In San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, there is an eighth-grader named Mokdaad Alowdi, who attends Roosevelt Middle School in the Richmond District. As part of a Boys and Girls Club program, he was given a Chromebook for school work and takes his classes virtually over Zoom.
A tech-savvy kid, Alowdi began the pandemic by helping his teachers get used to using Zoom, instructing them on how to use essential elements such as screen sharing. His familiarity with Zoom stems from a religious studies and Quran reading program that connected him with teachers across the world.
“When I used to use it, I kind of felt cool. It might be weird, but I felt cool, because I felt like I knew something that students didn’t know when COVID hit,” Alowdi said.
Alowdi’s savvy and access to technology allowed him to succeed in a year of endless Zoom meetings, an avalanche of digital assignments and constant communication with friends and loved ones over the internet, but his success demonstrates the importance of access to tech for everyone, not just San Francisco’s well-off.
Even a tech hub like San Francisco is subject to the digital divide: the disconnect between those who have regular access and ability to use digital technology, and those who do not.
A few blocks north of Market Street — home to tech giants such as Twitter and Uber — lies the heart of the Tenderloin neighborhood, where the digital divide has had a stark impact on the lives of its residents over the past year.
Alowdi noted that the workload placed on him and his fellow students was occasionally excessive, noting that juggling the work from multiple classes during the pandemic accompanied with using the time he has at the Boys and Girls Club to get help and do his work is often frustrating.
Attending his classes and doing his homework in the socially distanced Boys and Girls Club provided Alowdi a space to focus on his education, where he doesn’t have to monitor his attention span as closely as he would at home, where he lives with his nine family members.
The close proximity and limited opportunity to escape has caused tension in some families during the pandemic, but Alowdi said he and his family remain close, do everything together, and that he’s never bored.
While many of his classmates are unmotivated to participate in online classes, Alowdi said he is often one of the few students with his camera on while his teacher lectures. Among the myriad of changes the pandemic forced onto Alowdi’s life, he said he actually prefers virtual instruction.
“You feel safe [in online classes] because some students are just not okay, just bullies,” he said.
The San Francisco Unified School District recently released a plan to open up various schools and all students will have the option to attend in-person classes for the 2021-2022 school year. Alowdi said he prefers finishing the current school year online and looks forward to graduating from eighth grade virtually “for COVID memories.”
Alowdi is also part of a program called Tech in the Tenderloin, which teaches the neighborhood’s children computer skills and exposes them to high-tech innovation, such as a recent project about reconstructing the Black Hawk nightclub, a famous jazz club in the neighborhood that closed in 1963.
The program’s co-founder June Sargent acknowledged that it’s difficult for many students to attend and learn more about tech because of “screen fatigue” since the majority of their education and socialization now happens through a monitor.
She noted that the digital divide has contributed to psychological harm to her students.
“Sometimes they don’t feel like they can compete, we want to lift them up and tell them that they can compete, and that they’re just as good as any other student in San Francisco,” Sargent said.
In 2018, the city studied a representative sample of 1,000 San Franciscans and found four demographic groups affected most by the digital divide: low-income residents, seniors, residents with limited English language skills and the disabled.
The study noted that roughly a quarter of low-income residents and seniors do not use the internet.
Access to technology in the Tenderloin is not just important for children going to school; there are many seniors in the neighborhood who need the tech to work and socialize safely.
Laura Sinai, a resident and community organizer with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, came within a hair’s breadth of spending the pandemic without technology she needs to work.
Sinai, who is 67, was a proud flip phone user until 2020 when it died, prompting her to invest in an iPhone. After a period of time training how to use the smartphone with help from her 21-year-old cousin Karen, Sinai was able to use the phone to attend work meetings and navigate social media in order to safely sate the desire to socialize without exposing herself to COVID-19.
“I think it’s a necessity to become more knowledgeable on tech now. Because that’s what you have to rely on during COVID. I’d be lonelier if I didn’t have the technology,” Sinai said.
Like many seniors, Sinai said she was reluctant to upgrade her technology because of the effort to learn how to use it, a key aspect of the digital divide.
Age is one of the key predictors of underwhelming or insufficient internet access, and many senior residents in the Tenderloin are wary of new technology because of the time they would need to learn how to use it, according to Sinai.
Sinai might frequently use her phone for work and remote socialization, but it’s also an important tool for her to stay healthy.
The pandemic made walking into a clinic and getting an in-person appointment more difficult and dangerous than ever before, and Sinai needs occasional medical help for her chronic bronchitis.
Using her phone, she has been able to make virtual appointments with her doctor for advising and information, a service she acknowledges many lack in the Tenderloin because of the digital divide.
Another resident and organizer, Luis Castillo, also faces this issue. Castillo, 71, fell on his arm three months ago, but only recently was able to schedule an in-person appointment with a doctor.
He said that the difficulty scheduling appointments was because of the sheer number of patients his doctor needs to see, but that in this case the in-person appointment was irreplaceable with a telehealth conversation because of the nature of his injury, which he hopes to get checked out by an orthopedist.
The digital divide is especially significant for communities who don’t speak English and rely on translators to spread knowledge about the latest update regarding the pandemic.
“One of my co-workers, she works with the Chinese community, so they don’t have direct access like information around COVID-19 or what’s open and what’s not because things change at a rapid pace that they don’t have any sources for it,” said Jaime Viloria, a community organizer with the TNDC.
For his work in community activism, Viloria said the Tenderloin is a very in-person neighborhood where the best way to get people to attend events is spread knowledge via word of mouth and have an in-person gathering, which is not something the TNDC can do during the pandemic.
San Francisco city government meetings are happening remotely during the pandemic, which damages the Tenderloin’s residents’ ability to make themselves heard, according to Viloria.
“They’re already being left behind in terms of how they can get their input on different policies. We usually get people to go to City Hall to speak at a hearing, but we can’t even do that,” Viloria said.
In 2019, San Francisco released a five-year plan to mitigate the digital divide that cites digital literacy training and affordable broadband as keys to the solution.
The city took efforts during the pandemic to help mitigate the divide, such as distributing laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students as they attend school remotely.
The Fiber to Housing program, which provides free internet to San Franciscans living in affordable housing units, has also seen measures of success in addressing the digital divide, according to Val Langmuir, the TNDC’s technical director.
“I feel like it’s really important that the city extends funding for the fiber housing program,” Langmuir said.
“Having the city be able to bring in the high-quality internet service for us is crucial. And, budget cuts, because of economic downturn, have hit that department and hit that program,” he added.
While doing her job and getting information significantly easier for Sinai because of her smartphone, she did lose one benefit of having a flip phone.
She felt she could openly use it anywhere in the Tenderloin without getting mugged, recounting one experience where a group of men attempted to rob her, but stopped short after seeing her phone.
“And all of a sudden, they stopped and said ‘Oh my god, I don’t want that’ and they turned around and went away. So for years, I was just tickled pink and I kept my phone and I said ‘well, nobody’s going to beat me up over this thing,'” Sinai said.