In Portland, the Path to Digital Equity: Building Inclusion from the Ground Up

If you don’t at least try to think digitally, the digital economy will disrupt you. It will drain your town of young people and leave your business in the dust. If you don’t have access to the technology, or if you don’t know how to use it, it’s similar to not being able to read and write.
— Roberto Gallardo

Everything wants to be connected.
— Sheldon Renan

The City of Portland, Oregon, Multnomah County, and Multnomah County Library District made a significant commitment to digital equity and community broadband through the unanimous adoption of the Digital Equity Action Plan (DEAP) by both the Portland City Council and the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners/Multnomah County Library District Board in April 2016.

The plan received the 2016 National Association of Telecommunications Advisors (NATOA) Strategic Plan of the Year Award. It was praised as a model at the 2016 National Digital Inclusion Summit for its inclusive process. Diverse groups of citizens and community stakeholders took part in the DEAP’s development through a process of multiple focus groups and workshops. This allowed the final plan to reflect the many voices at the table: new immigrants, communities of color, youth, community-based organizations and nonprofits, local government, telecommunication providers such as Comcast and Google Fiber, and the people who are on the front lines of digital inclusion efforts, such as our libraries, where two million free broadband sessions are provided each year.

By inviting so many diverse community members and stakeholders, not only to take part in a discovery process or comment period but also to collaborate in developing the plan’s goals and strategic actions, the City of Portland, Multnomah County, and Multnomah County Library District have built an actionable strategic plan. The plan reflects the needs and aspirations of our community. We have also fostered exceptional community and stakeholder support. The plan passed unanimously at the city and county levels. Approval echoed in the testimony from diverse community organizations. Our local partners are ready to act on goals that they helped develop, such as leveraging networks and infrastructure shared by public institutions to extend free Wi-Fi service into low-income neighborhoods and working toward making Wi-Fi universally available in public places throughout Multnomah County.


In June 2014, a small group convened to discuss the issue of digital inclusion. This group included Portland State University, Multnomah County, Multnomah County Library, City of Portland, MetroEast Community Media, and Portland Community Media. In an effort to spread the word about the nascent issue of digital equity, the lead partners convened the Digital Inclusion Network (DIN) and held a Digital Inclusion Summit in November of 2014. More than eighty representatives of local businesses, community organizations, and local government joined the summit. Participants heard from local elected officials and others about the importance of digital equity and the current status of broadband adoption in the region, based on the 2014 Broadband Adoption Report.

The City of Portland, Multnomah County, and Multnomah County Library (the county’s leading provider of digital literacy training and free broadband access) agreed to jointly fund the creation of a digital equity strategic plan. Under the leadership of the DIN, this plan would address digital equity and community broadband needs. We hired local community engagement consultants in June 2015, and a framework was created for the development of a plan based on community input and collaboration.


The DEAP community engagement process began in the summer of 2015 with five focus groups for historically underrepresented populations. Each group’s participants were recruited to represent demographically similar population characteristics.

Group demographics were

  1. Chinese-speaking (both Mandarin and Cantonese)
  2. Vietnamese-speaking
  3. Spanish-speaking
  4. Deaf and hard-of-hearing
  5. African American

Participant Recruitment

We engaged local community service non-profit organizations to assist with recruitment. To encourage participation, we provided $25.00 gift certificates to the participants, childcare, live translation for limited-English-proficiency (LEP) groups, and food from culturally specific small businesses.

Several community partners were employed to assist with focus group participant recruitment. Leveraging previous working relationships was essential to fulfilling expected attendance for a very selectively targeted population. Flyers were created for each focus group, then approved and distributed by the community partners. For the LEP groups, each flyer and sign-in sheet was translated. During the recruitment process, there were weekly check-ins to monitor the number of recruited participants and evaluate if more outreach efforts would be needed to reach more participants. The weekly check-ins provided the opportunity to further strengthen the relationships with our community partners and created a sense of ownership of the recruitment process (rather than a contract-hire relationship that can be typical when community-based organizations are engaged to recruit from the communities they serve). Feeling a sense of ownership of the recruitment process contributed to the prompt turnaround for scheduling and completion of four of the five focus groups. The following community partners assisted with focus group recruitment:

  • Vietnamese and Chinese Focus Groups—Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) helped with recruitment of the Vietnamese and Chinese participants. IRCO provided insight about culturally appropriate foods, meeting times, and outreach materials. IRCO also hosted the focus group at their location, which was familiar to the participants.
  • Spanish-Speaking Focus Group—Verde recruited Spanish-speaking participants and reserved the Ortiz Community Center for the focus group. The community center was selected because it was close to where a majority of participants lived.
  • African American Focus Group—Staff reached out to a local social justice activist with deep connections in the African American community, who was instrumental in recruiting participants from New Columbia and other low income housing developments in North Portland. The focus group took place at the Charles Jordan Community Center, with flyers distributed at several key locations. Of all the focus group recruitment efforts, this effort created the most interest and a wait list of participants for future focus groups.
  • Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing/Disabilities Focus Group—Connections to the Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and disabilities communities assisted with recruitment.

