geared towards girls. And Crewmates creates this line of dolls called Crewmates to encourage teamwork and friendship with the usual action adventure that boys’ toys associated with. The second company is called Melanites which is a set of dolls targeted to minority boys. What they talk about in their mission is battling social pressures of hyper-masculinity which again I think Wonder Crew is doing as well.  What I really liked about Melanites is that the founder actually talks about how rather than making a doll that was a profession, it's really built around this idea of being a doer, a thinker, a maker, performer, which I thought was really neat; sort of an interesting spin. Like I said it's in the newsletter. We link to all these companies and a few more.


Kabir: Our guest today is Dr. Vikki Katz. She's an associate professor at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, as well as an author of Kids in the Middle: How Children of Immigration Negotiate Community Interactions with Their Families and the co-author of Understanding Ethnic Media: Producers, Consumers, and Societies. Her research explores how immigrant families address communication challenges attending their social incorporation into the United States. Dr. Katz thanks very for being here today. 

Vikki: Thank you so much for having me. 

Kabir: When I went to school back in the 90s, I guess I was in middle school and high school through the Clinton Administration, there was a lot of talk about the digital divide. There was a lot of talk about the information superhighway and then the digital divide. I think from some of your research and description that really isn't the right description for the way we should be talking about access to the internet, correct?

Vikki: Right. So in the 90s when the Internet was becoming popularly available, the term digital divide started being used by the Clinton Administration as a way to emphasize that there were people who had access and people who did not. It kind of created this binary between the haves and have nots in a way that made sense in the early days of the Internet but has perhaps outgrown its usefulness. Now that the Internet is so widely available and now that the presses and types of devices that can connect us to the Internet are so much more diversified, the question is much more nuanced that I suppose on yes or no to access. And you would also be hard-pressed to find a family in America today that has no access to any devices or to the Internet. We know that low income people of color and young people are disproportionately likely to have mobile devices as opposed to the general population. We will talk more about the families in our study. But the majority of people do have some kind of access, so the question becomes what kind of quality access do they have and how consistent are their connections?

Kabir: Right and when we talk about connection, obviously your focus was on the home, specific to families. When we talk about schools, did you have a stat that something like 99% of schools are connected to broadband?

Vikki: Yeah, that's not my stat, that's ConnectEd. That's the Obama Administration's program to get high speed broadband to all of America's schools and they're estimating that this year or within the coming year 99% of American classrooms will be connected to broadband. 

Kabir: Right, so when we're talking specific to schools, they are almost or expected to be 100% within the coming years. When we talk about your research that was focused specifically on low income families...

Vikki: Yeah, and so what I’m interested in is once we've got to the point where we've saturated the schools, to me the question becomes if you're going to having equal access. Kids don't spend all of their time in school. In fact they don't even spend the majority of their time in school. But what happens when we stop thinking of children as students in schools and start thinking about them as kids in families. What happens to extending learning beyond the school day, at home and in the community? What does this look like outside? And I'm not alone in my interest in that, but there's recently been initiates taken up by HUD called Connect Home and they're working to wire public housing around the country. And there have been a number of other initiatives. As we've started expanding our look from the schools more broadly, the real question, and the one that really motivates me is what happens in kids homes that might be able to support the learning that they're doing in school. 

Kabir: Right. I heard something about the HUD programs a couple of weeks ago. The Common Sense Media Awards. The FCC chairman spoke there about his work. When we talk about the work that the Obama Administration has been trying to do in schools and then the program that's started to focus on families was Connect to Compete. What was Connect to Compete and what was the research that you were doing around it?

Vikki: Connect to Compete still exists, but the 2010 broadband that was developed by the FCC was kind of a grand map for America to increase connectivity across the board. One of the plans that it had was subsidized broadband access for low income families they could be coupled with access to lower costs, often refurbished devices, and locally available skills training and support.  Then we had the great recession and the possibility of funding for any such programs disappeared. What emerged in its place was a public partnership called Connect to Compete which meant that local telecommunications companies for a variety of reasons, whether it was a condition of a merger or other kinds of incentives, would offer broadband access to families whose kids were on free or reduced cost lunch through school, so that was the financial component for $9.95 a month. It was rolled out differently in different places unevenly, as you would imagine. And some places it was paired with initiatives to make sure that families also had access to devices and in other places In some places it wasn't. In none of the districts we did formal interviews was it paired with efforts to support formal skills training for parents and kids.

Kabir: This was obviously state-specific, so in other words, a block of money was provided to the state, and they determined how the Connect to Compete program was going to be run in their state?

