Jordana Barton-García becomes Connect Humanity’s first Fellow

Jordana Barton-García becomes Connect Humanity’s first Fellow

We’re thrilled to welcome Jordana Barton-Garcia as a Senior Fellow to help power our work to drive broadband investment in the US communities that need it most.

With new federal broadband funds unlikely to connect more than 30% of those Americans who lack internet access today, there’s a critical need for additional funds and financing mechanisms to build reliable, affordable broadband for underserved low-income and rural communities. With her deep experience in community development finance and digital inclusion, and her pioneering research into how the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) can help close internet access gaps, Jordana brings a wealth of knowledge and skills to bear on our mission.

Throughout her career, she has worked within communities, listening, organizing and ensuring that institutions — whether banks, healthcare providers, or funders — hear and understand local community and resident priorities, needs, and assets. She has served as a Community Development Banker and as Senior Advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, where she promoted the Federal Reserve System’s economic growth objectives and the CRA. Most recently she was VP of Community Investments at Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM), where she oversaw the organization’s strategic grant programs to prioritize addressing the social determinants of health and systemic barriers to health equity and upward mobility, including the role of healthcare systems as anchor institutions in closing the digital divide.

We sat down with Jordana to talk about her work and how optimistic she is about progress on digital equity.

Your research on the digital divide has helped to shape our approach to accelerating digital equity. How has it affected the way you think about the role of internet access in communities?

From the people of the Texas Border Colonias, I learned about the impact of the digital divide on residents and the entire region. It was a quantitative and qualitative study. For the qualitative component I asked about things like access to potable water, wastewater, electricity, paved roads, healthcare, educational opportunities, safe housing. But in the interviews and focus groups, people kept talking about the lack of access to the internet. That’s a testament to the importance of connectivity in today’s world.

It also highlighted the importance of mixed method research. To be able to understand the whole picture, we need qualitative research, to hear directly from people about their experiences. As Connect Humanity knows intimately, that kind of engagement with community members through interviews, surveys, and focus groups is critical right now as we work with communities and they make their broadband plans to be ready to seek funding.

What happened in these communities after the report launch?

We held convenings after the report came out with the residents, community leadership and other stakeholders, and they all wanted to close the digital divide. So, with the residents and local officials, I researched how we could do that. Not band-aid approaches, but systemic work. We began to learn from people around the country and brought the best-practices to the Texas- Mexico border region. I also shared their story with the Federal Reserve and other bank regulatory agencies, because it was clear that broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion had to be an important part of the CRA. In fact, broadband was the platform intersecting with every area of CRA: Small business development, workforce development, affordable housing and basic utility infrastructure, access to financial services, access to healthcare, disaster recovery. In 2016, broadband was recognized as essential infrastructure like water and electricity that banks should consider investing in as part of CRA, along with more guidance on digital access and skills for small businesses and workforce development.

Several of the communities I have worked with have since built their own solutions. In Pharr, Texas, they invested in fiber infrastructure and became a fiber-to-the-home municipal internet service provider. They’re now building a student-run helpdesk. It’s exciting because the young people will be the experts in their communities. They will receive training, IT certification, paid internships and apprenticeships. BBVA Bank (now PNC Bank), under CRA, funded their strategic engineering study. Brownsville on the other end of the Lower Rio Grande border, has also chosen to invest in their fiber middle mile infrastructure, and decided on an incredible public-private partnership model. Texas Regional Bank, under CRA, helped fund their broadband plan and community survey, along with other stakeholders. Brownsville is also investing in their own students and community members to develop workforce digital skills, telehealth expansion, and more. Brownsville and Pharr had been the least connected cities in the country. They decided to do something to change that.  

Talk about what internet access means to the communities you’ve worked with.

We still have persistent poverty in the Texas Mexico border, in the Mississippi Delta, and other areas. Why is that? I realized we weren’t working enough at the very foundation of the systemic change that needed to happen. All the work I, and partners, were doing in community investments and economic development to bring industry to the border region to create jobs could never be successful without more investment in broadband infrastructure. No matter what kind of business you are, you need high-speed internet. We have a brain drain here. I grew up in the colonias of South Texas and many of us had to leave to make a living. I interviewed one young woman from Las Milpas Colonia who got her engineering degree from the community college and was then recruited by Stanford where she got her master’s in engineering and design and started a telehealth company in Silicon Valley. She could have built her business in the South Texas Valley except there’s not the infrastructure there to support it yet.

