The SRT Project's Policy Officer Dr Murdo Macdonald shares stories of churches and church-centered organisations which are closing the digital divide for some of Scotland's poorest communities.
We’re all aware of the great benefits that access to the internet can bring. It makes communication easier (think Skyping the grandkids in Australia). It means we can find all sorts of bargains (online marketplaces such as eBay and Gumtree), and we can easily compare the cost of our weekly groceries from a variety of supermarkets.
However, for many people, accessing the benefits of going online is not easy. Perhaps you don’t feel confident about navigating the online world, or you simply don’t have access to the necessary equipment.
A number of churches are keenly aware that many of the people in the communities they serve struggle to access the internet, for a variety of reasons. Many congregations have responded to this need, and have seen lots of people gain in many ways. Churches have shared their stories about the benefits people gain which are often much more than simply financial and, more importantly, about gaining social confidence or other life skills are at the heart of what transpires when churches seek to bridge the digital divide.
Anne McGreechin describes the experience of Ruchazie Parish Church
“Ruchazie often seems like a small forgotten corner in the North East of Glasgow. There are few resources here, which is why Ruchazie Parish Church is vital to the community. Through our children’s and youth work programmes we regularly engage with over 100 young people. We also run a small community café, and in the past year with the help of a Go for It Pilot Grant, we have tried to develop this space.
In July last year through our partnership with Cranhill Development Trust (CDT), Glasgow Kelvin College and The Wheatley Group we installed five new computers giving local people access to the internet, which has now become a necessity especially for those claiming benefits and looking for work. In addition to the internet access CDT’s employability team also run a weekly job club, helping people with curriculum vitae, job applications, access to training etc. But even just having the computers has given people a reason to come into the building for the first time. One young man, very shy and withdrawn, started to come in and use the computers once or twice a week. Our staff and volunteers always greeted him warmly and started to get to know him a bit better. As the weeks went by he started to respond, making eye contact and smiling hello. Recently he asked if there was anything he could do to help out. We have given him the job of keeping the café tables clean one day a week and he is about to do a food hygiene course which will enable him to volunteer in the café. This is a huge step for him and would not have happened without our computer suite.
We also run a lunch club for over 60s and have recently started a Digital Awareness club for this age group. It has been great to see older people bringing along their tablets or using our laptops to engage with social media and make contact with friends and family from their past and in different parts of the world.
Since the computers were installed in July we have had 160 new users.”
Marilyn Sime tell the story of the Sandhead Learning and Internet Centre, near Stranraer Wigtownshire
“About fifteen years ago a church member asked the village youth what facilities they would like in the church hall, and they came up with the idea of an Internet Café. After various funding sources were identified this became the now well-established Sandhead Learning and Internet Centre (SLIC) (see www.sandheadlearning.co.uk).
With the support of Go For it grant funding, SLIC has become embedded within the local community by offering free digital support to everyone. Rural deprivation is an ongoing problem within even the most idyllic of settings, wedded as it is to lack of confidence, financial hardship and poor public transport. Being digitally terrified can make people feel even more socially excluded. This is where SLIC has made its mark. With the grant contribution, users are amazed to be offered FREE support and tuition of a very high quality. Young Johnny gets help with his CV, housebound Mrs Jones learns how to use her new tablet, Ms Amanda has the mysteries of the internet explained to her, utility bills are accessed by OAPs, and PowerPoint skills have been very useful for the team who run the SU group at the local school.
SLIC does not stand still. Under its caring co-ordinator the organisation is sensitive to the huge rise in the number of people on benefits who are now the main users. The digital divide, like the Berlin Wall, is starting to fall.”
Penny Macleod highlights the digital work of The Well, Govanhill, Glasgow
“The Well Multi Cultural Resource Centre is based in Govanhill, Glasgow – the most ethnically diverse square mile in Scotland. Many residents experience multiple disadvantage and poverty. Our computer suite is open to the public five days a week. This is a lifeline for those who have no access to a computer and who do not have the language or IT skills that are required to function in modern day Scotland.
Ivor from Eastern Europe came to The Well for help. He had no income because he was not able to satisfy the Benefits Agency that he was genuinely seeking work. His English was so limited, the first thing we did was to find someone who could translate for him. One of our volunteer IT support workers worked with him to identify what would help him qualify for benefits and support his search for work. This included English language practice, help with a CV, identifying what jobs he could do, as well as support to develop basic computer skills to do job searches and applications on line for himself.
Ivor attended our weekly jobs club. Within weeks Ivor started to use a computer keyboard- he found it frustrating as it would take 10 minutes for him to type out his name, address and new email account details when he was applying for jobs. However, he persevered and started to come in to make use of the computer suite most days on his own and to enjoy time with new friends.
It has been a joy to see his English improve along with his confidence and independence. He now receives Job Seekers Allowance, applying for jobs and attending appointments as required. He looks happy and does not have to borrow money from friends.
The Well (thewell.org.uk), is grateful for the Support of The Go For It Fund which has helped support our work here in Govanhill.”
There are, of course, many other examples of churches taking similar initiatives (see, for example, the SWITCH project in Chalmers Church in Larkhall: www.srtp.org.uk/srtp/view_article/bridging_the_digital_divide). Perhaps your church might be thinking about this issue: our advice would be- don’t just sit there, go for it!
The Open Space Community Café in Ruchazie received a Go For It Pilot Grant, while the Well and Sandhead Learning and Internet Centre received Go For It Main Grants. For more information about the Go For It Fund, please visit: www.churchofscotland.org.uk/serve/go_for_it
This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Life and Work. You can subscribe at www.lifeandwork.org/subscribe/subscribe