74 Interview: Rory Kennedy’s New Documentary Delves Into Digital Divide Hurting America’s Poorest Students
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Rory Kennedy is an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker whose latest project in many ways harks back to one of her earliest, 1999’s American Hollow, in which she depicts life in one of the country’s most impoverished regions.
In 2017’s Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America, Kennedy takes on the sharp disparity in internet and broadband access experienced by U.S. students in middle-class and affluent schools and those in disadvantaged urban and rural districts. The digital gap is in some ways more challenging to close in remote rural areas where the underlying infrastructure doesn’t exist. For all the children affected, Kennedy calls the inequity “shameful.”
Her film underscores what’s at stake both for those students being left behind in an increasingly tech-driven society and for our country’s future prosperity and security. It also marks a path to building a more level digital playing field and the life-changing possibilities that can create for students and families.
Kennedy, the youngest and 11th child of former U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy and the niece of former President John F. Kennedy, spoke to The 74 last week about Without a Net, the federal government’s role under President Trump in bringing strong internet access to all of America’s schools, and her next documentaries: one about big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, coming out at the end of this month, and one she’s editing right now for the Discovery Channel, tied to the 60th anniversary of NASA’s founding.
The conversation took place at P.S. 171 Patrick Henry in Harlem, one of the schools that anchors the film, which premieres Sept. 26 on National Geographic and as an official selection at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 3. Narrated by Jamie Foxx, it will be shown on PBS (check local listings), and schools and communities interested in screening Without a Net can connect with Kennedy’s production company, Moxie Firecracker, through digitaldivide.com.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The 74: So, you’ve made many films, from chronicling three generations of a poor Appalachian family to the fall of Saigon to the cruel excesses of Abu Ghraib prison to your own mother’s extraordinary life. What made you want to tell this story about America’s schools in 2017?
Kennedy: Well, mostly because I care about the kids. I think that there is, in fact, a significant digital divide in this country, where many kids, particularly in poor communities, don’t have access to computers or the internet, and that those are tools that are really necessary and important in being fully equipped to engage in modern life.
Was there something that tripped this issue or brought it onto your radar specifically, or were you just reading about it? There’s a lot of inequities in schools. I’m interested in why you chose to focus on this one.
I think that I’ve always been interested in the education system in this country and its fundamental inequities in terms of how it’s structured. I think that it was sort of an interesting lens through which to tell that story on some level. I think based on how the education system is structured, it’s connected to the tax base, which is connected to the financial well-being of the people who attend those schools. So what you have is in poorer school districts or where there are poor families, you have schools that are less equipped. That has historically been the case.
I think you really see it playing itself out now with technologies, where you go into certain public schools with well-endowed neighborhoods and communities, and they’re building robots, and they have 3-D printing systems, and they have very complex operating systems with computers, and they have teachers who have been well trained, and they have 1-to-1 ratios where every kid has a computer, and they have very extensive broadband so that the amount of information that can transfer is significant.
Then you go to a poor district, and kids might … 200 kids might be sharing 30 computers amongst them. The broadband is limited, so they stare at the screen as it tries to refresh and engage, and you really see on a very concrete and profound level how these kids are actively being left behind — pushed behind.
In speaking of specific schools where that equity gap, that digital divide, really exists, were there certain places that really struck you when you were making this film? Certain schools that will stick with you?
The film opens in Pennsylvania at two school systems there, which are within five miles of each other. You can really see the contrasts. We focus on a young girl named Jameira, who is in the lower-income school, and they’re very aware that down the street there is a … I think it’s Lower Merion … that there is a school with all the cutting-edge technology. You see the pictures of the surrounding neighborhood, and its lawn mowers and beautiful lawns. Then you go to this other community, and it’s smaller houses with … you know, you are clearly in a poor neighborhood. They’re in the hallways for gym, running up and down the hallways because they don’t have a gym, and they don’t have computers, and they don’t have technology.
I think one of the things the film conveys is that these kids know it. They know they’re being left behind. They know that the school down the street or the private school has access and they don’t. They feel it, and it’s shameful, I think, of us as a country to do that to these children.
You mentioned a young woman in Pennsylvania. I know to tell a good story you need strong characters. I assume she’s one of them. Did you want to talk a little bit about some of the families and how they are going make this story of the divide compelling and real for a larger audience?
