ROCKFORD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker, on Wednesday, announced a stateside initiative to provide computers to low-income families.
The Connect Illinois Computer Equity Network effort comes through a partnership with the Cook County Board and PCs for People, a national nonprofit that supplies refurbished computers to those in need. It is also part of Pritzker’s plan to expand digital access for low-income households throughout the state. That effort aims to put computers and other mobile devices into the hands of Illinois residents – assisting more families with access to high speed internet that is essential for e-learning, remote work, telehealth, and more.
“This new collaboration between our Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the nonprofit PCs for People will provide refurbished and modernized computers to those in need,” Pritzker said. “Today we are kicking this off by providing the first 20,000 devices to families in need all across the state. As we grow the program, it’s businesses and philanthropists that will make this program successful. In the spirit of the holiday season, I’m asking Illinois companies to join us in this effort, to help build on this initial down payment. When your upgrade cycle gets renewed and your old technology no longer fits the needs of your company, you can donate it, and it will be upgraded for use by a family in need.”
Pritzker said he issuing a call to action for public, private and philanthropic sectors to donate used equipment and build on a network already set to deploy the first 20,000 devices. There is currently an estimated 1.1 million households in Illinois without a computer at home, according to U.S. Census data.
“The pandemic has laid bare the tremendous inequities in our communities, including access to technology and digital accessibility. This is particularly important during a time when residents are dependent on technology for remote work and education,” Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle said. “I am grateful for the governor, my council of Digital Equity and PCs for People’s partnership in this critical initiative to help narrow the digital divide in Illinois.”
President Preckwinkle’s Council on Digital Equity (CODE) comprises local members and senior advisors from around the country who provide expertise and guidance as Cook County takes action to address digital inequities. The council has a special focus on the county’s south suburbs and other communities that have great need. CODE engages numerous, diverse groups to advance digital inclusivity and equity in the areas of digital infrastructure, digital proficiency and digital well-being.
To keep up with high demand for devices and connectivity, PCs for People and the state of Illinois are urging businesses and individuals either to refurbish or recycle their technology using PCs for People’s zero-landfill approach. The organization provides free certified and secure data wiping, and all computer hard drives. To jumpstart the effort, the Jewish United Fund has provided $250,000 in critical seed funding to initiate the Cook County partnership. The State and its partners have already begun deploying devices through the Metro East location, which launched in September, with support from the Illinois Covid-19 Response Fund.
“The pandemic has shown millions of homes do not have the connectivity needed for education, information and remote work,” said PCs for People CEO Casey Sorensen. “We are honored to partner with Gov. Pritzker and the State of Illinois, businesses donating technology and an array of community partners to get devices and support to thousands of residents across the state at a time of great need.”
PCs for People will operate the network with close involvement of the Illinois Office of Broadband and various community partners. The statewide network will include two central warehouse locations – one in southern Cook County and the other in the Metro East Region. Each centralized warehouse location will receive, refurbish, and redistribute computers for use by low-income households around the state. While the Metro East hub has been active since September, a new lease agreement with Cook County will allow PCs for People and the state to launch the second warehouse center in January 2021.
“Now more than ever before, basic internet is a necessity in our daily lives, yet more than one million households still don’t have access to a computer,” said Erin Guthrie, director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “As the pandemic has shown, our communities are increasingly dependent on broadband for economic opportunity, e-learning, remote work, telehealth and more. To help close the digital divide facing our communities, DCEO is proud to join Governor Pritzker in launching this first-of-its-kind initiative that will not only deliver computers and digital access, but that will boost the quality of life and expand economic opportunity for all Illinois communities.”
Jewish United Fund President Lonnie Nasatir said: “Digital access is a lifeline, not only for students learning remotely, but for all individuals and families. Technology can help lift up underserved communities with equal access to vital tools and information, serving as a catalyst to keep people connected and thriving. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it is especially important to JUF and our Jewish community that we reach out to our neighbors who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and for whom access to technology and employment opportunities will be a vital equalizer going forward. That’s why we are proud to join Gov.Pritzker and the State of Illinois as founding partners in launching this life changing initiative.”
The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership is the umbrella organization operating the largest non-profit workforce development system in the nation, serving the City of Chicago and Cook County. The partnership will fund nationally-recognized A+ certification workforce training for at least four cohorts per year of 20-25 individuals learning to repair, refurbish and maintain computers through PCs for People’s innovative social enterprise. Upon completion, participants will be referred for permanent employment with private sector businesses.
“We recognize that digital equity and access are workforce development matters, thus we are pleased to collaborate with PCs for People,” said Karin M. Norington-Reaves, CEO of The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. “As the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act administrator for Cook County, The partnership will leverage federal WIOA funding to support this important initiative that will provide critical job training and placement during this very challenging time.”
“This new computer network will serve as an amazing resource for Illinois communities and its residents and students,” said Ronda Sauget, executive director of the Leadership Council of Southwest Illinois. “The Metro East region has been fortunate to begin work with PCs for People with the launch of community events beginning earlier this year, which has already resulted in hundreds of devices connected for the people in our region who need them most. Thanks to this partnership, our residents, students and communities now have a very low-cost option of having their own computers and uncapped connectivity to the internet. SWIL is proud to partner with the Pritzker administration and PCs for People as they work expand services that will put digital connectivity into the hands of more families in need throughout all of Illinois.”
The creation of this new statewide network builds on Governor Pritzker’s commitment to digital equity and ensuring that income or status are not determining factors of internet access for any Illinois household. Earlier this month, the administration announced a new digital equity program, directing over $750,000 in funding for cross-sector collaboration promoting planning and capacity building around broadband access, adoption, and utilization.
These latest investments complement Illinois’ nation-leading broadband expansion plans, Connect Illinois, with over $420 million to be invested to bring universal access to Illinois communities by 2024. The state is accepting applications through March 1, 2021, for its second $50 million round of Connect Illinois funding. For more information on Connect Illinois and opportunities to apply for broadband grant funding, please visit the Office of Broadband website.
Illinois households without access to a working computer or internet or those seeking to donate are encouraged to visit PCs for People’s website to register and learn more about how they can request a computer. To be eligible, residents must be below 200 percent of the poverty level or enrolled in income-based government assistance program, such as free and reduced school lunch, Medicaid, and SNAP.