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Swift Response to Growing Needs: LWB US’ Rapid Response to COVID-19
From parks in Baltimore to laundromats in San Antonio, Libraries Without Borders US (LWB US) is committed to meeting people where they are with the resources they need most.
Fundamental to our work is designing and implementing innovative programs that reimagine libraries, often by transforming nontraditional spaces into hubs for community learning and engagement. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, we were forced to completely reimagine our work.
Prior to the pandemic, LWB US brought access to critical resources directly to constituents’ communities through initiatives such as the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI). Established in 2015, this innovative program transformed laundromats into pop-up libraries and digital access hubs. Why laundromats of all places? The average laundromat user has an income of $28,000; 1 in 4 individuals in this income bracket do not have access to broadband internet. By partnering with local libraries and bringing books, computers, and an internet connection directly to laundromats, LWB US could ensure that community members had easy access to critical resources, all while doing their weekly wash.
In March of 2020, unfortunately, the outbreak of COVID-19 forced LWB US to put WALI programming on hold in an effort to protect the health and safety of our constituents. With WALI shut down and schools and libraries closed, however, individuals and families without at-home internet access and digital tools were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. For under-resourced communities already facing a systemic lack of access to information, the COVID-19 pandemic meant even more trouble accessing education opportunities and resources, connecting to community, and finding employment.
With community hubs no longer a safe space and yet a growing need for access to digital resources, LWB US had to innovatively reimagine what it meant to meet our constituents where they are, with the resources they need most —all without endangering them. We leveraged connections with our community partners, laundromat managers, and local schools to gain a better understanding of how our resources could have the greatest impact. By relying on our network and word-of-mouth communications, we were able to connect with the constituents we aimed to serve: community members without internet access that we otherwise could not have reached online.
Overwhelmingly, we learned that people needed an at-home internet connection and digital tools in order to access information. In Baltimore, for example, more than 89% of our constituents found it anywhere from moderately to extremely difficult to access information and educational resources at the start of the pandemic.
LWB US / ConnectED Tech Kit Recipient Survey 2020
In response, LWB US pivoted and piloted our ConnectED Tech Kit Program. This program brings digital resources and educational tools directly to constituents, packaged neatly in a sleek backpack. Staying true to our mission, we distribute these kits by meeting people where they are— whether that be right at the residents’ doorsteps, or even at local parks, library parking lots, or churches.
Azure Grimes, LWB US’ Senior Program Manager (previously Baltimore Project Coordinator), explained that the ConnectED program rose out of the reality that, “people were still without reliable resources, and now people were stuck at home…trying to navigate schools and work at the same time.” Knowing the severity of the digital divide during COVID-19, LWB US recognized the importance of the ConnectED Tech Kit program as a tool for community empowerment.
According to LWB US’ Executive Director Adam Echelman, our shift to the ConnectED program was an effort to
“help populations who did not qualify for a computer or hotspot through other means.”
With the continuation of the ConnectED program and other projects, LWB US aims to empower our communities by ensuring that they have equal access to digital resources, without discrimination and despite the pandemic. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as we detail the innovative efforts of our project coordinators and external partners to do just that.