Meet the woman fighting the digital divide
19 October 2021 at 8:13 am
Jess Wilson is the CEO of the Good Things Foundation, a charity helping vulnerable Aussies access the digital world. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
The pandemic has exposed many gaps in our society. Arguably one of the biggest divides has been between those with and without access to the digital world.
While millions of people [have been working and learning from home over the past two years, those without access to a stable internet connection, a device to work from, or the tech know-how, have simply had to miss out.
Ongoing lockdowns have shown how a lack of confidence online can create further barriers to participating in society and completing essential tasks, like checking in with QR codes, and showing vaccination certificates.
And unfortunately, new migrants, low-income households, remote First Nations communities and people with disabilities are more likely to be digitally excluded, further marginalising some of our most vulnerable communities.
This digital divide is a problem the Good Things Foundation is fighting to change.
As the organisation’s CEO, Jess Wilson is leading the charge by building capacity in community organisations to connect vulnerable communities to the digital world, and working with partners in government and business to develop programs that help skill people in tech.
Since 2017 the Good Things Foundation has reached over 1 million Australians through digital skills programs, sourced 12,000 digital mentors to deliver digital skills training, and awarded $20 million in grant funding to community organisations.
And this work will ramp up during Get Online Week, a celebration of digital inclusion. Running from 18 to 24 October, the week includes events on online safety, closing the digital divide for people with intellectual disabilities, and digital health and wellbeing.
In this week’s Changemaker, Wilson discusses how the pandemic presented an opportunity for digital inclusion, the importance of collaboration, and the challenges of starting an organisation from scratch.
How did you get involved with Good Things?
Before I started with the foundation, I took a year off working and went travelling around the world with my wife. During that time, being able to stay connected to our friends and family was really important. I have a brother who has down syndrome and we were able to stay really connected to him during that time because he’s on WhatsApp and Skype. He’s also an artist, and so everyday we sent him a photo or a video of where we were, and he turned them into an exhibition of all of the places that we’d been visiting. And so I think that really showed me how important digital is, not just for staying connected to people, but [for] what it can create after that in terms of impact and creativity and people’s ability to connect to the world.
And so when this role came up for Good Things Foundation to establish a new organisation here in Australia, I was really excited. The Australian branch is building on the work the foundation has been doing in the UK for 10 years, so it was really an opportunity to start something new, create an organisation from scratch, and work really closely with an evidence-based model that had been brought from the UK on an issue that I had seen that was so important.
The foundation has created a really strong network of community organisations. Why is that important?
I suppose the other thing that really was exciting to me about this role is the fact that it’s a networked model. We know that there are already organisations all over the country that are supporting the people that we want to reach. And so if we build their capability and skills and give them the confidence to be able to deliver programs that build [other] people’s digital skills, then that’s the best way [for us to achieve our goal]. So it was the opportunity to work across the country, but really to build that capability across the community sector, that was so exciting.
What does your week look like during Get Online Week?
It’s kind of disappointing [this year] because usually I’d be traveling all over the country, visiting community partners, and holding community events. But this year all of that will be held online. I’m going to a really interesting online event about understanding the funghi of the Macedon Ranges, run by Kyneton Community Centres in Victoria. So I think that’s the thing about learning digital skills, it’s actually about how you find that thing that is really important to people, and show them how they can do that using digital technology.
We are holding a roundtable on Tuesday, pulling together a range of different academics and young people with intellectual disability, their family members and people from government and community organisations to talk about the barriers for people with intellectual disability to access digital technology. So I’m really looking forward to that because it’s an opportunity to have that conversation at a broader level, but also in particular to hear from the young people with intellectual disability themselves about what’s important to them in learning digital skills.
We’re also holding a webinar with PWC, which looks at the recent report on technology and highlights the issues and the support that’s available for not for profits around building their own technology skills.
What are some of the challenges of running the Good Things Foundation?
I think one of the big challenges for us is that we’re a new organisation here in Australia. So establishing who we are and what we’re here to do and making sure people know about the work that we do has been a real challenge. When we were first trying to build a network of community organisations – which has grown from 200 to 3,500 – we were doing a lot of phone calling, and a lot of talking to different bigger organisations, like ACOSS and the Neighbourhood Centres Association. One of the things we would call organisations about was grants to establish our programs in their organisations. Because people didn’t know who we were, they would think we were scammers, which is not great considering one of the issues we’re working on is online and digital safety.
Another key challenge was raising that awareness of digital inclusion as an issue. Before COVID, when we saw work and education go online, raising awareness of this as an issue was difficult. Talking to older people because Be Connected [a program we run] is for older people about why it’s important for them to learn digital skills and what they might get out of it. So that kind of piece around motivation and understanding the importance of participating fully in community was a big challenge initially.
What advice do you have for people wanting to make a change in the world?
My advice is to go for it. It is going to take all of us to make social change for those big challenges we have in the world, so if there is something you want to change, just start.
I suppose the other thing is [around] how you bring yourself and the things that are important to you, to your work and to your life. Sometimes people think you have to be one person at work and one person at home. And I think actually the most important thing is when you bring those things that are important to you to your work, and be your authentic self at work, that’s the key thing for me.
The third is to find people that are similar. Social change is not easy and it has some positives and it has challenges, so you need other people around you to help you and to support you and to make sure that you’re able to keep that going.
Lastly, do you have any book or podcast recommendations for our readers that you’ve been loving as of late?
I know this is probably a bit of a cliché, but I have really loved the “Dare to Lead” podcast from Brené Brown. She’s interviewing some really interesting leaders across the world, and I find that a really interesting way of reflecting on my own leadership practice and about looking at who else is doing great work in the world and how we can be inspired by them.
I’m also currently reading Miriam Margolyes autobiography. She’s an actor, she’s just turned 80 and she’s a lesbian as well. Her turn of phrase about her experience in life and her ability to be her authentic self, right from when she’s a kid, is one of those things that I think is really inspirational, so I highly recommend that one.