August 4, 2011 - 6:30 am
By Mignon Clyburn | Commissioner

A quick trip, last week, to Massachusetts gave me another opportunity to learn about activities outside of the Beltway that promote three important initiatives: greater diversity in traditional and new media outlets, open Internet, and wider broadband adoption.

My first stop was to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, located on the Harvard Law School campus, in Cambridge. The Center considers itself an entrepreneurial non-profit whose mission “is to explore and understand cyberspace; to study its development, dynamics, norms, and standards; and to assess the need or lack thereof for laws and sanctions.” It enjoys a world wide reputation for ground breaking scholarship. During the development of the National Broadband Plan, the Commission asked the Berkman Center to conduct an independent expert review of the broadband deployment plans pursued by other market oriented democratic countries in the transition to the next generation of connectivity. One of the Berkman Center’s founders, Professor Jonathan Zittrain, is currently the FCC’s Distinguished Scholar.

This was my first visit to the Center, and Managing Director Colin Maclay organized a terrific roundtable discussion to introduce me to some of the fellows, faculty, and staff that contribute to the incredible work they do. These folks quickly impressed me not only with their dedication and intellect, but also with their charm and humor. I was particularly excited to learn that the Center and I share mutual interests in: creating more opportunities for diverse programming of high quality; promoting an open and free Internet; and, educating our Nation’s youth on how best to harness and protect the creative possibilities of their interactions in cyber space.

The next day began with a stimulating, yet troubling panel discussion on the challenges that African Americans, who aspire to work in the entertainment industry, face in trying to find jobs, both in front of and behind the cameras. The legendary Suzanne De Passe, who first established herself by working at Motown with Berry Gordy and renowned acts like the Jackson Five, and later produced the critically acclaimed western, “Lonesome Dove,” moderated the panel. She began with disturbing statistics showing, that despite the number of African Americans who watch media programming and contribute to the advertising revenue these media outlets attract, very few African Americans are hired as writers or producers. Also on the panel were two African American actors who reported how efforts to promote diversity fall on the deaf ears of media executives. I openly expressed wonder and worry, that those who are open and bold enough to seek greater diversity in the creative space are left vulnerable and potentially subject to retaliation by those who cast and “green light” projects. Rounding out the panel were two African American executives at successful media companies, MSNBC and Scripps Networks Interactive.

The MSNBC executive explained why any media company that plans to improve diversity in employment, whether in front of or behind the scenes, must first develop a strategy. The actors on the panel were happy to hear her announce that MSNBC hired an executive to further diversity initiatives. The Scripps executive explained how Scripps tries to promote greater diversity among the on air talent, writers, and in programming, because that diversity is very successful for both the national and international audience. The panel discussion strengthened my resolve to encourage the Commission to adopt appropriate policies to promote programming that meets the needs of the diverse communities throughout our Nation.

My final visits were to four broadband adoption programs that the City of Boston endorses. Our guides for these visits were Bill Oakes, the Chief Information Officer for Boston, and Donna Sorgi, Senior Assistant Corporation Counsel. Both Bill and Donna have shown extraordinary dedication to broadband adoption in their community. After retiring from their respective jobs at private sector companies, Bill and Donna joined Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration because they see that greater broadband adoption and deployment have such potential to help all citizens, particularly low income citizens.

I visited the On Line Learning Readiness Class at the Dimock Center in Roxbury; a Connected Living class offered at the Amory Public Housing Center; a basic computer learning skills course for Spanish speakers at the Jamaica Plain branch of Boston Public Library; and students of the Tech Goes Home initiative. Tech Goes Home is a 10-year broadband adoption program that has received numerous awards.

What struck me most about Susan O’Connor, executive director of Timothy Smith Network, was her no-nonsense approach to delivering service to those under and un-employed participants at the Dimock Center. Translation: Everyone is impacted if even one student fails, so if someone drops out or if their attendance drops below 90% and, or if their grade is not at least an 85, then the course instructor does not get fully compensated. That motivates the teacher to provide additional support, and it encourages the students to maintain a “buddy system” so that the class dynamic remains positive.

Seniors and participants with varied abilities at Amory Public Housing were beaming with pride over of how far they’ve come and how much their lives have been improved with on-line engagement. They shared stories about how their vocational skills have enhanced, how they are able to affordably keep in touch with family and friends across the globe, and how educational opportunities once out of reach were now literally at the click of mouse.

At the Spanish speaking program in Jamaica Plain, participants expressed gratitude that someone from the federal government visited their session and thought enough of them to ask what they feel and how we can continue to help. The recurring theme from the presentations of these four programs is that adoption of advanced communications services helps people connect with each other. That affirmation came from students and supporters of the Tech Goes Home classes that include Somali parents of high school students. They explained how, prior to the class, they each felt isolated because they did not know many people in their communities with similar cultures and religious beliefs. Enrolling in these classes enabled them to oversee their children’s experience on the Internet, connect with other Somalis, and improve their lifestyles.

I commend Bill, Donna, all the other Boston officials and non-profit organizations that play such a vital role in developing and sustaining these vital adoption programs.