Yeah, well, we’re here in Harlem at the Patrick Henry public school, and we did film here. This was a school that had very limited technology. One of the things we try to show in the third act of the film … We obviously spend the beginning focusing on the issues and the problems and helping people understand what exactly is going on. But then we also look at solutions at the end of the film. We don’t want to be too depressing.
And, in fact, with this issue there are a lot of solutions that are at our fingertips. So here there was a program that was sponsored by Verizon, and we did find that there were a number of corporations and foundations who were stepping in to try to bridge this gap. Again, you had a situation here where the kids had very limited technology, and the internet was very slow if it worked at all, and very frustrating for the teachers and children alike. Verizon came in with iPads for each of the kids that they could take home and also Wi-Fi access, wireless access.
And there’s one child we focused on here, Amanda, who is from a low-income community, very focused on her education, she’s very hardworking, she wants to be a writer or a lawyer. She has great aspirations, but she really doesn’t have the tools. I remember going home with her one night to watch her do her homework, and she took out her mom’s cell phone and was writing a paper with her thumbs. She talked about how her thumbs hurt and they crack when she’s writing the papers.
I thought, “Are you kidding me?” In this country, in this day and age, we’re making it physically hard to actually write a paper and to work and to learn. I thought that was a moment that helped me understand the extent of this problem and the tragedy of it.
And then the good news is that Verizon did come in and she did get her own iPad.
Her thumbs are recovering?
You see this moment where she can write and not actually be physically tortured by it.
You talk a little bit about where you were filming. I know this is a really vast and in some ways, I think, deeper problem in rural America, which I guess that was a subject of one of your earliest films.
Yes, American Hollow.
Before there were smartphones and that kind of thing, but at sort of the dawn of the internet age. What’s the picture there now, and can you talk a little bit about that?
Well, you’re right. Listen, this issue sadly transcends all lines in terms of rural versus urban. It certainly does affect people in rural communities in a very particular way, in part, because it’s harder to get broadband access to those communities. Physically, you know, broadband is wires that are going from one location to another, and you have to dig trenches and holes to get them into these rural communities. So, it’s more costly.
And I think this is where it’s important that the federal government steps in and helps subsidize that effort, sort of what we did with the Bell System and the telephones. At the turn of the century, it was much harder to reach these rural communities, but I think that we understood that needed to be a priority in that they couldn’t be left behind. The federal government stepped in with the Works program.
I think we’re at that point right now where it’s one of the few areas where … well, at least the Democrats and Trump agree, that we need to invest in our infrastructure. I think part of the infrastructure is … I was just reading about a dam in California that is about to collapse. But it’s also Wi-Fi and the internet and getting these systems into rural communities. I think it’s a great way to invest in our future.
Speaking of the federal government, and not to get too in the weeds, but the $4 billion federal E-rate program is what’s supposed to be ensuring that this happens, and I think there’s been a commitment to bring connectivity to all schools in America. That program has been beset by problems. It has a new chairman under President Trump. I don’t know if you get into any of that. Do you have any thoughts on that?
We do. Listen, it’s actually been quite successful in many ways, but there’s, I think, 94 percent of public schools have some sort of Wi-Fi.
The problem is that they don’t have the broadband access and the level of fiber-optic cables necessary to really transmit the amount of high-speed data that a school really needs. So, we were in many communities that did have some Wi-Fi, but you’d go into a classroom and a teacher would try to do a lesson and six kids would be able to get onto the internet and 20 wouldn’t be able to. Then the whole class would sit there waiting, trying to get the whole class. Then they decided, well, 15 minutes later we’ve just lost 15 minutes of class time, everybody close your computers, and get your pencils and papers out. So, you know, that is a situation that is happening all over the country right now. It might look good on paper, but unless we have real broadband access for these communities, it doesn’t really help that much.
There is, as I’m sure you know, a lot of debate in the larger education world about the proper role of technology in the classroom. Some people feel it’s transformative; some people feel it can be a distraction from real learning. Do you have any thoughts about this, about technology and where it belongs in terms of schools and learning?
Well, my feeling is that if it’s not done right then it doesn’t really help. I think it needs to have a holistic approach. You need the computers for each kid. You need broadband with real data-transmitting rates. You need teacher training. Then I would also say that you need, ideally, programs, learning programs that are modern and integrated and that are adaptable to the modern classroom. Then it’s very helpful to have access at home as well. You know, those are kind of the five components.
