Monday, December 7, 2009

Come Work for the President!

Although new media is often credited with increasing accessibility to knowledge by many, it is undeniable that there still exists both a digital and participation divide that largely falls on gender, racial, geographic, and socioeconomic lines. In America, elected officials are charged with the task of governing the people in the best way possible and creating policy that is in the best interest of the citizenry. This is considered especially important at the federal level of government and the most known figurehead is non-other than the President of the United States of America, which is currently Barack Obama. In order to enact the best policies possible, the White House must both hire the best people to join their staff and find the best interns to assist this staff. As a former White House intern, I was charged with this very task and assigned the responsibility of reconstructing the White House Internship Program webpage as a means to increase applicants and the quality of the applicant pool. However, in this role, I certainly learned more about the digital/participation divide in the process of creating content this summer.

Under federal law, the internship program was fairly limited in how much we could advertise the program and the types of ways that we would advertise. In addition to these barriers, there was also less than five hundred dollars worth of funding allotted towards advertising the program, so promoting it electronically was the most cost-effective way to go. Although we attempted to advertise to every demographic group possible in order to have a wide range of diversity, after advertising for several months, once the deadline ended and all applications were received, it was clear that this goal was not as successful as we had hoped. While there was certainly a racial and gender disparity in terms of our college applicants, the lack of potential interns from all socioeconomic classes, specifically the lower, was easily visible. What I found most frustrating, however, was the lack of applicants that we received for the D.C. Scholars Program, which is a part-time internship offered to public high school students that reside in the District of Columbia and the digital/participation divide was certainly one of the most important places to look, as D.C. has a majority poor black population specifically within its schools.

I personally found out about the internship from three of my relatives and family friends when they each forwarded me a press release from the White House concerning the internship via e-mail. Upon receiving the e-mail, I immediately followed the webpage link to the internship program webpage and researched this opportunity, eventually applying. All of my fellow interns surely had to follow a very similar process, but as I gathered my internship class demographic statistics in order to see which groups should be highly targeted for the fall intern class, I saw that Latinos and Native Americans were significantly underrepresented groups in addition to a lack of people from families with less than $50,000 income. Not yet knowing about the internet participation divide at the time, it did not cross my mind, but applying this concept to the stories I heard this summer with interns from these above mentioned groups, I realized that the internet is highly effective for advertising purposes, but only for certain types of people.

We held a diversity recruitment forum a few days after my report was complete and one particular story that stood out for me was one of my fellow interns, who is Native American, describing the difficulty she faced with attempting to upload the intern application, fill it out, and send it back in since there is a lack of good infrastructure and internet accessibility within her tribal community. I heard similar concerns, specifically about a lack of targeting minority groups, from other interns and I believe this relates directly to the digital divide. The White House staff had assumed that only using the internet in order to promote the program would be an effective route to take, but they forgot that not everyone has a home computer or the knowledge to navigate the internet and research the program. Moreover, the people who typically fall into those categories are racial minorities and those from lower socioeconomic classes so we had to take a new approach. This new approach involved calling and e-mailing non-profit groups associated with Latino and Native American groups, as well as those providing scholarships to students from low-income backgrounds. We figured that although we could not target a lot of students non-electronically, we would notify institutions, professors, and administrators that see these students on a daily basis and could talk to them in person about the benefits of a White House internship. This strategy seemed to work, as the fall intern class had a modest increase in Native American applicants and over a 5% increase in Hispanic candidates.

As sociologists Steven Martin and John Robinson have reported, the digital divide in America is not so much based on having the highest level in inequality in the world since Britain shows similar levels yet possesses much less of an access disparity, but instead a lack of programs to spread internet use and knowledge. In addition, Menzie Chinn and Robert Fairlee have proposed the viable solution of investing in human capital and telecommunications infrastructure. Perhaps the best place for a digital/participation divide to be so easily visible is none other than for a program run by a branch of the federal government. If national policies can be reformed based on expert proposals, perhaps there will be a two-fold benefit where the White House Internship Program becomes extremely diverse and the digital/participation divide within this country lowers and everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from new media technologies, regardless of uncontrollable conditions and circumstances.

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