When the government gives you $100 million, that’s generally where the story is supposed to begin—and end. It is a simple narrative with a tight focus. A huge check. Lots of zeroes. The happy ending. Yet, in this story, it is only a beginning. One of several beginnings, actually.
Meet Denise Atkinson-Shorey, chief information officer for EAGLE-Net, a public-private partnership formed to bring broadband service to schools, libraries, and community centers across Colorado. For her, another beginning stands out. In 2007, Denise and EAGLE-Net dreamed of using the internet to connect students and teachers across Colorado. It was an ambitious goal: create 1,600 miles of terrestrial fiber and 3,000 miles of microwave wireless broadband services. Or, in English, direct broadband access for every school district in Colorado, along with dozens of libraries, community colleges, and universities.
Out of the 50 United States, Colorado ranks 42 in broadband connectivity. Denise could easily complain about internet prices, which are far higher than in Kansas or Nebraska. But her concern was Colorado’s future.
Virtually every child in Colorado has dreams. Whether those dreams are attainable, however, is heavily affected by geographical chance. If a middle schooler aspires to fight terrorism by working in the State Department, she will need to learn Arabic. If she happens to have been born in rural Colorado, she is typically out of luck—Arabic teachers are a bit scarce in such places.
If Denise had her way, that girl would get her chance.
“Our goal with this project,” said Denise, “is to make broadband accessible and affordable throughout the state. The benefits include enhanced services for education, research, healthcare delivery, and public safety.”
On one level, the goal outlined in 2007 was outlandish. While Colorado boasted over a dozen BOCES, organizations dedicated to improving such collaborative efforts between schools, there was no single system in place capable of handling the infrastructure for such an effort. And the money certainly was not there.
But Denise kept meeting with people. Like-minded people at Centennial BOCES, the parent organization of EAGLE-Net, did the same. They knew that anything so ambitious could not be a top-down effort alone; it would require the involvement of dozens of partners and community organizations across the state. And as Denise and her colleagues kept talking, eventually, some people started to listen.
One of Denise’s early meetings found her at a meeting of El Pomar Foundation’s Northeast Regional Council, a group of community leaders in northeast Colorado that informs El Pomar’s on-the-ground grantmaking with local expertise. Denise made a compelling case, not only that her goal was commendable, but that it was possible to achieve it.
The Council liked what it heard—enough to challenge the rest of the state with a $25,000 matching grant. The legitimacy provided by the support of a big foundation led to more grants. Soon more and more organizations were buying into the effort. A few initial grants led to new partnerships, and after many months of hard work, EAGLE-Net had raised $46 million. Pushing still further, Denise used those grant dollars to leverage a $100 million federal grant—suddenly, the money was there to make a reality of the broadband vision. So were the glimmerings of the infrastructure, as organizations like IBM and Cisco got on board.
“This project has the potential to provide a modern, 21st-century link for every school, library, and community that has been underserved because of rural location and challenging geography,” said Gov. Bill Ritter. The money would fund a direct broadband link for all 178 school districts—over 800,000 students, 15 community colleges, 26 libraries, three colleges and universities, and over 200 community institutions.
If this were a typical story, that would have been the end. And if this were a feel-good story about foundation grantmaking, it would also be over. Denise stated flatly, “El Pomar was the first foundation that believed in us.”
But this is a true story, and so it continues. Large amounts of grant money might be the high-profile victory, but for EAGLE-Net and all those schools and institutions, the fight for the future of Colorado’s workforce continues. The federal funds cover the broadband connectivity—but they do not give the local institutions the equipment to connect to it. The middle-schooler who wants to learn Arabic still needs someone to provide the internet connections and routers, the webcams, and the programs to get her where she dreams of going.
So just as Denise’s fundraising began with a lot of meetings, so will tapping into the new technology. More partnerships will be needed, requiring community buy-in all over the state. More money will be needed, requiring foundations to step outside their comfort zones and fund local institutions rather than big experimental projects. The process of realizing the vision is far from over.
But sometimes a second beginning is better than an ending anyway.
For more about EAGLE-Net, visit their website at http://www.co-eaglenet.net/.