Whitney Banyai-Becker shares reflections on the Community Savers Lottery-funded Go Digital! project, drawing on conversations with volunteer trainers and community leaders.

Of all the many changes thrust upon us by the pandemic, being able to run activities online was definitely an early imperative.

An online survey in April 2020 with Community Savers and Inner-city Exchange groups, generated the information and impetus needed to develop a programme of digital inclusion work: Community groups were clear that there was a need for grassroots support if they were going to be able to support their members and keep some activities going during the lockdown.

Thankfully, CLASS was able to access funding from the National Lottery Community Fund enabling us to recruit six Digital Inclusion Volunteers that would be paired with Digital Champions – members who were nominated by their community groups to receive train-the-trainer support.

Community-based Digital Champions were provided with a range of devices depending on need including refurbished laptops, new tablets and Mobile WIFI hubs to fully equip them for Go Digital skill-sharing sessions. Most pairs got started by January 2021 and since then, over 75 skills-sharing sessions have taken place!

What have we learned about digital inclusion?

Digital skills-sharing focused both on equipping group leaders with skills that would be useful during the pandemic such as organising online meetings, but also skills that are critical for managing a community group over the longer term, like creating files and folders and knowing where to find them again. Importantly, the sessions were tailored to priorities identified by the Digital Champions themselves.

Increased confidence has been a huge outcome from the project. One Digital Champion, Ellie shared for example how: “…I can get quite flustered; it affects your confidence really. So even with finding files and documents… if I’m having to trundle through, I just get discouraged and…it’s a vicious cycle because next time I remember how I felt and avoid it. There has been much less of that dread and because I know how to do it now, I don’t feel so down on myself or intimidated by it.”

But we have learned that building people’s digital skills has significant impacts on people’s confidence more widely. When you can suddenly arrange a Zoom call for your group – you feel pleased that you have successfully used the technology, but its more than that. You feel your confidence growing in organising meetings for the group, it creates a feeling of leadership. Digital Champion Vanessa reflected, “It gives people a wider perspective of what they can do”.

Leaders have also found that it is building their confidence to engage with professional agencies and get the responses that they need. Donna reflected that, “I’m proud of my emailing skills. I had been trying to resolve an issue with my housing, and until now I would always just telephone. I had been phoning but not really getting a response. When I received a letter, I thought, right, I am going not going to keep phoning I will reply by email. And I did… I typed up a very nice, polite, professional and confident email to her. And I got a reply right away!”

The project has also brought people from different generations to work together. One Digital Champion, Sue, shared how: “It’s brought the younger generation to us. It works both ways I think. The older generation with the younger generation – I think that’s good for society. We understand them better and they understand us. I think the whole experience has been very helpful.”

Practical lessons: What works?

  • Zoom screensharing and remote-control access was very helpful with online sessions.
  • Asking someone how they learn best, and how they found each session, so you can  improve how you support them next time
  • Highlighting similarities across software: e.g. explaining similar functions between Google Docs and Microsoft word.
  • Patience, flexibility and practice is key! Specifically: going at each individual’s pace and adapting to their specific needs and interests
  • Encouragement to explore by asking questions, clicking on things to find out what they do, and making mistakes… Everything can be undone!

Practical lessons: What to avoid?

  • Teaching too many things in one session.
  • Moving on to a new topic too quickly, people need to practice and reinforce
  • Making assumptions about what people will already know: some people may not even know how to switch the device on
  • Most people prefer face-to-face training when possible and progress is much quicker

Our Digital Future

Members of Community Savers groups suggest that this project will continue to have impacts over a much longer period now that groups have a trained up Digital Champion. Beyond just being able to continue the skill-sharing with a wider set of beneficiaries, the new skills mean that committee members can share roles and responsibilities more widely because people have the digital skills to carry out a more diverse set of jobs: “For the group I think it’s having more people to take on some extra roles… in the future we can divide responsibilities more as we have more knowledge of how to do certain things”, shared Julie from Mums Mart.

The project has also strengthened relationships across the Community Savers network, creating new channels for grassroots solidarity across neighbourhood and city boundaries. Since leaders have learned how to use zoom, the Community Savers Network has been holding a weekly peer support drop-in session to provide a space for community leaders to reflect, learn from, and lean on each other. Groups rotate responsibility for facilitating the discussion on a monthly basis. They have decided to keep this going beyond the lifting of restrictions.

Finally, Community Savers emerged out of a series of international exchanges with South African and Kenyan activists affiliated to the urban social movement Shack/Slum Dwellers International. Leaders are now looking at how to use their new video conferencing skills to strengthen their relationship with their tech-savvy Kenyan mentors at Muungano Wa Wanavijiji!

All in all, Go Digital! has been a real game changer for the Community Savers network. Thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund for making it all possible, and a huge well done to all the Go Digital volunteers and Digital Champions who have worked so hard to make it such a success!