Digi-Bridge: Empowering the Next Generation of Digital Learners

  • Categories:

    Community, Work

  • Date:

    February 20, 2019

Digi-Bridge: Empowering the Next Generation of Digital Learners

Community Work

EmpoWWer, our service-grant program created to support 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in or near Charlotte, the city we call home, kicked into high gear early this year. Following a rigorous selection process, we chose four community partners to build something special with us in 2019.

Digi-Bridge, the first in line with work beginning in Q1, is the brainchild of founder and CEO David Jessup Jr. Operating at the intersection of technology and education, this small but mighty machine exists to ensure that all 21st-century learners have opportunities to succeed in the digital age.

We had a chance to chat with David about the inspiration for Digi-Bridge, the special work they do and how EmpoWWer — and Wray Ward — can help.

What inspired you to start Digi-Bridge?

DJ: I grew up in a middle-class community in South Florida, where I attended a K–12 public school. I always believed the American dream meant you could do anything if you went to school and worked hard.

Then, during my senior year of college, Teach for America approached me. They talked about a significant education gap — that for some kids, working hard isn’t enough. When I did some basic research, I saw they were right. I committed to teaching for two years in a neighborhood called Little Haiti, not far from where I grew up. Those two years, lots of the kids I taught went home to no more food than whatever I put in their backpacks.

This was 2009, when most middle-class families had computers. I had one computer in my classroom and knew many of my kids didn’t have one at home. So, I began working with a Miami foundation on a one-to-one laptop distribution project. Later, I brought that project to Charlotte. Three years and thousands of laptops later, I realized we were simply digitizing worksheets and cutting costs by doubling up on kids in classrooms in our low-income neighborhood.

In this instance, technology was having a detrimental effect. It was enough to sound the alarm that things weren’t working as they should. The school district and sponsoring foundation weren’t happy to hear that, but they also had the vision to ask, “Well, what do you need to make it work?”

I argued that we needed to pair the hardware with teacher training and additional resources. We needed those resources so our kids could use technology to learn, explore, build and create, not just prepare for a test.

That’s when I decided to start Digi-Bridge. I had a vision for kids like the ones in my classroom, and a lot of that vision was grounded in my own childhood. Mom would go to Publix and drop my brother and me off at a place next door called Future Kids, where I first learned to code.

When I founded Digi-Bridge, I set out to support the introduction or reutilization of a technology environment that would allow kids to explore innate curiosities and build on their interests.

How is Digi-Bridge helping build a better future, for Charlotte and beyond?

DJ: I think we’re pushing for system-level change. A lot of nonprofit organizations are well-intentioned and want to see change but ultimately create a dependency on their own existence. We don’t aspire to exist in perpetuity. Instead, we adjust to meet the needs of kids and schools today.

Initially, I hoped we could change things at the policy level within three years, then get out of the way. I didn’t build Digi-Bridge to make a job for David. I built it to solve a problem quickly. But I learned that system-level change can be incremental and slow. It’s up to organizations like ours, and those invested in our mission, to work diligently toward incremental shifts.

Tell me a little about what it’s like to run a small nonprofit organization with a small staff and a big dream.

DJ: We lean on the system. Fortunately, we have a progressive school district in Charlotte, despite what some naysayers will tell you. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has great leaders in the schoolhouses and central office — leaders who are champions for this work and want to see it happen. We benefit from the multiplier effect. We have contract workers in schools throughout the district, and each of those workers receives support from principals, teachers, and career and technology departments. We have the right players at the table. I may be the one talking about it, but I have a lot of people actually doing the work and pushing the vision from the inside.

What’s the best part of your workday?

DJ: My favorite day is Saturday, because that’s the one day I get to engage with kids through our Saturday programming.

The best part of the weekday? Around 6:45 in the morning, when I get home from the gym and get to review my calendar for the day. For me, it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other. I wake up excited about what’s on my plate. Some days, I have things I wish I didn’t have to do, but that’s temporary. On the other side, there’s always something exciting or engaging or directly related to mission fulfillment.

I know this will sound like a cliché, but it really isn’t a job for me.

Why is it so important for business and community leaders to support small nonprofit organizations?

DJ: If they don’t, they won’t have the talent they need in the future. It’s in their best interest to invest in our kids today. Failing to do so will put us in place where we don’t have a diverse talent pool to compete globally.

What led you to apply for an EmpoWWer grant?

DJ: We’ve been working with (Wray Ward Vice President and Insights Strategist) Charlie Elberson’s Reemprise Fund for a number of years. Charlie is helping us create a business model to generate real revenue from families who are interested in programs for their children and are able to pay for them. But in order to do that work, we really have to be digitally savvy and invest in things such as SEO (search engine optimization). Our mission work, where many of the families we touch don’t even have internet at home, is powered by word-of-mouth. So, this is a whole new world for us.

Charlie recommended we apply for support from Wray Ward, but the application was due the next day. We burned the midnight oil to get ours done, and I’m so thankful we were selected. Otherwise, I’m not sure we could afford to do this.

Tell me a little about your 2019 goals.

DJ: Our ability to generate real revenue from places other than grants will determine how quickly we move toward mission fulfillment. This grant from Wray Ward will help us grow our presence in communities where we aren’t working now, thus engaging new customers and hopefully donors.

We also want to push legislation from south Charlotte to north Charlotte and beyond — legislation that supports equitable access to computers and technology in K–12 schools. We’re committed to sharing our theory of change and what we want for all K–12 children.

Anything else?

DJ: Just that I’m incredibly grateful to Wray Ward. In this day and age, with the reality of budgets and margins, we’d never be able to dive deeply into work this way without them. I can’t wait to see the returns and celebrate our collective wins.

Think EmpoWWer could be a good fit for your nonprofit organization? Learn more about the program here, and bookmark the page to check back for updates when applications for 2020 open in September. About EmpoWWer

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