Vikki: Not quite. It was actually district level and really depended on the telecommunications company in the district, so not nearly as intentional as you are imagining. 

Kabir: I see. So it was at a district level. 

Vikki: What I was interested in is you’ve got this top down policy that attempting to address a problem for families. How do families respond to that? How do they react to that? What’s the bottom-up response to top-down digital equity policy was the question that’s driving the work?

Kabir: Maybe I’m jumping to the end, but what your research started to reveal is that there needs to be a focus at the local level in terms of libraries, local organizations, etc. that drive this goal of equitable access.

Vikki: Right. But we came to that later. We started really from the presumption that a lot of policies and programs that are designed for low income people and families in particular are often very well-intentioned, but haven’t spoken to the families that they are trying to serve to make sure what they’re offering is what people need. I was interested in going to the families and letting them tell us, both parents and kids, in their own words, what their experiences had been with challenges to the connectivity and what their connectivity looked like, and what they saw the benefits and rewards to be, and what they thought the risks were. I was interested because this program was being rolled out at district level and differently depending on which company was doing it. I wanted to be able to compare how people who were demographically very similar to each other were experiencing it in local different environments and what differences that made for decisions they made adopting technology in their homes, both related to Connect to Compete and more broadly, what families were prioritizing/buying on their own dime, how they were engaging it, whether there were local level differences to how kids and parents used the internet and related technologies together and by themselves.

Kabir: And you talked to families in three states, California, Arizona, and Colorado.

Vikki: Yes. So we we’re in one district in each state. One just outside of San Diego, one just outside of Tucson and in Denver. All three were chosen because they served high poverty children and they serve predominantly Mexican heritage families. We were interested in looking at not just Latino families as the largest and fastest growing demographic of children in the United States, but often very understudied, but more specifically Mexican origin because Latinos are very diverse under that broad umbrella and we wanted the highest need group amongst Latinos. Because children of Mexican heritage, whether they’re parents are immigrants or native born, overall are the most likely to be growing up in poverty. The most likely to have a parent to hasn’t finished high school, and the most likely to have a parent that struggles to speak English. We wanted to see what people’s decisions looked like in the families that are having the hardest time.

Kabir: I see. When you were studying these families, you mentioned some of the things that you were asking them. What connectivity did they have, how they were sharing connection, what devices did they currently have, and how many devices. Were there things that were clearly different across the different districts that you studied and were there common themes that emerged?

Vikki: Definitely. Let me give you a one-minute summary of what it is that we did. In each school district, we spent between 2-3 weeks, both myself and a team of bilingual, bicultural graduate and undergraduate students. We worked with the district to select two schools kindergarten through 8th grade and worked with school staff to do the recruiting of families for us, which is why we had such great response rates. In the span of those 2 or 3 weeks in each site, we interviewed between 50-60 families; parents and kids separately but simultaneously, so between 100-120 interviews per site for about an hour each in their language of preference, Spanish or English, either at home or at school. We collected an enormous amount of data, and it was open-ended questions, so we really—the questions were designed to give us a real sense of what people’s experiences were in their own words rather than proposing categories to them.

We found a lot of things that were common. Despite being low income, all of these families had far more technology like Connect to Compete would have presumed–multiple devices. They might have been old or not working as well as people would like, but usually multiple devices were connected to the Internet. They made creative decisions and strategies in order to afford devices and to afford connectivity and to maintain connectivity, even it meant forgoing Christmas or birthday presents, even if it meant forgoing car repairs that needed doing because they were totally on board that technology was critical for their kids’ success. I think that was one of the key things that was the same across all three states. Parents making very thoughtful and often difficult decisions about what to forgo in order to be connected. But they had been connected much longer than Connect to Compete presumed. Connect to Compete thought they’d be connecting new clients, new customers. We found with 170 families, 37 were using Connect to Compete even though they all qualified for it, and only 8 were getting online for the first time. It was a real mismatched between the program was designed and what they presumed families actually needed.

Kabir: When you talk about the expectation of the program, it was that it was going to be connecting people for the first time. With that expectation, was there a question of how much access it was providing? My understanding was it was an Ethernet cord and a connection, and that didn’t suffice for a family.

Vikki: Right, so what the program generally provided to families was a pretty slow up and download speed, sometimes as low as 4 or 5 MB through an Ethernet cord connected to a modem. Over a quarter of the families of the families only had connection through a mobile device, so an Ethernet cord’s not useful. Most families had more that fine device, so using a cord again is not useful. If you’re using it to stream videos on YouTube, do your homework, Netflix or something else, those up and download speeds are simply not sufficient, so for a lot of families, they had just made an assessment that this program didn’t fit their needs and that they would need to pay more because this program wasn’t offering them the same internet as they would be getting if they paid $40, $50, or $60 a month, which is what a lot of families were paying.

