On Aug. 16, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was at Austin Branch Library, 5615 W. Race Ave., for a news conference to announce that Comcast has donated $250,000 to help open new digital media labs at eight branch libraries in Chicago. The Austin branch is the only West Side library slated to receive the new labs. 

The labs will include amenities similar to YouMedia youth digital media labs, which offer digital education skills for adults and “cyber-navigators” (staff members who offer technology advice for patrons). 

Patrick Molloy, a spokesperson for the Chicago Public Library system, said that the Douglass Branch Library, 3353 W. 13th St. in North Lawndale, will also get a digital media lab once it reopens in November, but it won’t be paid for by Comcast. The branch is currently closed for renovation. 

During the Aug. 16 press conference, Comcast gave out free laptops and several months’ worth of free Internet access to area young people and also announced that it is expanding eligibility for its Internet Essentials program. The company broadened eligibility to include residents who get any form of government assistance. 

The Internet Essentials program offers qualified customers to get 15 megabits per second of Internet use (an average Internet speed for most American households), for a little over $10 a month. The program also lets customers buy discounted desktop and laptops for around $150.  Customers can also receive free classes on Internet literacy, basic skills and useful tops for getting into college or applying for a GED.

Originally, Internet Essentials was only open to families of students who receive free or reduced lunches. It was subsequently expanded to families that either live in public housing developments or receive Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers, as well as college students eligible for Pell grants and low-income veterans.  

Now, Comcast opened eligibility to any resident who receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Low Income Home Energy Assistance; Supplemental Security Income; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; and WIC. 

David Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, said during the Aug. 16 event that the company recognized that having access to the Internet can be a great equalizer for low-income families.

“Households living in poverty are 10 times more likely not to have broadband connections than households in wealthy neighborhoods,” Cohen said. “And it can’t be acceptable for us to live in a world where that statistic is true.”

According to Comcast’s press release, the media labs will offer “programs and workshops that focus on career exploration, science, fashion, using 3D printers and laser cutters, music production, photography, animation and graphic design.”

Sisters Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, who both won gold medals in hockey during the 2018 Winter Olympics, attended last week’s press conference in their capacity as Comcast’s brand ambassadors. Jocelyne recalled that, when she and her sister competed against each other, their mother said she’d cheer “for the one behind.” This, she said, was the philosophy they took to heart.

“It is fitting that we’re here in Austin, it’s fitting that we’re here in the library,” Lightfoot said. “Libraries continue to be relevant and important in every neighborhood and I just want to thank CPL for everything you do to be a great partner in those neighborhoods.”

The mayor’s wife, Amy Eshleman, worked as a learning specialist in the library system and helped develop YouMedia. 

Marvel Joiner, of Austin, was one of the students who received a free laptop. He said he is attending St. Louis’ Harris-Stowe State University and the new laptop will come in handy once the classes start up again.

“This is a great experience,” he said. “I’m very grateful that I’m here.”

JoAnne Willis, the manager of the Austin branch library, said that she was happy that Comcast chose the West Side facility to make the big announcements. 

“We’re excited about what we can accomplish together in the future,” she said, adding that she was “super excited” about the media lab coming to the library. 

Mayor Lightfoot said that there may be more changes ahead, as well. 

“We’re committed to rolling programs where we can reintroduce Sunday hours [in branch libraries],” she said. “We’ll have the announcements on the specifics in the coming days.” 

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...