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Digital Divide: New Lift Zones offer free, safe place distance learning

"We were really noticing that there's a lot of people without opportunities when the pandemic hit,” Sanneh Foundation CEO Tony Sanneh says.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — This week, we're focusing on the "digital divide" happening in our state.

To put it simply, there are families who have resources for distance learning and those who don't.

WiFi, internet connection, even a quiet place to work, not everyone has the same access to these now essential learning tools.

"We were really noticing that there's a lot of people without opportunities when the pandemic hit,” Sanneh Foundation CEO Tony Sanneh says.

Hearing countless stories of struggling students, Sanneh decided to step in.

He and his staff quickly turned the Sanneh Foundation gymnasium into a free learning center.

"I'm very happy to have it here,” local mother Shamar Williams says.

The center has enough space for 72 students, but Sanneh says they typically see around 60 students on a daily basis.

Williams sends her two sons to the center five days a week.

From 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. her sons get a free place to set up their laptops and learn.

And from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. her sons have a safe place to play until she can pick them up after work.

"Now they're getting good grades and they're getting better at school,” Williams says.

Nia Robinson, another local mother, says it's not just the free internet and technology that are helping her 8-year-old daughter succeed in school.

She says the center also has tutors who float around and make sure the students don't fall behind.

"Here she has the one-on-one attention where she can learn and get her school work done without any interference,” Robinson says.

There are about a dozen other centers just like this across the Twin Cities, with ten more on the way.

It's all part of a new program through Comcast.

"We've launched an initiative called “Lift Zones,” where across the country we're launching 1,000 sites where students can come to do their distance learning,” Comcast Director of Community Impact Stacey Nelson-Kumar says.

Through this program, Comcast provides free internet, and the tools community groups need to get started.

The Phyllis Wheatley Community Center is in the process of opening their own Lift Zone in Minneapolis.

Leaders are hoping to have the Lift Zone up and running by November 21st.

"We believe this is an area we should be focusing on because the gap is so great,” executive director Suzanne Burks says.

At this “Lift Zone” they'll focus exclusively on black teenage boys who will learn life skills and career readiness as part of a 12-week program.

"And that ultimately they see that there are caring adults for them, that they really do care about their continued learning and continued development,” Burks says.

Thanks to Comcast, centers will have free internet for the next three years.

The overall goal of this new program is to close the digital divide and give more students more opportunities even after the pandemic is over.

"To make sure that every child has food to eat, a safe place to go and educational support so they can get what they deserve and thrive,” Sanneh says.

Besides the Sanneh Foundation in Saint Paul, here is a full list of every Lift Zone in the Twin Cities metro.

  • Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities locations
    • Al Lenzmeier West Side, St. Paul
    • East Side, St. Paul
    • Jerry Gamble Center, Minneapolis
    • Mount Airy, St. Paul
    • Southside Village, South Minneapolis
  • Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, St. Paul
  • Keystone Community Services, St. Paul
  • Neighborhood House, St. Paul
  • Perspectives Family Center, St. Louis Park
  • Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, Minneapolis
  • Pillsbury United Communities, Brian Coyle Center, Minneapolis
  • The Real Minneapolis, Allina Commons, Minneapolis
  • The Sanneh Foundation, Conway Community Center, St. Paul
  • Vietnamese Social Services, St. Paul