digital divide 1By Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, The Fresno Bee/California Divide

On a recent hot Saturday, residents in a small tract of homes west of Fresno huddled under the shade to wait for a distribution of hygiene products and food.

Many of those who waited in lines for toilet paper, canned food and masks learned about the giveaway through organizer Lilia Becerril’s growing social media following.

While such products are essential in the fight against COVID-19, getting them in the hands of the people how need them is challenging, especially in rural areas that lack both a city government structure and a dedicated local news source, according to Becerril, a Fresno resident.

(Image: The pandemic is worsening the digital divide as immigrant and low-income communities search for ways to inform residents. Two volunteers from the Education & Leadership Foundation help unload essentials for distribution to farmworkers Saturday afternoon, May 9, 2020 near Rolinda, CA. Photo by Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee )

Since the coronavirus pandemic spread to the central San Joaquin Valley in early March, Becerril has picked up efforts on three Facebook pages she runs to get out information about food distributions, coronavirus testing centers, and how residents can get unemployment relief. Similar efforts are playing out across California where the digital divide is greatest in immigrant and low-income communities with limited internet access. Even when people are connected, there’s often a lack of understanding about where to find trusted sources of news.

“Information can get lost,” Becerril said. “Right now, above all else, we are in a crisis, and we have no choice but to get plugged in.”

She estimates helping around 500 families over the last two months, many of whom are farmworkers or recently unemployed and were cut out of government financial aid packages. She said those residents, who often live in areas with poor Internet connectivity, have struggled for many years to get reliable local information.

The coronavirus pandemic worsened the needs, she said.

“If this crisis is affecting me, how is it affecting other people?” Becerril said. “I have been fortunate that the information I share has helped me gain the trust of people.”

She worked with a variety of local organizations to connect with families most in need. Those efforts have helped families keep up with utility bills and groceries and provided protective gear like face masks.

A recent study from the UCLA California Policy Lab noted people of color, the eldery and women and children have born the brunt of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Those are also many of the same people Becerril and others in the Valley have organized to help in recent years.

Becerril, who speaks limited English, said her community involvement began after seeing school kids near her home a few years ago make paper airplanes out of school fliers. Her neighbors were parents who only spoke Spanish, and she thought the information from the school wasn’t reaching them. Today, her social media bulletins reach thousands.

Health agency response

In one of the hardest-hit counties by COVID-19, Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency officials say they began early to reach out to communities with language needs and those who don’t typically seek public health messages.

Tammie Weyker-Adkins, the spokeswoman for the department, said the agency increased its use of digital outreach and fliers to reach residents in different languages. Like many in the state, the agency has regularly updated its online followers on the county’s coronavirus situation since it began.

“I do feel like we have really used that to our advantage to try to get information out to folks,” Weyker-Adkins said. “Effectively communicating information to the right audience at the right time with the right information, that is vital.”

At the start of May, the Tulare County health office began airing radio messages targeting Latino and Asian residents. The effort is funded through a grant from the government-run Listos California, a statewide disaster preparedness campaign. The county also set out to distribute postcards to seniors and face masks for the homeless with information printed about the virus and how to stay safe, Weyker-Adkins said.

Although she believes the county had time to prepare, Weyker-Adkins said the public health disaster has still left many with questions. She said the county has tried to learn how best to reach out to residents who may not be following state orders aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

“You don’t really get that experience unless you’re either thrown into a disaster or get some training,” Weyker-Adkins said. “Even with the preparation, when you’re in the midst of it, it’s definitely a different animal.”

digital divide 2

Reaching rural residents

In many small Valley cities, many residents work outdoors and rely on word-of-mouth for much of their information, said Juan Carlos Mosqueda, an Orosi resident and student at College of Sequoias in Visalia.

“They talk about it in the workplace,” he said.

Mosqueda said getting fast, reliable information is seen as a luxury for residents where he lives. His parents, who are farmworkers, often tune in to Spanish radio on drives to work at fruit farms and catch TV news segments in the afternoon. But the information doesn’t always apply directly to them.

