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Seven to Watch: J’Tanya Adams works to bridge city’s digital divide

J’Tanya Adams is regional manager for EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that seeks to eliminate the digital divide by providing low-cost computers, low-cost internet access, and education on online services into the Charlotte homes of people who could not otherwise afford them.
J’Tanya Adams is regional manager for EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that seeks to eliminate the digital divide by providing low-cost computers, low-cost internet access, and education on online services into the Charlotte homes of people who could not otherwise afford them. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

J’Tanya R. Adams’ only advanced education in computing is a class she took at a community college almost 25 years ago.

But now she is working to close Charlotte’s digital divide, the social and economic gap between people who have reliable access to the Internet in their homes and those who cannot afford it.

Adams, 52, is the regional manager for EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that tries to put affordable Internet connections and computers in low-income households.

She uses her personal story to illustrate how computer literacy can change lives.

A Charlotte native, Adams was a single mother, shuffling through odd jobs, when she says she decided to take a computer operations course at Central Piedmont Community College.

That was enough to land an internship with a trucking business. Eventually, Adams found a job at The Hearst Corp., where she helped manage information technology for the conglomerate, which owns newspapers, television stations and other businesses.

The income, she said, allowed her to move out of government-subsidized housing and make a down payment on her first house.

“That is how powerful one class can be,” said Adams, who worked for Hearst for 21 years. “The digital divide is real. It affects your ability to compete in the job market, to manage your money. What if I had not taken that class?”

Race, class and tech

Adams is best known as a neighborhood leader in west Charlotte, where she lives near Johnson C. Smith University. She founded Historic West End Partners, which advocates for residents and businesses.

She has cultivated relationships with a spectrum of people, from poor elderly neighbors to business merchants and politicians.

Resident Superior Court Judge Linwood O. Foust, who has known Adams her entire life, said she is direct and hard-nosed when negotiating with city and business leaders, but willing to compromise when necessary to achieve her goals.

“I don’t know how she goes to so many meetings,” said Foust, who serves on the neighborhood board. “If there is something going on that impacts the west side, J’Tanya is there. She is aware of everything on the west side.”

But connecting more people to the Internet in west Charlotte and other economically distressed neighborhoods could prove one of her biggest challenges.

The 2013 American Community Survey found nearly 54,000 households in Charlotte are not connected to the Internet.

Nationally, about 15 percent of U.S. adults do not use the Internet, says a Pew Research Center survey released in July. The survey and other research shows that race, age, poverty and other demographics play a significant role.

Teenagers from families with low incomes, for example, have fewer desktop computers, laptops and tablets than those from more affluent homes.

The disparities exist even as schools give homework assignments online, job openings require online applications and distance learning allows computer users to take college courses from faraway locations.

Through a combination of networking and coalition building, Adams is trying to link the poor with resources that can provide affordable Internet connections, computers and training.

In November, she worked with the Urban League of the Central Carolinas, Johnson C. Smith and other organizations to offer 200 families refurbished computers for $60, Internet access for $10.90 a month and free instructions on how to use the Internet.

Adams is planning an event in February to present solutions to the “homework gap,” which describes the disadvantages children from low-income families endure because they do not have access to high-speed Internet to complete homework assignments.

“We have people doing homework at McDonald’s, leaning against buildings to get a connection,” Adams said. “You can’t continue to do homework and research like that.”

Fight for justice

Adams said EveryoneOn hired her in August more for her commitment to justice than her technical expertise.

Growing up in southwest Charlotte off Nations Ford Road, she said her father, William Steve Adams, set an example of community activism by calling city code enforcement to complain about neighboring properties with tall grass, junk cars and other violations. Her grandmother, Minnie Grier Wood, would visit and take food and flowers to neighbors in need.

Adams said that as a teen she aspired to become an attorney. Charlotte civil rights icons and renowned lawyers James Ferguson and Julius Chambers were two of her heroes.

Motherhood and the need to support her family interrupted those dreams, but Adams said bridging the digital divide gives her another avenue to fight for equality. Families and businesses that do not adapt to technology risk severe consequences, she said.

“They are going to fall farther and farther behind,” Adams said. “Some people aren’t going to survive it.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027

J’Tanya R. Adams

Age: 52

Time in Charlotte: Lifelong resident

Family: Two adult sons, one grandchild

Background: A longtime community leader, Adams is president of Historic West End Partners, a neighborhood group in west Charlotte.

Why she’ll make news in 2016: Adams is the regional manager for EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that tries to put low-cost Internet access and computers in the homes of people who cannot afford them.

About the series: The Observer is highlighting Charlotteans who are poised to make news in 2016.

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