May 3, 2013
So far, nonprofit Connecting for Good has brought free wireless Internet to 600 households in three low-income housing projects in Kansas City. They think that an Internet connection is the gateway to countless opportunities.
“We believe there is a growing underclass in America: the unconnected. Without an Internet connection, they are unable to apply for jobs, pursue a quality education, connect with children's schools, find safe and affordable housing, or find necessary health care,” says president Michael Liimatta.
Along with Wi-Fi, Connecting for Good also offers digital technology training and refurbished computers for $50. For example, they educate residents about the new, low-cost Google Fiber plans coming to Kansas City – starting at $300 for seven years of Internet.
Cofounders Liimatta and Rick Deane both have a background in nonprofits. In the past, Deane has installed community Wi-Fi to help rectify the digital divide in Kansas City. Below, Liimatta talks about what the situation is like for low-income people in Kansas City and why having Internet is so crucial for them.
Tech Cocktail: How do you keep your team motivated at the office?
Michael Liimatta: Mostly, it's our seeing the real good that is coming out of our efforts. We have the blessing of being able to stay in close contact with the people we serve. So, seeing what happened when a refurbished laptop is placed in the hands of a single inner-city mom in a project where we've brought free wi-fi really does make it all so worth it!
Tech Cocktail: If you had an extra $1,000 to spend on marketing, what would you do?
Liimatta: Right now, I would use it to produce a public service announcement for television to reach people in low-income communities to tell them about the public digital life skills training program we are conducting at local libraries and other community institutions.
Tech Cocktail: What trend are you excited about as a user or consumer?
Liimatta: Definitely the growth of the Internet and all the possibilities it brings to the public in general – and all of the resources low-income people can access through it to truly improve their lives.
One example is the ability to use food stamp cards to order groceries and get them delivered to your home. Too many low-income families live in “food deserts” where good, reasonably priced, and nutritious food can't be easily obtained. Where transportation is an issue, this can be a tremendous help.
Educational and employment opportunities that can be accessed through the Internet, along with finding health information, accessing social services, and the ability to search for safe, affordable housing are among the most important things they can do online.
Tech Cocktail: What keeps you motivated on the hard days?
Liimatta: It's the mission and the knowledge that we are doing something truly transformational in the lives of the people we are reaching out to. I am convinced that education is the number one thing that lifts people out of poverty. Yet, it is impossible to get a good education – grade school, high school, or college – without an adequate connection to the Internet.
In Kansas City, KC (and soon in Kansas City, MO), every high school kid is issued a laptop computer. In KCK, nearly half of them take those PCs to homes with no Internet connection. At least in two low-income housing projects in this area, teenagers do not have this to deal with any longer.
Tech Cocktail: What’s your crazy, long-term, huge vision?
Liimatta: I think we have the potential to grow into a national organization that is doing projects in other cities. What we are doing now is refining a model and testing our technology solutions in a way that can be “franchised” down the road.
Tech Cocktail: What’s the challenge of starting up in Kansas City?
Liimatta: Though it is improving, there is still a lot of education to do around the issue of technology and how it can be used to improve people's lives. For now, it is most often thought of in its ability to fuel local economic development. So, as a tech-oriented nonprofit organization, we are still working hard to help the local community understand and appreciate our mission.
Another sad aspect of Kansas City's history is racism and its impact on the community. Our focus is on working with low-income families and their school-age children and teens, and inevitably we run into awful stereotypes since the vast majority of the people we work with are minorities. The worst of them imply that these folks are just looking for a handout and are not interested in truly improving their lives, or that they somehow lack the intelligence or drive to do better.
Tech Cocktail: What’s one quirky fact about your team?
Liimatta: Certainly for a nonprofit organization, we are geeks. I don't think there are too many charitable organizations that get as excited about technology as we do.
For example, just last week we could hardly contain our joy when some members of our team discovered that, years ago, someone had run a link to a major dark fiber cable into a building on a very rough street on Kansas City's East side.
Most people would not even recognize what it was since it was totally unused for at least five or six years – not even the leaders of the church that owned the building. And, fewer yet could appreciate its significance in saving us thousands of dollars by giving us a link to the backbone of the Internet that we can use to light up underserved East of Troost neighborhoods and low-income housing projects.
Connecting for Good is a showcased startup at our Tech Cocktail Kansas City mixer next Tuesday – join us!
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