“In a community where people do really hard labor, they don’t have the energy to connect like other places,” Mosqueda said.

For community advocates, combating the economic and social effects of the virus includes making sure residents aren’t getting the wrong information.

(Image: Masked farmworker families stand waiting for donated food and much needed wares including surgical masks Saturday afternoon, May 9, 2020 near Rolinda, CA. Photo by Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee)

Leslie Martinez, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said word of mouth could often be misleading if residents are not getting the correct information in the first place. She said residents in Lanare, a small unincorporated community in southwest Fresno County, have been left confused in recent weeks on issues like rent and utility shutoffs.

At the same time, Martinez told The Bee she has felt “radio silence” in attempts to reach county supervisors or government offices for information.

‘News deserts’ during COVID

Carolyn Powers, program manager for the Listening Post Collective at InterNews, said government officials like supervisors have “a big role” in informing residents during a crisis.

That’s especially true as many communities go without a local news service or live in areas where information is hard to reach. These communities, known as “news deserts,” have become increasingly concerning during the pandemic since they tend to affect rural areas the most, Power said.

But there have been efforts recently, following a 2019 study of the Valley’s news ecosystem, to increase information in communities that need it. The Listening Post Collective released a study late last year in which the group examined the news consumption habits of Black, Latino and Asian residents in rural areas.

The study found the residents most cared about getting information on health, housing and school — issues that have become increasingly of interest during the pandemic. Following the study, the Post Collective gave grants to different news projects in the Valley aimed at disadvantaged communities.

digital divide 3

Information projects

One of the news projects funded after the study includes The Ivanhoe Sol, a nonprofit newspaper run with the help of volunteers.

The printed newspaper is mailed to every home in Ivanhoe, a community of about 4,500 residents in Tulare County. It provides information about business closures, job openings and available aid resources.

Layoffs at school districts and other businesses have recently affected Ivanhoe residents, Editor in Chief Pedro Hernandez said. In one of its first issues, the newspaper included steps on how to apply for unemployment. Information is often written in Spanish and English.

(Image: Surgical masks are distributed by Lilia Becerril and the volunteers she organized for farmworkers Saturday afternoon, May 9, 2020 near Rolinda, CA. Photo by Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee)

Hernandez said getting the paper delivered to each home has been an effective way to keep the older residents informed who otherwise would have to rely on their phones or television for local information. That’s a challenge with high-priced and unreliable Internet, he and the newspaper’s volunteers said.

“There is a shift to the digital interface, but in a place like the Valley, it’s not a guarantee,” Hernandez said. “(Mail) is really one of the only ways of reliable communication between you and an entity. I view the postal service as the backstop for all the other forms of communication. It worked before the Internet was created.”

But other efforts also are being made online.

Sergio Cortes, a co-founder of the Fresno-based digital media platform USpark Valley, said reaching younger people to inform them about the pandemic’s effects has also been important since younger groups don’t tend to follow the news closely. USpark Valley also received a Post Collective grant.

Cortes said the platform doesn’t compete with other news sources, instead he and his small team aggregate and cite information already published by others around coronavirus and other issues, then distributes it in digital platforms, like Instagram and Twitter.

“This is really affecting our communities in really deep ways,” Cortes said. “Just because it’s in the news all the time, it doesn’t mean it’s meeting all the demographics.”

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a reporter with the Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

Pin it

Racism in America

NorCal News

    April 07, 2021

    Sonoma County enters orange tier

    Sonoma County's virtual community COVID-19 briefing.Less than a month after moving out of the state’s most restrictive purple tier, the County made it into the more relaxed orange tier Wednesday. The announcement comes a day after Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state’s aim to fully open up the…
  • IMG 7932 3
    April 06, 2021

    Health Fair vaccinates hundreds of residents

    Art about the COVID-19 vaccine by Santa Rosa art nonprofit Raizes Collective at the Cesar Chavez Health Fair. People waited in line starting at 9 a.m. to get one of the 200 Moderna vaccines given out at last weekend’s Cesar Chavez Health Fair in Santa Rosa’s Martin Luther King Jr, park. The event,…
  • Document
    April 01, 2021

