Comcast and the Carl Maxey center partner for ‘incredibly important’ Internet hub

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Civil responsibility has always been important for Sylvia Brown, one of the technical expert leaders of Comcast’s Spokane team. As a member and co-leader of the company’s internal Black Employee Network, Brown led the team by reaching out to Black organizations and programs throughout Spokane.

“I began to think, how do I operate and institutionalize something that Spokane needs?” she said. “I took a lot of pride in initiating partnerships and relationships to grow the Black Employee Network, and with our community impact team.”

Now, with the help of Brown and the Black Employee Network, Comcast is providing The Carl Maxey Center with its first Lift Zone hub, providing multiple tech resources to the Black community including free Wi-Fi and other initiatives.

“We’re in a digital age, and almost everything requires you to have a computer or internet even if you’re using your phone,” Brown said. “So it’ll help the community at large knowing there’s options for them if you can’t afford it.”

The digital divide, a lack of digital tools and modern internet access, affects low-income families and students of color at higher rates. In 2020, the pandemic heightened the divide, especially with students sent home with laptops and no internet to access for virtual learning curriculums.

Early in the pandemic, Brown introduced Comcast to Sandy Williams, the executive director of the Carl Maxey Center. During their first partnership, Comcast provided the center with a tech fund for necessary technology for virtual learning as students transitioned to at-home learning. Brown worked closely with Diem Ly, Comcast’s director of Community Investment & External Affairs for the Washington region. Under Ly, Comcast donated Chromebooks and laptop carts for students to use.

“We brought whatever they needed, webcams, laptops, headsets,” Ly said. “It just grew our partnership.”

Last year, Comcast also pledged $1 billion nationwide to close the digital divide by providing internet to community centers through Lift Zone labs. Through that initiative, Comcast has donated $100,000 to connect nearly 15,000 Spokane homes to internet.

Heading into the third year of the partnership, Comcast is taking it a step further with the Lift Zone hub at the Carl Maxey Center. Ly said the hub answers the question of “How can Comcast show up differently?”

“Now (the Carl Maxey Center) can come in and use all the technology for workshops, trainings, events, screenings, concerts, whatever they need,” Ly said.

Jillisa Winkler, the program coordinator for community development andequity at the Carl Maxey Center, said the program adds to the center’s goal of being an “effective community hub.”

Winkler recalled moments when East Central neighbors would visit the Carl Maxey Center to use its rental assistance program, though all the work is done online.

“People are starting to recognize this as one of those places that are plugged into the community, where people know where to go and who to ask,” Winkler said. “People just want that comfort of talking to a real person who has a real solution, and also feeling like people are invested in those solutions. They’re recognizing that this is a safe place.”

Comcast is also providing up-to-speed tech tools, including projector screens for meetings, and paying for a local artist to paint a mural inside the center.

Williams also mentioned the need for a library, so Comcast is donating books to the Carl Maxey Center. Brown stepped in and created an internal donation book drive through the Black Employees Network. The network has raised thousands of dollars from Comcast employees.

The Black Employees Network is looking to partner with the Northwest African American Museum for additional books and library resources.

Ly called the moment a lesson in “building community trust” for true partnership. Being in close touch through the Black Employee Network gave Comcast a better look at “how to spend and spread resources and assets.”

“With our partners, we’re being educated on what’s happening in communities in real time,” Ly said. “If Sandy says ‘Students are having a hard time’ at the beginning of the school year, we can move quickly and adapt to it. The way we approach partners is to lean in, learn from them and trust their advice that they know what’s best.”

The Lift Zone’s official opening has been delayed due to the pandemic’s fluctuating severity. Officials are looking to open the Lift Zone July 9 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. For Brown, the accomplishment is worth celebrating, but, as co-lead of the Black Employee Network, there will always be more work to do.

Implementing the Lift Zone was a first step to bettering the East Central community and uplifting “equity and representation of the Black experience in Spokane.”

“That’s why we say it’s a relationship that we continue to build together and a partnership that is all for the betterment of the community,” Brown said. “The Carl Maxey Center is the heartbeat of the Black experience for Black Spokane, and the lift zones are designed to support and help the Black community. It’s incredibly important these days that everybody is connected digitally.”