When you arrive at the Rainbow/Push Coalition Washington, D.C. office, tucked between some of the busier streets in the nation’s capitol, there is little doubt that the focus is about money and empowerment. Confirmation comes in a picturesque view of the U.S. Treasury Department and White House just beyond founder Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s office window, grand reminders of the organization’s mission and purpose.
In an exclusive interview with Politic365.com, Jackson offers reflections on the high stakes political games impacting his life’s work, framing his traditional civil rights sermon within a 21st century framework of technology access and media ownership. “I have not seen one ad that has said ‘if I’m elected I will wipe out poverty.’ Instead, the issues are being lost to the attack and counterattack,” observes Jackson with an occasional glance outside for measure. But, lately, he’s grown more concerned with the issue of technology, worried that people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos, are plagued not only by years of racism, but by lack of access to broadband and technology.
“We need to frame the issue of technology within emergency dimensions,” argues Jackson. “Access to basics like telephone, water, gas – these are basic mandates. Given how much of our information and resources are online, it’s a life and death issue for these communities.”
Which is why Jackson, amid the electoral turmoil and tensions defining American politics today, can be found aggressively campaigning for universal broadband access and technological literacy. The plan is two-pronged: one path encouraging increased access to technology while another path emphasizes the critical importance of digital literacy. “Many of our constituents can’t get broadband,” says Jacksons, “which typically affects poor schools – whether we’re in inner city Chicago or the Appalachians.” And, it won’t matter if institutions are simply introducing the technology to underserved communities when they’re not trained in how to use it, he contends.
These sentiments are the impetus behind Rainbow/PUSH’s annual symposium on Telecommunications and International Affairs. Titled “A More Perfect Union: Broad-Banding Together,” the one-day event held last Friday will bring an array of experts, professionals and leaders in the telecommunications arena to discuss broadband as an “essential element” in acquiring what Jackson’s called “the keys to first class citizenship in the digital age.”
“Our symposium agenda will be packed with features that will inform and inspire the community,” says Jackson. “Our society has been increasingly more technology driven. Our competitiveness and our democratic ideals will be driven by the extent to which we become a nation universally online.”
The list of guests and industry experts is a celebrity starting line-up in the telecommunications world, including: Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Michael Powell, Esq., Former FCC Chairman and Founder of M.K. Powell Group; Ralph B. Everett, Esq., President and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; Patrick Gusman, Executive Director of TechNetWorks; David Honig, President and Executive Director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.
“The purpose of the annual symposium is to institutionalize a frame of reference,” says Jackson.
Complimenting the symposium is a national effort already underway, with Rainbow/PUSH organizing 1,000 Black churches nationwide to teach both digital and financial literacy. Each issue supports the other, with Jackson placing stronger emphasis on the need to provide information, resources and capital to underserved communities wanting to control their destiny. And Jackson envisions pastors and congregants not only reading scripture from iPads, but creating opportunities from the exposure to new ideas and technology.
“Tech literacy is key,” he continues, offering as analogy the proverbial quick-witted, tech-savvy child at an airport showing his grandfather how to operate a sophisticated camera for the family shot. He’s fascinated by the abundant opportunities technology can provide, but worried by the chasm it can create. “Access and literacy is what makes Blacks and Latinos competitive on the global playing field. But, right now, even with the technology that is available, the playing field is not leveled and the rules are not fair.” That includes the ability to find and access capital.
“Still, the world has been dwarfed by technology which has, in many respects, evened that playing field,” adds Jackson.
The access issue makes Jackson all the more incensed by NewsCorp’s recent actions. After a longstanding contract dispute with Cablevision, NewsCorp – owned by global media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the holding corporation for FOX News – played hardball by cutting FOX channels from Cablevision channels. Both media giants have been clashing for years over issues such as station carriage rights and fees, with their contract expiring in recent weeks. NewsCorp raised it to another level, calling Cablevision’s bluff and completely pulling out, impacting three million Cablevision subscribers in the process. Many of these subscribers live in major urban centers like Philadelphia and New York, where large concentrations of Blacks and Latinos are found.
“The FCC should arbitrate immediately,” says Jackson, who believes the FCC – quiet as it’s kept – is, arguably, the most powerful governing agency in existence, creating rules and regulations for mass media and what “the eyes and minds of the people are influenced by.” As a result, the FCC “shouldn’t move slowly on NewsCorp action. The bottom line is consumer access. The people should not be penalized. They are the victims.” His worry is that it sets a bad precedent for minority and disadvantaged communities who are the ultimate casualty in such disputes, especially when they’re unable to afford or utilize broadband as an alternative.
To Jackson, the issue of universal broadband access is as critical as health care. “Much of what can be accessed today, much of the information that is supplied to us is online. When you don’t have access to it, there is a health risk.”