This is just a critical moment in time and we can either lose this opportunity because it’s difficult — or we can change things. We’ll either keep on this path to extreme income and wealth inequality that we’re on — with a shrinking middle class — or we’ll democratize understanding of technology and broadband networks and purposefully create new pathways into the middle class and beyond for young people.

What has brought you to Connect Humanity now to advance this cause?

In the work I’ve done I’ve seen this incredible human potential — the potential of investing in people to create the change they need and want. I learned early in my career in microfinance that all you’re doing is creating an opportunity. It’s the people who do the work. They are the entrepreneurs and innovators. That’s the idea. That brought me to talking with Connect Humanity, and I realized that we had arrived at the same conclusion. What I believe in — and Connect Humanity practices — is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need to join together to have the greatest impact. There needs to be a sharing of information and knowledge around the Community Reinvestment Act. When I left the Federal Reserve, I had done some of the work, but we haven’t finished making digital inclusion an integral part of community development and CRA in this country. There’s huge potential to leverage the CRA to get broadband investment into communities that desperately need it. So that’s what I’ll be working on while I’m here.

Can you share more about the background and history of the CRA for those who don’t know.

So the CRA, the Community Reinvestment Act, is a federal law that guides financial institutions in their investments in low- and moderate-income communities, rural areas, and tribal nations. It was created in the 1970s as a result of community activists organizing around redlining — where whole communities were excluded from opportunities because they were on the wrong side of a “red line” drawn by officials that considered them hazardous. Those were communities of color and low-income communities. They were locked out from access to federal opportunities, mortgages, homeownership, and other financial services. These maps were embedded in our laws and policies. If you don’t have the ability to borrow and own assets, you’re not going to build intergenerational wealth and you’re not going to be able to attract investment into your neighborhoods and communities. And since our educational system is based on property values, you’re going to have less funding for education. It’s all intertwined. Redlining has created intergenerational poverty and persistent poverty in this country. The CRA was meant to address this, to guide banks and their community partners to invest in and serve those communities.

And how does the legacy of redling show up in the digital divide today?

You can layer the maps of which communities have internet access and which don’t, and they match redlining maps. People of color and low-income people are on the wrong side of the digital divide. In many cases, companies do not build updated infrastructure in these areas because they don’t see them as places they can maximize profits. In that kind of model, low-income people are going to be left out.

Our telecommunications policy has created this outcome. But we can change things. We can create communities of owners rather than renters. Being an owner of broadband infrastructure creates efficiency and opportunity for income for local governments, local small business ISPs, and anchor institutions. My work is about bringing asset-based community development to the challenges we’re facing, and changing a system that locks low-income and BIPOC communities into persistent poverty.

I’ve interviewed many small, local ISPs and co-ops. They represent critical assets in their communities. We must invest in them, and many of them qualify as small businesses under CRA. They are assets because they’re employing people in rural and underserved areas, They’re members of their communities. They’re on their local school boards. Many of them  have a history of investing back into the community. What became clear to me is that they are not trying to maximize profits at all cost. They are seeking a reasonable rate of return on investment. What’s also clear is that they want to do more, such as sponsor paid apprenticeships and internships for hands-on experiential learning for schools, community colleges, and universities. They are poised to work with community colleges to train in engineering, design, and building of fiber and wireless networks. This unprecedented time provides the opportunity to offer hands-on learning for students and all community members to understand the architecture of our digital economy.

So, I’m working with Connect Humanity to have this conversation with more communities to strengthen the CRA and make it responsive the needs of low-and moderate-income, rural, and tribal communities. That is our important work.

How optimistic are you that we’re on the road to getting this job done and that all communities can have reliable, fast, affordable broadband?

I am an optimist. And I don’t believe in ever giving up just because something is complex. Communities are going to have an opportunity to attract investment. We’re already changing the narrative so that banks and others can say: “This is how we do it; this is what creating an inclusive economy looks like in a digital economy.” The work of Connect Humanity and partner organizations is exactly where we need to focus. None of us by ourselves is going to have the impact we need — but together, with communities, we are going to make huge changes. We need to be committed for the long-run because equitable and ethical technological advancement requires our whole society — and diversity.

The Covid-19 silver lining was that people could see the digital divide more clearly. They could see the inequity and who was most impacted, who couldn’t access healthcare, who didn’t have access to education. We can create a more resilient society, where we’re not scrambling and spending billions of dollars on expensive hotspots when we are in a public health emergency. We can build a more resilient society where all communities have the digital tools to be entrepreneurial and address challenges like pandemics, equitable access to healthcare, and climate change.

Thank you, Jordana. We’re so excited to have you on board.

Glad to be here.

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