The Digital Divide is a Human Rights Issue

The COVID-19 pandemic shed a glaring light on the important role that technology and access to high-speed internet play our lives. You would not be able to read this story without an internet connection and a device to read it on. How would you communicate with loved ones, do your homework or pay your bills without broadband?

Cynthia K. Sanders, associate professor and online program director in the College of Social Work, is the lead author of an article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work that argues access to high-speed internet, or broadband, is a human rights and social justice issue. Lack of access disproportionately impacts low-income, People of Color, seniors, Native Americans and rural residents. Sanders joined the University of Utah in July 2021.

“Much of my work is around financial, social or political inclusion,” said Sanders. “The digital divide certainly represents a lack of social inclusion because there are so many things associated with access to broadband in terms of how we think about our daily lives and opportunities, especially highlighted by the pandemic. It creates a clear social exclusion situation.”

At least 20 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Some estimates are as high as 162 million, said Sanders. While there are federal funds allocated toward addressing access to broadband internet, Sanders and her co-author, Edward Scanlon from the University of Kansas, argue the digital divide must be viewed as more than a policy or infrastructure issue.

“When we know that the people who don’t have it are already disadvantaged in many ways, it should also be viewed as a human rights and social justice issue,” said Sanders. “And it’s also about more than just whether broadband is available in certain areas. Even if it is available, not everyone can afford it or devices available to access it. If they do have the devices or can pay for it, they may not have the digital literacy skillset to effectively use technology and broadband for many of the opportunities it provides like applying for jobs, furthering one’s education, accessing health care or medical records and staying in touch with friends and family.”

In order to reduce the digital divide, Sanders said there are community-based, grassroots initiatives that can serve as excellent models—including one here in Utah.

“The Murray School District used some federal funds to create their own long-term evolution network (LTE) and that’s something no other district in the nation has done,” said Sanders. “It’s a great example and something we can learn from in the absence of a more national strategy.”

The authors also urge social workers to get involved through policy advocacy, coalition building and program development around initiatives such as low-cost broadband, low-cost devices and creating digital literacy programs.

“From a social work perspective, we need to be part of this discussion around ways to help close the digital divide for particularly marginalized groups,” said Sanders. “We can be involved in lobbying and working with legislators and policymakers to educate about the digital divide, who it impacts and the funding needed for some of these grassroots initiatives that can truly impact peoples’ daily lives.”

Simple Intervention Proves Effective in Reducing Suicide Among Active-Duty Soldiers

Suicidal behavior among active-duty service members can be reduced for up to six months with a relatively simple intervention that gives them concrete steps to follow during an emotional crisis, according to a new study from the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies.

The study’s findings show there was a 75 percent reduction in suicide attempts among participants who engaged in crisis response planning versus a contract for safety. Crisis response planning also was associated with a significantly faster decline in suicidal thoughts and fewer inpatient hospitalization days.

Craig J. Bryan, an associate professor of psychology and director of the U’s National Center for Veterans Studies, led the research team. The study titled “Effect of crisis response planning vs. contracts for safety on suicide risk in U.S. Army Soldiers” was published online on Jan. 24 in The Journal of Affective Disorders.

Co-authors include researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the University of Utah, the University of Memphis, and the U.S. Army.

The Pentagon said last April that 265 active-duty service members killed themselves in 2015, continuing a steady increase in suicides noted since 2001. In response to this tragic trend, the Department of Defense and Veterans Health Administration has made suicide prevention a priority, supporting interventions and studies of how to help the nation’s warriors.

“Our results mark a critical next step in preventing military suicides,” said Bryan.

The study compared the effectiveness of two risk management strategies:

• Contract for safety, which entails getting a commitment from a suicidal patient to avoid self harm — what not to do.

• Crisis response planning, which involves writing on an index card the steps for identifying one’s personal warning signs along with coping strategies, social support, and professional services to use in a crisis — what to do.

The researchers also conducted an analysis to see if an enhanced crisis response plan that added an explicit discussion of the participant’s reasons for living would provide even better results, but this enhancement did no better or worse than a standard crisis response plan without this enhancement.

Each participant had active suicide ideation and/or a lifetime history of attempted suicide and had actively sought help at a military medical clinic in Fort Carson, Colorado, in 2013 and between January 2015 and February 2016. The soldiers were offered one of the three interventions, which varied in the combination of supportive counseling, strategies to manage emotional distress, education about crisis services and referrals to treatment services. The researchers followed the 97 participants over a six-month follow-up period.

The crisis response plan was a central ingredient of another successful treatment developed by many of the same researchers at the National Center for Veterans Studies — brief cognitive behavioral therapy — which contributed to a 60 percent reduction in suicide attempts among active duty soldiers. The results of that study were published in 2015.

“Our previous results showing a significant reduction in suicide attempts were based on a treatment that heavily emphasized crisis response planning,” Bryan said. “This time around, we tested crisis response planning by itself and found that it reduced suicide attempts as well. This bolsters our confidence in the technique’s effectiveness.”

Overall, the findings show that giving active-duty service members who are at risk of suicide a crisis response plan may be a more effective way to keep them safe than a contract for safety. And because of its brevity and simplicity, the crisis response plan strategy could feasibly be implemented in a wide range of medical settings by diverse health care professionals.

“Suicidal individuals don’t always visit mental health clinics when in crisis,” Bryan said. “They also visit emergency departments and primary care clinics or talk to friends and family members. Crisis response planning could be a practical and effective way to connect those in greatest need of potentially life-saving treatment.”

The National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah leads the nation in suicide prevention and PTSD research and treatment. The center has developed and tested the only scientifically supported methods to prevent suicidal behavior among military personnel. Many veterans die by suicide, often as a result of untreated PTSD, at a rate of 20 deaths each day on average.

