NDIA & Benton Present Awards at Net Inclusion in San Antonio

Above: WATCH the presentation of the 2023 Benton Digital Equity Champion awards at NDIA’s Net Inclusion conference in San Antonio. Adrianne Furniss, executive director of the Benton Institute, presents the awards.

The digital inclusion field is growing faster than my Wi-Fi signal as I get close to home. Hundreds of leaders and heroes in the movement have emerged – some have been doing digital inclusion work before the term was created, while others are making mid-career moves to digital inclusion. Still others are getting started as teenagers – shoutout to (hopefully) future champions Anisha Dasgupta and Shomik Sen of YourTechQ and Dylan Zajac of Computers 4 People.

Alas, there can only be two (actually, make that three because it’s too hard to decide, so we changed the rules!) 2023 Charles Benton Digital Equity Champions.

Named for Charles Benton, the founder of Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, NDIA created the awards to recognize leadership and dedication in advancing digital equity. This year, the selection committee had a challenging job, reviewing dozens of highly-qualified nominees from across the country. The champions show:

  • Sustained commitment to digital inclusion programs and an expertise in digital equity
  • Innovation in addressing and solving digital inequities
  • Dedication to serving communities and target populations who are most in need of digital inclusion services
  • Demonstrated leadership and collaborative spirit
  • Prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work
  • Use of data and evaluation to shape digital inclusion programs and share best practices
  • Engagement in sustainable work that can be scaled and replicated

“These champions demonstrate the commitment, innovation, leadership, and collaboration we all need to embrace in our own work,” said Adrianne Furniss, executive director of the Benton Institute, announcing the awards on March 1 at NDIA’s Net Inclusion conference in San Antonio.

Graphic with Benton Digital Equity Champions and three headshots - 2 women and one man


2023 Digital Equity Champion – Emerging Leader

Angie Cooper, Heartland Forward

Three women standing posing for a picture

Two of the 2023 Benton Digital Equity Champions – Angie Cooper (left) and Catherine Crago Blanton (right) celebrate at Net Inclusion along with Adrianne Furniss (middle).

Angie Cooper started in the digital equity space in 2020, a jump from her years as a director at Walmart, Inc. She became chief program officer and, most recently in 2023, stepped up as the executive vice president of Heartland Forward, a “think-and-do tank” based in Arkansas and focused on advancing economic performance and opportunity in the middle of the country.

Angie launched the Connecting the Heartland initiative to help communities maximize federal investments. In collaboration with the Benton Institute, Angie leads the Accelerate Community Broadband Planning program, which has reached 28 local communities in Illinois, Ohio, and Arkansas with training to create broadband plans. 

She also collaborated with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to launch an Affordable Connectivity Program outreach campaign that reached over 380,000 Latinx people. Staying community-focused, Angie started a digital equity fund for 14 American Connection Corps fellows to create hyper-local digital skills training models, including a program where high school seniors help nursing home seniors to use laptops.

2023 Digital Equity Champions

For the first time in Champions awards history, the selection committee named two champions. These individuals represent different aspects of digital inclusion work, which are both crucial and clutch to the movement.

Catherine Crago Blanton, Housing Authority of the City of Austin

Catherine has served for more than eight years as the head of strategic initiatives at the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) and its nonprofit subsidiary Austin Pathways.

In 2014, when the agency launched its Unlocking the Connection initiative, about 4 percent of public housing households in Austin were connected to the internet. By 2022, 78 percent of those households were connected – a 20-fold increase. Catherine’s digital equity work directly supports almost 20,000 people in public and affordable housing who live at 20% of median income.

Catherine herself is a connector and collaborator, bringing together public and private partners to invest and convening nonprofits, government, and technology providers across the region while also engaging with academia and researchers.

Catherine values and uplifts lived experts, requiring policymakers, technologists, and philanthropists to participate in resident-led discussions on digital equity needs. She emphasizes the need for government services and corporate technology initiatives to weave in digital equity and community expertise.

Since 2015, over 120 residents have served as stipend-paid Digital Ambassadors to:

  • teach other residents how to use digital tools for education, workforce, and transportation
  • advocate for and manage meaningful partnerships with private smart city tech providers
  • engage in democratic processes, online and face-to-face
  • participate in the design of smart city systems and tools

Since 2016, 157 Austin Community College Information Technology students have completed 200 semester-long Digital Inclusion IT internships, scaling the program and serving as near-peer mentors to HACA residents.

Catherine and Digital Ambassadors have provided digital equity testimony and site tours for representatives from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Federal Transit Authority, and Department of Energy.

In short, Catherine is a tireless advocate for digital equity and well-deserving of the 2023 Benton Digital Equity Champion award.

Burt Lum, State of Hawai‘i

Man is shown large on screen giving a thumbs up. A group of a dozen people from Hawaii stand in the foreground celebrating

Net Inclusion attendees from Hawai’i, who are part of the Broadband Hui, celebrate with Digital Equity Champion Burt Lum (onscreen).

When someone talks about digital inclusion or broadband in Hawai‘i, the first name mentioned is Burt Lum, state broadband coordinator in the Hawai‘i Broadband and Digital Equity Office.

Burt has been a driving force in Hawai‘i technology and telecommunications for nearly four decades, while valuing equity in his work and becoming a driving force for digital inclusion in the state.

In March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burt was one of the co-conveners of the Broadband Hui – a grassroots community of more than 500 diverse partners working to increase Hawai‘i’s digital capacity. 

Thanks to Burt’s energy and dedication, the Broadband Hui has held 148 consecutive meetings and made significant progress in the state, mobilizing efforts to: 

  • support broadband infrastructure development in rural communities
  • provide digital devices for students and families
  • champion the accessibility of telehealth
  • provide information on low-cost internet options
  • adopt a Digital Equity Declaration to set a vision for a more equitable digital future

Burt has also played a central role in leading Broadband Hui outreach efforts for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), helping over 39,000 households in Hawai’i enroll. 

At an unprecedented moment for federal broadband and digital inclusion funding, under Burt’s leadership, Hawai‘i was one of the first states to prioritize digital equity and create a new state Broadband and Digital Equity Office. With every state now formulating Digital Equity Plans, champions like Burt are modeling what’s possible when states use holistic digital inclusion solutions to pave the way to future digital equity.

Do You Know a Digital Equity Champion?

NDIA and Benton release a call for nominations (or self-nominations) annually, usually in November. The awards are presented annually at NDIA’s Net Inclusion conference. Please see past Benton Digital Equity Champions here. Thank you to everyone who submitted nominations for the 2023 awards, and if you weren’t selected this year, we invite you to submit your nomination again next year.

Big thanks also to the 2023 Champions Selection Committee, an amazing group of digital inclusion heroes in their own right who volunteered many hours to thoughtfully reviewing the process, read applications, contribute to discourse, and ultimately make the challenging selection: Volunteers: Erica Camacho, Davida Delmar, Tobey Dichter, Geoff Millener, Deb Socia, Gwenn Weaver; and Staff: Robbie McBeath (Benton), Grace Tepper (Benton), Yvette Scorse (NDIA).

In addition to Benton Champions, NDIA recognizes municipalities (cities, counties, and regions) annually with Trailblazers awards. Please look out for a call for Digital Inclusion Trailblazer submissions in summer 2023.