Za’Kiyah Dixon, an 8th grader from Wilson County, assists an adult with her computer skills at the 4-H Tech Changemakers educational workshop at the Wilson County Cooperative Extension Center recently.

In the world of technology and broadband connectivity, young people born in the digital age can often lead the way in conquering the digital divide.

That’s the idea behind a 4-H program called Tech Changemakers, which trains 4-H teenagers to be literate in the technologies needed for modern-day communication, education and business. The teens work with 4-H agents, specialists, and volunteers to sharpen their skills and teach them to adults in their communities. The program focuses on communities with limited broadband access and aims to help unemployed and underemployed adults gain skills that will help them find a job or advance in their current job.

“We are tackling the digital divide using a teens-as-teachers approach,” said Misty Blue-Terry, Ph.D., 4-H STEM specialist with Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T State University. “Most teens realize that broadband access and technological literacy are essential in today’s world, and that access to broadband is not equal across the state. We help them sharpen their knowledge and share it with others so they can help their communities prosper.”

Recently, representatives from National 4-H Council, Verizon and Microsoft came to A&T’s campus to learn more about the program’s first year. They met with administrators from Cooperative Extension and the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and with 4-H agents. The next day, they headed to Wilson County to meet teens and adults involved in the program.

“The program has allowed me to teach adults how to use online platforms and get them employed,” said Sara Howard, a 12th grader from Hertford County who participated in the Wilson County visit. “I was really happy to see that 4-H Tech Changemakers has actually impacted their lives and allowed them to get jobs and other opportunities.”

Although broadband internet access is essential to secure good jobs, access is not equal. A 2021 survey of 4-Hers by the National 4-H Council found that 69% of Black and brown teens have broadband access in their homes and only 37% in school.

Tech Changemakers is a National 4-H Council program supported by Microsoft, Verizon, and Land O’ Lakes. Twenty land-grant universities, including 11 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, participate in the program. In its first year, Extension at A&T worked with 20 youth from seven North Carolina counties to help them become certified tech changemakers.

“I joined because I heard about how many people I could meet, how many people I would teach and how much real world job experience I would get,” said Jordan Lugo, an 18-year-old from Scotland County who participated in Tech Changemaker training after learning about it from another Scotland County 4-Her. “It was a no-brainer; I said yes three times before she could finish explaining everything.”

Lugo said teaching adults requires focus and time management skills, but that adult learners tend to be more focused and eager to learn than their teenage counterparts. “This will definitely help me later in life,” he said. “I’ve been able to teach my classmates, help my teachers and increase my knowledge of computers.”

In the program’s first year in North Carolina, TCMers, as they are called, worked with nearly 1,000 adults in Forsyth, Gates, Hertford, Mecklenburg, Scotland, Vance, and Wilson counties. More than 800 of the adults reached were African American with limited technical skills in using broadband and related technologies.

TCM training focuses on digital skills that can foster economic opportunity, such as using Microsoft Word to create a professional-looking resume, internet safety and conducting safe and productive online job searches.

Sabrina Clark, a social worker and trainer/consultant in Scotland County, attended a class in September 2021 and sharpened her skills in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and honed her skills in resume building, internet safety and password management.

“It was a great experience,” she said. “The pandemic has shown us how technology is important just to maintain the connections we have with those we love. In combination with all the professional uses we have for technology, I think Tech Changemakers is positioned to help our communities.”