At various points, the crowded room included dozens of senators, U.S. representatives and their aides, including such notable lawmakers as Senators Reid, Specter and Inouye. It was an event that clearly drew a lot of interest in Congress even with, well, just a few other things going on in the country and the world.
I always seek perspective in these types of situations. That’s why, in the midst of Washington’s elite and top executives from One Economy and Comcast, I sought out Dennis Saunders.
Dennis was among the quietest people in the room. But from his years as a Digital Connector in the tiny town of Windsor, North Carolina, he knew first-hand what the expansion of this program would really mean – both for the participants and their communities.
"The Digital Connectors coming up now can expect an experience like no other," he told me. "They can expect doors to technology opened like they’ve never seen before, through the knowledge they’ll acquire from the program. They’re going to be strengthened physically, mentally and socially.
"When they go out to help their communities, they’re going to feel on top of the world. I always say that air represents knowledge in this program, and the air is just going to keep expanding for them but never burst. When they’re filled with knowledge, they’re going to go out and refurbish computers in their community, start teaching classes and doing much more.
"It’s been gratifying. You feel thankful for what you’ve been given, and for the opportunity to share."
Dennis and his fellow Connectors have become technology ambassadors in Windsor (pop. 2,283) and Bertie County, NC, where only one in four residents uses broadband – about half the national average.
This type of community outreach is one of the key aspects of being a Digital Connector, and one of the many reasons Comcast signed on as a national partner. The initial Comcast Digital Connectors groups have been up and running for a couple of months in Washington, D.C., Springfield, MA and Miami, FL.
I talked with Marcos Cea, Flor Romero and Laura Ventura, three of the D.C. participants, whose program meets at the Latin American Youth Center. Each of these young Comcast Digital Connectors (for whom Spanish has been their primary language) expressed how much impact the program has had on them already. And each has begun to spend time in the community, primarily removing computer viruses and installing software. It’s a starting point, and in the near future they’ll begin to experience exactly what Dennis was talking about.
Ceremonies included remarks from Lavonda Gray (who joined Dennis as an alumni representative), Comcast executives David L. Cohen and Joe Waz, and One Economy co-founder and CEO Rey Ramsey. Rey told the audience, "I don’t talk about the digital divide, I talk about digital opportunity. That's what the Digital Connectors program is all about."
Afterward, I was able to pull Rey aside for a brief moment. He explained that One Economy "started in a basement in 2000, in the midst of a recession, with four people and little money."
And today? "Well, I definitely had a dream," he said. "But to be standing in the halls of Congress, talking with senators and corporate executives about this great program … only in your biggest dreams do you ever think something like that will happen."