Ferguson Sparks Cross-Campus Dialogue about Racialized Police Violence

By Irene M. Ota, College of Social Work and Irene H. Yoon, College of Education

The unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri sparked a cross-campus dialogue at the University of Utah to discuss racialized police violence and what concerned community members can do about it.  We were already planning this informal gathering to create a space to dialogue about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, co-sponsored by the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, College of Education, and the Women’s Resource Center.  Then, just days before the planned event, in Saratoga Springs, Utah, about 35 miles from Salt Lake City, a young mixed race Black man named Darrien Hunt was shot and killed by the police.  With this local case, the need for community connection and action on campus became even more palpable.

Irene Yoon
Co-Author and Facilitator Dr. Irene Yoon

We knew the University needed a campus-wide opportunity for people to find each other, dialogue, process concerns, and identify effective forms of action and engagement to press for change and collective urgency.  But, we didn’t know if anyone would come.

We have a largely commuter campus, so many students work jobs during the day.  We are in a state with relatively little community outcry over racialized violence.  We told ourselves that even a conversation with five people was important, in order to build connection and start a series of conversations and action.

The response was greater than we had anticipated, with over 40 people attending from numerous areas of the University of Utah and the greater community.  We were a diverse group in age, ability, academic discipline, profession, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity.

Students, staff, and faculty identified themselves as coming from sociology, chemistry, environmental science, psychology, theater, business, communication, and the U.S. Army (Fort Douglas, an Army Reserve base, is on campus), in addition to education, social work, and the Women’s Resource Center.  As each person introduced themselves, they shared their reasons for attending.

Many people felt they didn’t know who else to talk to, who else cared about the situations in Ferguson and in our own backyard.  Some people were there for very personal reasons—friends of Darrien Hunt, mothers afraid of what fatal police shootings mean for their children and grandchildren of color.

Others were angry about injustice, not only for Michael Brown, but for many other people of color, and had found their outrage was falling on deaf ears in other parts of campus or in their other communities.  Finally, almost all agreed that they wanted to be part of collective action and public pressure on local government and police departments, public and elected officials, and local media outlets.

Our Goals

In addition to meeting the needs above, we were explicit about our goals.  We felt a dialogue was necessary for our campus climate—for concerned individuals to have a space to have difficult conversations where they were allowed to speak their emotions.  We knew that, on this large campus, individuals would want to network and find each other.

As educators, we facilitators also wanted to be available to participants who needed to unpack competing accounts, imagery, media narratives, and statistics about Ferguson and racialized police shootings.  Finally, as individuals who had participated in many dialogues in the past that had petered out over time, we wanted to make sure we didn’t stop at talk, but also brainstorm constructive collective action.  We decided one first action could be a joint letter to the editor of several newspapers.

Our Approach

For a dialogue with individuals who wouldn’t know each other or have relationships with each other yet, we started with a structured two-hour process.  We began by establishing “ground rules,” or norms for participation and dialogue.  Next, we briefly situated the conversation in a long history of (officially or unofficially) sanctioned violence against young Black men.  About 10 minutes into the session, we were ready to begin.

For the first hour and a half, participants shared who they were, why they were participating in the dialogue, their emotions and concerns and questions about how and why Michael Brown’s and Darrien Hunt’s deaths had occurred.  We observed that the diverse group had a range of needs, from working through personal identity to wanting to show up in quiet support.  Some individuals shared what had pushed them over the tipping point from passive personal concern to joining a group dialogue for action.

Before moving on to our collective action item, we brainstormed tips and wisdom about what we could do in response to the shooting of Darien Hunt, as well as addressing racialized police violence more broadly.  Participants suggested:

  • Calling and emailing elected officials in this midterm election season (drafting a “script” for people who were worried about getting tongue-tied)
  • Writing letters to local police departments
  • Tweeting and leaving Facebook posts on pages of local police departments and elected officials
  • Forming an action group to serve as a “home base” for sharing information about events, action items, and resources
  • Speaking up within our own existing networks and communities (e.g., classes we teach, places of worship, our families).

Finally, for the last half hour, we presented drafts of several letters to the editor that we had tailored to each newspaper’s coverage of Ferguson and of other fatal police shootings like Darrien Hunt’s.  Participants read the letters, gave comments or suggested revisions, and had a few moments to consider whether or not they wanted to sign their names (or sign as “Anonymous”).  Virtually all participants signed on to these letters.  More have signed on since.

Implications for the Future

So what can we say now?  Was the event a success, in terms of our goals and needs?  We think so, because our main intention was to create space and build networks for the future.  Many connections between individuals and organizations were made – we noticed people staying after the event, crossing the room and shaking hands, exchanging emails and phone numbers.  Two social work students are creating a phone tree, which would alert individuals to incidents, concerns, and issues, and encourage them to write, email, and/or phone their legislators with possible resolutions and action.  Those letters to the editors will go the local newspapers, which we hope will be printed.  We plan to share them over social media networks regardless.

As with any grassroots community organization that is spurred by a single event, it can be hard to keep things like this dialogue going over time. One of our goals and guiding questions was how not to forget, but to stay engaged, despite everyone’s own busy lives and community engagement in disparate spaces.  We are cautious until the suggested initiatives take hold.  We will continue the dialogues and calls for action.  We are committed to supporting each other, staying socially conscious, and we are dedicated to moving forward.

Note: We would like to extend special thanks and appreciation to Debra Daniels, Assistant Vice President of Women’s Enrollment Initiatives and Director of the Women’s Resource Center, and Jennifer Nozawa at the College of Social Work, for their support and collaboration in planning and facilitating the event and this essay.

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