Focus Groups

We conducted focus groups to discover what barriers and opportunities exist for representative second-language, disability, and racial groups within the community. We used nine simple prompt questions to promote open discussion within the group. We asked for differences and similarities with each discussion point to engage each attendee and allowed for discussions to follow participants’ high interest areas. The results of the focus groups were published in the Digital Equity Needs and Opportunities Report.

The focus group feedback confirmed widely held understandings about barriers to adoption and use: cost (both device purchase and maintenance and installation and monthly fees for broadband), computer literacy, and content language were fundamental barriers. Other commonly mentioned barriers included low-speed service in some areas, mistrust of service providers, lack of understanding of contract language, and limited application of closed captioning for hard-of-hearing.

JODML, Portland, Oregon, Figure 1. Community members express their views at the Spanish-speaking focus group at the Ortiz Community Center.Figure 1. Community members express their views at the Spanish-speaking focus group at the Ortiz Community Center.

JODML, Portland, Oregon. Figure 2. Attendees discussing digital equity at the African American focus group at the Charles Jordan Community Center.Figure 2. Attendees discussing digital equity at the African American focus group at the Charles Jordan Community Center.


We convened three half-day workshops to develop the plan. The first used the Digital Equity Needs and Opportunities Report as its basis for discussion. Our approach was to invite everyone connected with community broadband, from private-sector providers to local government agencies to community organizations. We wanted an actionable plan, not just a strategic vision, and we wanted engagement, collaboration, and commitment driven by the many voices at the table.

Members of more than forty-eight organizations attended the workshops. By having so many relevant groups collaborate in the creation of the DEAP, we not only benefited from their perspective and input but also fostered a sense of investment and ownership among our key stakeholders.

In January 2016, we developed a draft DEAP from the wealth of information and ideas garnered from the workshops. This draft became the focal point of further discussion and comments by the Digital Inclusion Network. The final Digital Equity Action Plan reflects this highly collaborative approach.


In April of 2016, the Digital Equity Action Plan (DEAP) was unanimously approved by the Portland City Council and the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners/Multnomah County Library District Board.

The DEAP’s key goals are as follows:

  • Ensure access to affordable high-speed Internet and devices
  • Provide culturally-specific training and support
  • Empower community partners through funding, coordination, training, and staff resources
  • Create digital economy job opportunities for underserved populations
  • Build a supportive public policy framework

We assigned responsibility for specific actions to relevant organizations and agencies. In so doing, the DEAP is already fostering community engagement and progress.

Thanks to the depth and diversity of support from the community, the Portland City Council created and funded a full-time, ongoing city position. This staff member will focus on implementation of the DEAP and furthering the work of the Digital Inclusion Network. He/she will also partner with Multnomah County Library’s Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Digital Inclusion Fellow and a second NTEN Fellow hosted at Free Geek (a community organization offering free refurbished devices and digital literacy training) to make significant progress on DEAP implementation in the next year. NTEN, Google Fiber (which funds the NTEN Fellowships), Free Geek, Multnomah County Library, and City of Portland were all partners in development of the DEAP, and that partnership has led to significant synergy directed toward achieving DEAP goals.

Finally, local communities need to develop targeted, collaborative solutions to address the digital divide. It is going to take the whole community—providers, planners, elected officials, libraries, non-profits, grassroots organizations, and individuals. Author Jane Jacobs argued that communities “have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”1

Digital infrastructure will play an increasingly important role in creating more livable communities, but only if everyone has the opportunity to participate in the digital age. It’s about people, not technology.

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, rev. ed. (1961; repr., New York: Vintage, 1992), 238.
Mary Beth Henry, Cindy Gibbon & Matthew Timberlake

About Mary Beth Henry, Cindy Gibbon & Matthew Timberlake

Mary Beth Henry is Director, Office of Community Technology, City of Portland, Oregon. Henry has served the City of Portland for more than thirty-one years, most recently as director of the Office for Community Technology and staff director for the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission. She developed and implemented Portland’s Broadband Strategic Plan, which recognizes broadband Internet as an essential service. She also works on legislative and policy issues related to broadband communications, maintaining local authority, and digital inclusion. Henry, a past president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (, attended undergraduate school at St. Michael’s College and graduate school at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Cindy Gibbon is the Access and Information Services Director for Multnomah County Library and a founding member of the Portland/Multnomah County Digital Inclusion Network. She has been advocating for digital inclusion since 1994, when Multnomah County Library began planning some of the first public libraries in the US to offer public access computing.

Matthew Timberlake is the Information Technology Portfolio Manager for Multnomah County Library. He is a founding member of the Digital Inclusion Network in Portland. His work as a technologist has been featured in national publications in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

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