    Santa Rosa hands out weather radios to boost alert system

    A NOAA Weather Radio. (photo courtesy of the City of Santa Rosa's website)Santa Rosa is boosting its ability to notify residents when a fire breaks out through weather radios. The battery-operated NOAA Weather Radio is common in the Midwest for tornado alerts. And it’s activated by the National…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 31 at 10.19.40 AM
    March 31, 2021

    Sonoma County teens design quarantine mural

    Santa Rosa-based art organization Artstart's Shelter in Place Mural. (photo courtesy of Jennifer Tatum). COVID has affected everyone, old and young. But for teenagers, being stuck at home has been especially challenging and often painful. That's why when COVID hit last March, Jennifer Tatum, the…
  • covid 19 4987797 1280
    March 29, 2021

    COVID-19 easing, while vaccine distribution hits bottleneck

    By Marc Albert Improving data suggests vaccines are gaining the upper hand and COVID-19 related restrictions across Sonoma County may be eased as soon as next week. Yet troubling signs elsewhere suggest the pandemic is far from over. Among those 75 years and older, not a single case has been…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 24 at 5.08.32 PM
    March 24, 2021

    New Data Shows an Uptick in Fatal Drug Overdoses

    COVID-19 numbers are on the decline after Sonoma County moved into the state’s red tier a week and a half ago, but communities are facing other types of loss since the start of the pandemic. Sonoma County’s made progress in keeping case numbers low in the red tier, even as businesses started…
  • kelp 966305 640
    Mar 19, 2021

    Abalone season cancelled, at least until 2026

    By Marc Albert With wild abalone populations decimated by a string of environmental setbacks, besides over-fishing. State officials reiterated Friday…
  • grass
    Mar 19, 2021

    Sonoma likely facing challenging drought

    One of the driest winters on record locally, may cause serious water issues this summerBy Marc Albert The rainy season has hardly been generous.…
  • 031721 SC briefing1
    Mar 17, 2021

    Sonoma County schools planning April return to campus

    About 70,000 school students across Sonoma County are heading back to classrooms in April. So far, 47 schools across Sonoma County have the green…
  • covid 19 4960254 640 1
    Mar 12, 2021

    Covid Restrictions to Ease Sunday

    As predicted, declining new COVID-19 infections and other metrics will allow Sonoma County to ease pandemic-related restrictions this weekend. KRCB's…
  • IMG 1289
    Mar 12, 2021

    The Power of Art for Vaccine Outreach

    Advocates, artists, healthcare professionals and residents gathered in Santa Rosa's Roseland Neighborhood on Valentines Day to showcase and pass out…
  • coronavirus 4957673 1280
    Mar 10, 2021

    Some COVID-19 restrictions may be lifted as soon as Sunday

    By Marc Albert Sonoma County is on the brink of being able to lift some pandemic-related restrictions….as soon as this weekend. That could mean…
  • 1176395 525823344149750 1670783702 n.png 632307 pixels
    Mar 10, 2021

    Sonoma schools readying classrooms for resumption of classes

    Sonoma County schools are preparing for students’ return to campuses. Credit: “Courtesy of SCOE With vaccines more available, cases waning and the…
  • classroom 2093743 640
    Mar 05, 2021

    Santa Rosa Public Schools Plan Return To Classrooms April 1

    Santa Rosa’s public school district and its teacher's union have agreed on a plan for getting kids back into classrooms on April 1. The tentative…
  • covid 19 4960254 1280
    Mar 03, 2021

    Inching closer to the red tier

    Since August, Sonoma County’s been stuck in the state’s most restrictive tier in terms of COVID-19 recovery. But the possibility of opening up the…
  • IMG 7516 2
    Mar 02, 2021

    Santa Rosa Clears a Large Homeless Encampment

    Dozens of people living in Santa Rosa’s largest homeless encampment were forced to pack up and leave Tuesday morning. It marks Santa Rosas’s second…

NorCal News Radio

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.