Kabir: So the common theme of multiple devices, obviously families making the decision that connecting to or having access was critical to their children’s success. Was there anything either state level or district level that you saw was different between the three areas that you studied?

Vikki: Definitely. I would say the two things are—first of all, we accessed what people were doing with regards to Connect to Compete in context of decisions that they were making otherwise in their local environments. Whether they were choosing to purchase private technology but also but what technology and other initiatives were coming through the districts. For example, one of our districts had a 1:1 laptop program. That’s a very different dynamic under which to decide whether or not to connect to the internet, because there’s at least in theory there’s a laptop that’s coming home. That was the first thing that there were district-level difference and local-level differences and what kinds of technology were available to families.

The other thing that was really different was the degree to which in all those tech initiatives that were putting forward by the district, whether or not they were empathizing the technology itself or whether they working to maintain and improve relationships with families and then talk to them about technology. So really, we saw a major difference between the impacts of districts putting relationships first and technology second versus pushing the technology at the expense of relationships with families.

Kabir: Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

Vikki: Yes, absolutely. What we saw for example in the 1:1 laptop program district as that they were really pushing a lot of technology initiatives, but they weren’t making an effort to connect with families to learn what parents’ questions or concerns or confusions might be. They hadn’t accessed whether rapid transfer over to digital platforms in the classroom and for homework was going to negatively affect parents’ ability to help kids with homework, which was a major problem. What’s the point of adding a digital platform if you’ve just made it impossible for most parents to help their kids finish their math homework? Which one is more valuable and what signal are you sending to parents about what they’re value-added is to their children’s learning? If you switch platforms on them so that material they could have helped with before is now something that they feel unstable about because they’re not used to the medium in which it’s being presented anymore.

Kabir: Sure. I think technology is a tool and there has to be something that comes behind that and you can’t just simply hand over a laptop. The other thing I think came up in your research was this idea that even when the child was bringing the laptop home, it was like the schoolwork was being done and then the laptop was being put away, but they had to sign a document talking about privacy. There were concerns about privacy, correct?

Vikki: Yeah, in that district, they made the parents sign pretty heavy-handed agreements about what the laptop was going to be used for, and the school could be watching what you were doing, and the penalties for going on websites that were forbidden. All of this was happening in a state, in Arizona, where there were already very threatening streams of rhetoric and surveillance with regards to immigration. This was another element of perhaps not making the appropriate overtures to make sure that the parents understand and feel engaged in the process of moving over to technology. And as a result of those messages, parents made very carefully calibrated decisions about how those laptops were used in their homes. Usually kids would submit their homework, pack them up, and put them by the door and use other devices throughout the rest of the evening which really defeated the purpose of having a laptop to bring home because of the way the rhetoric around that laptop was developed. It’s a bit of a cautionary tale.

I also want to mention that while the interviews were certainly an end in and of themselves, and we’ve been publishing and disseminating results from those interviews, we also used it for the foundation of developing questions for a national survey for lower income families, not just Mexican heritage families. That’s an unusual way to conduct research. There are very few national surveys that start with qualitative work. But it meant that all of the questions that we asked and the categories or responses that we gave people to pick between on the survey were things that came out of our interviews. So we did that survey with 1,200 parents with kids in the same age group, kids K-8 who were raising kids in households who have a total income that’s below the national median, so under $65,000. So that wasn’t just Mexican heritage, it was obviously people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. We’ve completed that as well and released results from that survey.

Kabir: I see. When you think about these outcomes, I have two questions before we get to the goals and policy prescriptions you talked about. My first question was that you talked about the beginning that prior to the recession, there was sort of an expectation that this Connect to Compete program or Dollars for Digital Equity was going to be focused on access, job training, as well as a refurbished device that came in to provide to families. Do you feel like if that had sort of been the actual prospection the Connect to Compete would have been more successful? Or was it simply a case where because of the service providing the upload and download speed just wouldn’t have made sense. It wouldn’t have worked just how it was provided.

