The NIEHS-funded Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES) Community Engagement Core (CEC) at Wayne State University has a history of engaging about 500 Detroit residents annually in face-to-face events to disseminate information about environmental health science. Due to challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, in early 2020 the team shifted their focus to address the immediate needs of the Detroit community. Through conversations with their community contacts, they learned that Detroit residents were facing challenges including difficulty accessing facemasks, hand sanitizer, bleach, disinfectant, and reliable information about protecting themselves against the virus.
The CEC team responded by hand delivering face masks and hand sanitizer to 900 residents. At the recommendation of community members and the CURES Community Advisory Board, they also produced and distributed a COVID-19 fact sheet to deliver accurate information about staying healthy and coping with stress. However, the constantly evolving nature of the pandemic meant that this was a temporary solution.
“We got the idea to focus on digital disparities as we prepared for a law symposium presentation on digital exclusion faced by Detroit residents,” said Carrie Leach, CEC Program Manager.
The CURES CEC has a unique strength as it is the only Core Center in the nation to have a lawyer on their team. Nick Schroeck is a CEC Co-Leader and Professor at University of Detroit Mercy (UDM), where he specializes in environmental law. Through research and preparation for the UDM Law Review Symposium the CEC team learned that Detroit has one of the lowest rates of internet connectivity in the nation. Digging deeper, they realized that Detroit residents lacked access to use of tablets and computers, not only because of prohibitive costs, but also the lack of internet connection in their homes and the skills needed to use devices. The CEC realized that the issue was particularly alarming during a pandemic since lack of internet access impedes connection with relevant health, economic, and social resources and has been recognized as a “super-determinant of health.
“We were trumpeting our message about digital exclusion and injustice that Detroit residents were facing, we couldn’t have imagined the response we would receive,” said CEC coordinator Rochelle Chapman.
An initiative focused on digital issues in Detroit reached out to the CEC team to help address the disconnect. Leach and Chapman worked tirelessly with their community contacts and members of the CURES Community Advisory Board and Matrix Human Services Organization, Urban Development Corp, Oakman Manor, HOPE Village Revitalization, and other faith-based outlets to obtain and distribute digital devices. They also developed and distributed printed materials with contact information, instructions for applying to no and low-cost hot spots and internet service, and explanation of how to use the devices and no-cost applications, such as Zoom and Facebook. They included information about coping with stress, accessing employment, and additional resources to enhance digital literacy.
The collaborative project began in December 2020 and, over the next three months, distributed 1,723 computer devices to older residents throughout the city of Detroit.
Carrie Leach said, “We have yet to appreciate the role that communication inequities play in health disparities. Addressing digital exclusion is one way the CURES Center can bridge the gap with Detroit residents to meet their environmental health needs.”
The device distribution also had an added advantage for the environment. By procuring 1,723 upcycled devices, the CEC team was able to divert 2,067 pounds of waste from going into landfills. Additionally, it saved 457 tons of fossil fuels, 41 tons of chemicals, and 2,585 tons of water from the manufacturing industry.
Amid disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the CEC team at Wayne State University relied on their strengths and listened to community concerns to catalyze creative solutions that addressed problems faced by older residents in Detroit. They are an excellent example of how NIEHS grantee centers go above and beyond to support their local communities.