Written by Devki A. Patel, Alyssa Altieri, Helena Lucia Swanson, Brianna Mabie, and Joseph R. Ferrari
As technology innovations produce faster, more capable computers and phones, the accessibility of such devices remains a concern for many Americans. In fact, 92% of Americans earning more than $100,000 annually own a desktop computer or laptop, compared to 59% who earn less than $30,000 annually (Vogels, 2021a). However, 31% of Americans have some form of electronic clutter (or e-waste) including a tablet or laptop not being used, as well as almost 50% of citizens with unused phones. Given the inequalities observed in terms of electronic access, it is important to understand the scope of the problem and address social inequality. We believe Community Psychologists have a role in addressing inequality in electronic access, with preventive and intervention strategies addressing this social issue. We highlight community psychologists’ role in addressing e-waste and the digital divide, one nonprofit organization focused on this social issue, and future action steps towards electronic access equality.
E-Waste, a Social Justice Issue
As Community Psychologists, we are well-positioned to address issues of technology access given our roots in social justice, prevention, and ecological environmental understanding (Bond et al., 2017). Inaccessibility to technology is a social justice issue because inequity disproportionately impacts marginalized populations (Vogels, 2021a). Scholars previously used field theories to understand the intensity of the digital divide to address the issue (Cofield-Poole et al., 2014; Rhoades et al., 2017). However, it is important to continue researching and coming up with creative solutions through prevention and intervention efforts to address inaccessibility to technology from multiple perspectives (Milheim, 2006), including an ecological lens.
We are called to create sustainable social interventions, addressing specific issues like access to technology. Increasing technology access for all is a crucial issue affecting vulnerable populations (e.g., older adults, persons living in low-income rural areas, and underserved children: London et al., 2010; Powell et al., 2019). Specific interventions focused on increasing access to knowledge about technology (Powell et al., 2019), technological skills and development (London et al., 2010; O’Donnell et al., 2006), and technological infrastructure (Briefing Room, 2021) are important for creating a more socially just world and workforce. President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan seeks to “modernize our public schools and community colleges” through “increasing access to technology in traditionally underserved communities” (Briefing Room, 2021). The plan outlines increased access to high-speed broadband, specifically in rural America (Briefing Room, 2021). In addition to interventions, professional partnerships (e.g., Weeeforum; https://weee-forum.org) and nonprofits were formed to address the digital divide.
Comp-U-Dopt: A Non-profit Agency Closing the Digital Divide and Eliminating E-Waste
One non-profit organization addressing technology access and knowledge inequality is Comp-U-Dopt (https://www.compudopt.org). CompU-Dopt currently has locations in 13 different US cities and is continuing to expand. Graduate students at DePaul University recently interviewed key leaders, Kaia Dutler (Executive Director) and Megan Fernandez (Development and Events Coordinator) at Comp-U-Dopt in Chicago to understand how they address technology inequality.
Dutler and Fernandez explained Comp-UDopt’s goal to provide technology access and education to underserved youth, asserting that: “COVID-19 highlighted where we have areas for improvement in terms of reaching underserved populations.”
Comp-U-Dopt frequently collaborates with many community-based organizations in the Chicago-land area, such as Something Good in Englewood, Northwest Center Chicago in BelmontCraigen, and Breakthrough in Garfield Park, providing technology resources across the city. While some face major barriers in technology access and use, many professionals in the corporate sector use computers for only two or three years before disposing of them. Dutler stressed that the organization’s mission is reachable because, “over 80% of unused computers end up in landfills…This is a solvable problem, once we can get a[n unused] computer in a family’s hands, we have the tools to provide technology education.”
As of October 2021, Comp-U-Dopt worked in the Chicago area for 18 months. At the time of the interview, Dutler and Fernandez shared that they handed out their 10,000th computer donation to a family that weekend. Comp-U-Dopt works predominantly with younger age groups to provide technology in households, build confidence with technology use, and develop skills in informational technology to prepare students for the workforce. While Dutler and Fernandez stressed there is much more work to be done, they explained what they hope the future will look like as a result of Comp-UDopt’s efforts, stating: “By closing the digital divide, we’re building the student’s confidence to iterate and learn how technology works… we really believe it will be a much more equitable future and we will see a much more diverse workforce.”
When asked how people could support CompU-Dopt, Dutler and Fernandez said support is most beneficial in the form of corporate computer donations, individual computer donations, financial donations, volunteering, and increasing awareness through word of mouth and following and sharing accounts on social media.
Community Psychologists: Our Role in Addressing E-Waste
Community Psychologists are positioned to contribute to decreasing the digital divide through research, program evaluation, and collaborations with organizations like Comp-U-Dopt. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology use increased as many education and workforce systems went virtual. Unfortunately, many students and families faced challenges surrounding network, power, and technology inequity (inaccessibility and inequality in technology knowledge; Onyema et al. 2020). Classes provided (particularly by organizations like Comp-U-Dopt) assist in eradicating these issues and allow students to receive the full benefits of learning online.
Moving forward, program evaluation regarding the digital divide and how technology is dispersed, specifically regarding low-income communities containing students in need of this technology, should be conducted by community psychologists. Broadband access and internet connectivity solutions are also critical issues plaguing underfunded communities in need of internet access (Reddick et al., 2020). Community psychologists focusing on the importance of accessibility to computers will inevitably allow them to confront poverty in relation to education/job training (Reddick et al., 2020). Comp-U-Dopt’s (and other similar organizations) mission in providing these resources is a key step in offering solutions to the digital divide society is experiencing. This goal, alongside the necessity to continue recycling electronics to keep them within the community and out of landfills, are both resolved through the contribution and dedication to programs surrounding e-waste.
The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Kaia Dutler and Megan Fernandez for sharing their rich experiences and perspectives on this social issue and their work at Comp-U-Dopt. We’d also like to thank Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari for his support and mentorship on this manuscript.
Authors & Contact Information
All authors are associated with DePaul University’s Department of Psychology. We invite any comments or questions about this piece to be directed to the first author.
- Devki A. Patel, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Alyssa Altieri, email@example.com
- Helena Lucia Swanson, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Brianna Mabie, email@example.com
- Joseph R. Ferrari, firstname.lastname@example.org
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