Vikki: One of the things that’s been really gratifying about the timing of the work that we’ve done, I think it’s helped to contribute to thinking about the next big initiative in policy around digital equity which is the realignment of Lifeline funds from the FCC. The Lifeline program will now include all families, so it’s the first time that we’ll have a national-level initiative. It’s also the first time that we’ll have a floor on acceptable internet speeds for these subsidized broadband programs, so it will be 10MB up and download speeds and they’ve explicitly reserved the right to raise that floor as the technology improves, which is really important.

Kabir: Right. And the Lifeline Program was something that was being used previously for landline, correct?

Vikki: It was established as a way to ensure that the poorest families or households in America had a landline. The reason they called it Lifeline was the idea that poor families would be proportionately disadvantaged by not being able to afford a telephone, because if there’s an emergency they can’t connect to the world. They don’t have a lifeline. But also if there’s an emergency in their area, they’re going to be the last to know. Over time, the Lifeline program has evolved haltingly, but at a pace with the technology changes, so people have been able to use them for subsidies for cell phones in recent years, and now this is the first time this is going to be able to be used for broadband. The new Lifeline provisions don’t explicitly call for aligning the offerings of the internet with refurbished devices and skills training. There is language in there that suggests that they’ll be partnering with other organizations that do provide other kinds of services in order to make sure that we’re not treating broadband access as a fait à accomplice. It’s a big step forward. It’s not the end. But it’s definitely a big step forward.

Kabir: I think again, this was something that the FCC chairman had spoken about. I agree with you. I think it’s a great step forward. In fact, it was one of your policy prescriptions in the research that you laid out. For those of you listening right now, you should go to It’s a beautifully-done site. It really breaks down the research that Dr. Katz has been doing, as well as her—obviously you weren’t the only one. You had an entire team that put this together. It has great video up there talking about the research that they’ve done, the findings, and continuing the conversation through this. When we talk about some of the goals that you’ve seen, if you got to decide for one day, if you were queen for the day, what would you want to see as we move this digital equity conversation forward, what would you like to see happen?

Vikki: There’s a lot of things that I would like to see happen. Let me focus on just a few. I think one of the efforts needs to be to reformulate how we talk about digital inequality in a way that better matches what is actually happening in people’s lives on the ground. It’s not an either/or anymore. It’s not a distinction between people who have and who have nothing. It’s a spectrum. We’ve put forward this idea of being under-connected because we found in our survey while 94% of lower income parents raising school age kids have an internet connection and device to connect with, over half of them are less connected than they want to be. Their devices are too slow. Their connection’s been interrupted in the past year. They’re sharing their devices amongst too many people. It’s not just a question of whether or not you have access, but how consistent and how high quality that connection is. I think we need to start thinking about connectivity as something that ranges from being severely under-connected to optimally connected, and how we might move on different fronts to help people get to a place where they are as connected as they want to be.

The second thing is that from both the survey and interviews, it’s clear that families need to be partners in the changes they want to see for their own children, for themselves, and for their communities, and presenting them with programs that are already devised really runs the risk of not using scare resources as well as they could be used and that programs will not be sustainable when funds run out. So really partnering with families, considering local level elements really makes a huge difference to the success of and really what that is is a piece of putting relationships first and treating technology as tools rather than the magical elixir that’s going to save us from social inequality. Digital inequality is increasing becoming recognized of broader social inequality, but the technology will not save us. Relationships will, if anything will. Using the technology as a tool to enhance those relationships is really what is going to carry us forward, I think. So if I was queen for a day, benevolent dictator, it would be to devise programs that remember that the families need to be at the center of the conversation… that facilitate building relationships and confidence and skills is critical.

Kabir: Absolutely. I think one of the things that you also talked about as you were presenting this work was not defining these families by their deficit. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how we need to approach the work and the conversation?

Vikki: With pleasure. Even talking about families as being lower income defines them by deficiting income. And so often families that have less money are also families where parents have less education, perhaps less English proficiency if they’re immigrants and so forth. What our findings uncover is that thinking of these families in terms of what they don’t have makes it really easy to overlook what they do have. We documented both in the interviews and in the survey an incredible amount collaboration that’s happening within families. They’re making the most of what connectivity they have by engaging each other’s learning partners. We found intense and frequent interaction between parents and kids: kids helping parents, parents helping kids, siblings helping each other. If we could devise programs of what families are already doing and acknowledge it as important, how much more powerful would our efforts be to try and address digital inequality by meeting people where they are and acknowledging what they are already capable of doing. And we talk about that in much more detail in the reports that are available on that your listeners can access if they’re interested.

Kabir: Dr Vikki Katz, thank you so much for coming on. This conversation was too short. I’m sure we’ll have you on again.

Vikki: I would love that. Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to you and your listeners.