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Cyber Village Speeds Family Connections for LA’s Elders of Color
By Thandisizwe Chimurenga
Published September 12, 2013

Digital literacy program helps African American seniors connect better with their 21st century grandkids—and much more.


Peggy Powell’s grandchildren sent her some photos, but Powell said she couldn’t see them.

“They said they sent them to me on Facebook,” remembers the 76-year old retired real estate agent. “I told them if they wanted me to see them, they needed to print them out and mail them to me. They said they would, but they haven’t done it yet,” Powell said.

 That was about four years ago.

Even though Powell has physically seen her grandchildren regularly since then, the experience stayed with her.  It wasn’t the only reason Powell decided she needed to become more computer literate, but it was the main one.

Clint Rosemont, 73, explained that he wanted to increase his capacity to be digitally literate because he knew it was something he needed to master. But when he pulls out his smart phone and shows me the picture of his grandson holding a puppy, the pride and cuteness factors seem to outweigh the practicality of his statement.

Media Literacy for Older Blacks

Powell and Rosemont are alumni of the Digital Elders project (DE) offered by Message Media Education. The brainchild of Shani Byard, PhD., its website [!] describes the program as “the only Afro-Media Literacy professional development training center in the nation,” providing training to Black (and non-Black) youths, adults, seniors and others.

According to “A Connection for All Ages,” a March 2013 report [] from AARP’s Public Policy Institute on retirement research, “Older adults adopt home high-speed Internet access at a much lower rate than the national average, and older Hispanics and African Americans are less likely than older whites to have a high-speed Internet connection at home.”

Statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center (2011) [] showed that only 18 percent of African Americans ages 60 or older had high-speed Internet access at home. A variety of mobile devices and calling plans have made it much easier to use a cell phone today to access the Internet than a decade ago. However, cell phones are still not currently capable of sending (uploading) or receiving (downloading) information at the same speeds as a broadband connection on a desktop or laptop computer. 

Not only does this mean slower wait times for giving or getting information, but in some instances a cell phone simply won’t make the effort to try the action.

Thus, a digital divide still remains; only its form has changed.

Enter Byard. She knew she could make a difference from a communications standpoint due to her work in various schools and juvenile centers, interacting with a variety of young people.

Byard focused on bridging the communication divide that existed between youth and parents or grandparents as a means of bridging the digital divide.

“I always heard parents say, ‘I don’t do that — I don’t do computer stuff.’ And I saw a new generation, the millennials, the media generation who were computer literate, and parents not knowing how to deal with this new way of communicating,” said Byard.

“I knew if grandparents and parents knew how to communicate with this tool, they could communicate with the children — not replace physical touch or face-to-face communication, but enhance the physical relationship, and keep the traditional role of Elder in this village,” she said.

Byard’s belief is that negative media imagery not only affects young folks but older adults as well.  “I began to see how adults form unfair conclusions about their kids based on what media tells them, not based on what their relationship is with them; many adults—seniors–are scared of younger kids, isolating themselves from younger kids.”

Restoring Family Communication

According to Byard, the Digital Elder project is one way to restore intergenerational communication, as well as build digital skill sets with the older generation. In effect, she said, it creates “a bridge to restore our family unit and enhance the work many of us are already doing in our communities to restore our family unit.”

A quick survey of digital – or computer — learning resources in South Los Angeles shows a definite need for Byard’s program.

Of the approximately 850,000 African Americans who call Los Angeles County home, 136,000 (16 percent) are seniors who live in the county’s South-Central area.  Their average age is 69 years and they are at or near retirement. 

 These elders are also longtime homeowners living on tightly fixed incomes, earning no more than $25K per year.  Of this group, just under 13,000 seniors are primary caregivers for children, according to the Los Angeles Urban League’s 2011 “State of Black Los Angeles” report. []

 Within the area known as South-Central, two of four multipurpose senior citizen centers operated by the City of Los Angeles no longer offer computer classes due to budget cuts.

 The Senior Center on South Crenshaw Blvd. at 52nd St., run by People Coordinated Services, stopped its computer classes in July of 2012. Located close to the areas of Windsor Hills, Angeles Mesa and View Park, a representative of the Center said that of the seniors who would take classes there, many of them brought their own laptops.

 The Bradley Senior Center, located on the grounds of the Watts Labor Community Action Center (WLCAC) on South Central Avenue at 109th St., has also not offered any computer classes in a while. Named after Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’ first African American mayor and his wife, Ethel, WLCAC was founded after the Watts Rebellion in August of 1965 by Ted Watkins.

Delta Sigma Theta (DST) Sorority’s Life Services Center in the West Adams part of South Los Angeles (on West Blvd. near Adams Blvd.) currently offers computer classes, as well as the Teresa Lindsey Senior Center on East 42nd Place at Avalon Blvd. Neither DST, nor the Lindsey Center made their schedule and/or curriculum available by press time.

Thandisizwe Chimurenga wrote this article through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Soecity of America. For more on the digital divide for seniors, see New America Media’s series “Ethnic Elders Online.” []




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