I think when you have all of those, what I’m seeing statistically on the ground when there are measurements, that there has been huge success. There was a program in Kentucky that a number of … the Gates Foundation got involved in, other corporations, and they saw an increase in, I think, by 8 percent in the number of kids who graduated, based on an integrated system like this. I think statistically you see the response from kids … 86 percent of them say they’re more interested in learning. You also see a larger engagement for the kids and more excitement about being at school, and they stay in school for longer.
The matrix is that … We’ve seen so far, the data coming out of it isn’t always conclusive, but those programs aren’t always holistic. You’ve got to really look at the programs that are more holistic. I think the data coming out of that is pretty definitive and conclusive that it works.
What’s at stake for these kids? The thing about K-12, all of that, is that their time is moving so fast, it’s finite. What’s at stake for these kids who are not going to have access in time?
Well, you know, they’re saying that 77 percent of the jobs by 2020 are going to require education in technology. We right now have 4 million jobs in this country that are unfilled because we don’t have enough kids who have graduated with a STEM education. So, I think you’re seeing it right now.
I think that for the kids who really have limited access, their job opportunities are going to become narrower and narrower and are going to be less fulfilling and satisfying overall and I think less productive for our economy. So, I think it’s a question of what’s at stake for these individual kids who are losing opportunities and not being able to reach their full potential, but I think it’s part of a larger story and narrative about our country and where we want to situate ourselves in the global economy moving forward. I think if we’re not going to educate all of the kids in this country in technology, that we’re going to continue to fall behind. You’re already seeing that.
Do you think bridging this digital divide has the power to bridge other, much more longer-standing inequities in public education that you talked about?
I do. I think that ultimately we have to really rethink our entire system. But in the meantime, technology does provide an opportunity to start to really level the playing field … even if just a little bit more, in any case. I think that when you see kids who don’t have access … they don’t have the computers, they don’t know how to type, they don’t know how to do … all the things we take for granted. “Oh, I’m lost. I’m gonna use my GPS.” “Oh, my child asked me how far away is Mars from Jupiter. I can Google it, right?” What we’re also finding is that when the kids learn about technology, they educate their parents.
Yes, that’s true.
Then the parents get more involved. If it’s a low-income family, then they can get on the internet and they can find resources, they can learn how to educate themselves. It really has profound implications on an individual, on a child, on a family, on a community …
We did some filming in eastern Kentucky, a kid named Thomas whose family grew up in the coal [mines], which have now all closed. He says, “We can code. We people from the Hollow, we can code. Then we don’t have to leave.” Now you see more people from low-income backgrounds who own houses in these communities, and they’re not able to move for the jobs like they were once able to do, because we encouraged them to all buy houses and they can’t leave. This is an opportunity to keep them in those communities, keep those communities thriving, and teach them how to code.
You can work remotely. You don’t have to leave.
Exactly. I think there’s a lot of reasons why this makes a lot of sense.
Education Superhighway in its just released 2017 State of the States report on closing the K-12 connectivity gap states that 94 percent of districts now have high-speed broadband, reaching more than 39 million students in 74,000 schools. That’s an increase from 30 percent in 2013 but there are still 6.5 million students without access. Having looked at this issue over time and seeing the progress that has been made, how confident are you that we can bridge the remaining piece of the divide within say the next five to 10 years, especially given that the remaining schools and students are likely the hardest to reach?
The most recent figures we’re seeing are certainly a testament to the progress being made. I’m confident that we can bridge this gap within the next decade. Commitments being made, both from the legislative level and from private companies, are working. However, it’s evident that it will be very difficult for the remaining students, that still don’t have internet access, to get connectivity. The easiest and quickest way, would be for the federal government to play an even bigger role in subsidizing that difficult and expensive connectivity effort. That being said, I wouldn’t want to count on public support to solve the problem right away. But as I filmed this project, I was able to see some initiatives that are really making a difference, from tech companies and non-profits like the Gates Foundation and Verizon. Verizon Innovative Learning is a good example, which takes a holistic approach to connecting schools wiring them with WiFi, providing the devices and also teacher training. They’re going school by school, and that’s really what we need to do for the final 6.5 million students out there. While we cannot rely on the federal government to move quickly, if all of these businesses and not-for-profit organizations increase support, we could very well solve this issue in the next decade.
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