Peer Digital Navigators Key to Digital Equity

Research into closing digital divides, especially for communities of color and immigrants, points to the value of educators having lived experience, cultural and language competencies, and the trust of the community. This is also true for Digital Navigators, or staff or volunteers working to connect individuals to the Internet, devices, and support for digital skills.  Some organizations are training their participants to serve as “Peer Digital Navigators” to help colleagues, classmates, or community members with their digital inclusion needs. 

Through our work in recent years with two organizations in California—Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools and Building Skills Partnership, we have seen firsthand the impact peer digital navigators can make on advancing digital equity in their communities. We are also seeing how peer digital navigators can be a pipeline for diversifying the workforce in various sectors, given that digital navigators gain critical skills working at the intersections of technology, customer, and human services.

We are excited to introduce you to some of the peer digital navigators trained by these two organizations.

Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools (HCCTS), an adult-serving charter school based in Sacramento, built an award-winning Digital Navigator program with staff members speaking over nine languages (other than English) to support their 10,000+ learners. Alongside the staff positions, a Career Technical Education (CTE) pathway was created to help students learn essential digital skills and train them as community digital navigators. The CTE pathway proved effective at creating a student-to-staff pipeline, as some students leveraged their new skills, participated in an internship, and became full-time employees as digital navigators upon graduation.

Building Skills Partnership (BSP) is an award-winning training collaboration between the SEIU union and leading building services employers and clients across California. BSP has long used peer health educators—or promotores—and peer trainers in their workforce and educational programming for janitors and other building, airport, and facility service workers. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, BSP started a digital navigator program, which has expanded to include the training of peer digital navigators.

Yao C. is originally from Venezuela and speaks Spanish and Cantonese. Before advancing into the high school diploma program, Yao started attending HCCTS as an English language learner while working as a bilingual support specialist for the State of California. After completing the Community Digital Navigator CTE pathway and earning her high school diploma, she was hired as a Digital Navigator I and was recently promoted to a Digital Navigator II.

When I was a student, I was always guessing how to use different programs, but then I took the Community Digital Navigator classes, and I started to learn Google Workspace and other apps. I have gained more knowledge because I learned the process step by step. I now work as a Digital Navigator, helping students log in to their accounts. I explain the steps to follow and, if possible, create shortcuts for them. We live in a technological era, and I believe everyone should get access to technology to stay connected.

Farzana R. is originally from Afghanistan and speaks Farsi, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu. She began her journey at HCCTS as an English language learner and then completed the Community Digital Navigator CTE pathway, graduated with a high school diploma, and was hired as a Digital Navigator I—her first job. Farzana has recently been promoted to a Digital Navigator II.

The Community Digital Navigator pathway was a very important program for me. This program renewed my previous skills, and I gained access to new experiences and knowledge. I learned how to help others in this direction, and I gained more control over myself than ever before. Digital literacy improved my academic performance by creating content such as presentations, videos, and documents and pushed me to new levels of creativity. Many older students don’t have access to digital technologies, so they need an introduction to basic digital technology principles.

Ana H. is originally from Moldova and speaks Russian and Romanian. In her classes at HCCTS as an English language learner and studying for the high school diploma program, Ana impressed her teachers with her creativity, tech skills, and work ethic. After completing the Community Digital Navigator CTE pathway and graduating with her high school diploma, she was hired as a Digital Navigator I. Ana has recently been promoted to a Digital Navigator II.

In the digital navigator pathway courses, I became more confident and comfortable with my digital skills. I earned different certifications and badges, and this helped me to be ready for my future career. I could easily access recorded lectures, additional reading materials, and other learning sources and use them as a reference. This helps me understand the subject better and speeds up the entire learning process. As a Digital Navigator, I help students learn how to get online, and through this, they will learn how to be responsible online. With our support, the students also are prepared for workforce, collaboration, and connect them to the real world.

Juan R. is originally from El Salvador and was recently promoted by his employer CW Services to Supervisor of Special Projects for Google’s facilities in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, where he uses digital skills developed as a peer Digital Navigator.

This position entails a lot of responsibility, discipline and motivation since you must be a good leader working with different people and learning to develop communication, teamwork and problem solving skills. You must also have the ability to learn new technologies, using different systems and platforms. I also enjoy teaching what I have learned. Many people don’t value much the work of a janitor and do not realize that in this industry we can also grow professionally and personally. Learning about technology helped open doors to higher positions within my job, as I’ve learned to be proactive taking advantage of technology tools to develop each project successfully. I like working in technology so I could even aspire to a different position within the tech industry. Why not? 

Beatriz O. serves as a peer Digital Navigator helping other janitors like herself in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has participated in BSP’s workplace English, computer, green training, and other programs. 

 There are many immigrants with little access to technology and who need these skills to survive, and I like to teach them what I learn. Don’t stop supporting us. We can multiply what we learn and teach others who need it and don’t have access to these courses.

Daniel D. is a peer Digital Navigator and a janitor for Service by Medallion, where he has cleaned Facebook in Mountain View and also completed BSP certifications in green cleaning and infectious disease.

In our trainings, we started from zero, learning how to use the device. We have since covered all the possible questions that workers will ask us, so we are prepared to solve the issues they might have. Being a Digital Navigator has provided me with personal growth, and the new knowledge that I have gained could open the door for me in other companies in the future. It has also provided me with satisfaction to know that I can help others and provides me the opportunity to keep my knowledge fresh in my mind by teaching it to my peers. Looking ahead in the future, a career goal of mine is to learn English and work in human resources at a company.

About the authors:

Alison Ascher Webber is a Board member of Building Skills Partnership and serves as Director of Strategic Initiatives with the EdTech Center @ World Education.

Jerry H. Yamashita is the former Instructional Technologist at Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools, and he now serves as a Senior Technical Advisor at World Education.

World Education thanks Building Skills Partnership and Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools for contributing the photos and stories used in this article.

Some quotes have been translated and edited for this article.