MCALLEN, RGV – Jordana Barton, senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, says economic development leaders in the Rio Grande Valley do get the importance of closing the digital divide.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Barton was asked why so few economic development corporations in the Valley make digital inclusion a central plank of their mission statement.

“I believe the EDCs do get it. I think they realize the digital divide is a structural barrier to attracting business, to upward mobility for families. We definitely know that,” Barton said.

Barton was part of a delegation of Dallas Fed officers to visit the Valley in early December. The most visible part of their visit was a Q&A Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan participated in with UT-Rio Grande Valley Associate Vice Provost Marie T. Mora at the Embassy Suites in McAllen.

“President Kaplan was talking about technology-enabled disruption. He was talking about the macro-level, what is happening to different industries, the change from retail and e-commerce taking over and disrupting retail, the disruptions in manufacturing, the closing of manufacturing plants and the automation,” Barton said.

“In order to understand all that is going on in the economy, our young people are going to have to be adept, they are going to have to be digitally literate, they are going to have to understand the architecture of everything, to know how things work.”

Barton said the students of today need to be prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

“They are going to have to be very nimble. They are going to have to have digital skills at the highest levels they can attain. If it hasn’t sunk in yet, it is going to because technology is moving exponentially, and we are moving very linear. We need to see the opportunities in the disruptions. We need to innovate.”

When questioned by a reporter on whether Valley EDCs are putting enough emphasis on eliminating the digital divide, Barton said: “My message to the EDCs is, technology is exponential. All the futurists are predicting greater and greater income and wealth inequality.

“With technology and automation and artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, the low-income are going to be left behind and wealth is going to be concentrated. Right now, we have a hollowing out of the middle class. If we want to change that and create pathways in and a more healthy economy, we are going to have to invest in digital skills for young people. We are going to have to get people connected for entrepreneurial ideas. We are going to have to attract industry to regions that have not attracted industry at the levels they could and should.”

Asked what is going to happen if the Valley does not embrace this, Barton said:

“We know what happens when we have income inequality, extremes in wealth and income, and you have that hollowing out of the middle class. You are not going to have inter-generational mobility. It is called the Gatsby Curve, in economics. Young people are not going to do as well as their parents. You have all kinds of factors that come into play and it is not a healthy economy when you have extremes.

“I think they (Valley EDCs) are aware of this. I think they are recognizing it and I think what we are trying to do together, with this demonstration project, is to say, hey, there are some best practices for sustainable change, for all the things you need to think about.”

The demonstration project Barton was referring to is being conducted by the Dallas Fed, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD and the City of Pharr. Under the pilot project, families in colonias in Las Milpas are getting internet access and computers for the first time.

“The problem is, it is not simple. It is not, oh, you buy that, and I will have everything. It requires much more cooperation and more public-private partnerships and so forth. That is why it seems so daunting. But if you lay out the best practices, it is like, wow, we can solve this, we can do this,” Barton said.

“The leadership is going to be critical, the mayors, the superintendents, the leadership of the schools, and then the anchor institutions, like UTRGV and Region 1 Educational Service Center. Now is the time, let’s just do it.”

Barton said economic inclusion is a central plank of the Dallas Fed’s approach.

“We try to have everybody participate in the economy, from our financial literacy trainings, to the kinds of projects we take on in the community. It is all to create a healthy economy where people have access, and all people have access. The border region has the leadership, it has a can-do attitude, people like the mayor (Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez), the superintendent (PSJA Superintendent Daniel P. King).”

While the Valley has that can-do spirit, Barton said, there also has to be an understanding of the special knowledge that is required, such as what the law says cities and school districts are allowed to do to help eliminate the digital divide.”

“We could not answer the questions ourselves so, we brought in utility lawyers. We wanted to know, what can we do, what are the possible solutions, what are the best practices that have been established by the Department of Commerce, by many entities, Next Century cities, many entities that are going to be coming down for the Digital Inclusion Summit in 2018 here, that we want to host,” Barton said.

“How can you learn from best practices so that you are not reinventing the wheel or being sold a bill of goods that does not get you the economic development goals that you want?”

Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development for the Dallas Fed’s San Antonio branch.

Barton said she read an instructive story in a top publication that showed a wireless provider promising great service. As a result, the company was given major grants. “They give you a reasonable price at the beginning and the speeds are not fast enough. That is why you really have to have, and what we wanted to bring to the table, was this rational look and understanding from engineers and people in this field who could say, strategically, what is the smartest thing to do.”

Barton said the Dallas Fed is open to looking at all kinds of solutions to help drastically reduce the Valley’s digital divide.

“With technology, you have to be ready for it. You have to make smart, economic decisions. If all the stakeholders can come together, as they are in this particular demonstration project, from financial institutions to local governments, to school districts, the university, they all play a role. No one entity is daunted by this goal for the public good. It daunts everybody. It won’t be solved just randomly.”

Barton was asked how involved Mayor Hernandez has been in the project.

“Mayor Hernandez has been his usual innovative self. It is a passion for him. He wants people to have access. He knows what it means. He knows what it means to families. It is not just some, technology is great. He knows what it means to the access you have to healthcare, to education, to workforce. It is very tangible for him and it comes through,” Barton said.

“Just like Dr. King, all they need to know is it good and is it necessary. The daunting obstacles, it is well, okay, let’s go over that one. They are problem solvers and that is what you need in leaders. Things can seem daunting. How things work is not obvious, it takes engineering knowledge, it takes utility law knowledge, that can make it daunting. But when you have that attitude, and you are committed to best practices, you have a chance.”

Asked who else deserved a shout-out, Barton said UT-Rio Grande Valley and Region 1 Education Service Center.

“I applaud UTRGV for sticking with us. They have multiple roles to play. They are poised to be a leader in the overall rollout. Their students are going to depend on this. Their programs, their research, it is all going to depend on having the infrastructure they need to conduct their business and be able to be that entity that they have defined for themselves. Of serving the economic development and social interests of the community,” Barton said.

“Their medical students cannot go to the clinic to serve if they are not connected the way they need to be. The medical school is a great example because you need different kinds of speeds, you need to make sure you have the capacity, where the students are in the community clinics and the colonias, to communicate back to the university. They have been great.”

As for Region 1 Educational Service Center, Barton said its leadership has been president from the very first meeting.

“It was not exactly clear how they would participate but they knew it mattered. They knew it mattered to young people. And it turned out the school districts are key, just like mayors and city governments and county governments are going to be key,” Barton said.

Barton said Hidalgo County’s leadership was not present at a recent stakeholders meeting, but it would have a key role going forward.

“There is great opportunity. We are going to talk to as many people as we can. One of the things I am looking at is how banks can be involved, financing-wise. What are the opportunities. I have worked for many years in community development finance and this is a unique opportunity. Like the gentleman from BBVA Compass said, this is what we do, it is economic development, it is investing in entrepreneurship. It makes sense.”

Barton pointed out that one of the things the Dallas Fed does is train financial institutions and understand their communities and what their needs are. “So, this is a great place for us to innovate too. To ask, what is really needed.”

Barton said a date has yet to be selected for the Dallas Fed’s Digital Inclusion Summit. However, it will definitely be in the Valley.

“I think it will be Spring (2018). It will be for the whole border to share what we have learned. It is not that we are finished. We are in the middle of it. We need to share the knowledge and what we have learned and the people… it is not like this going to happen and then… there is a lot of things happening. We are talking to a lot of people across the border. This is definitely a demonstration and a focus, but we are talking to a lot of people across the border on how to understand their broadband assets and how to understand how to build and develop their digital inclusion plans.”

Asked for a wrap up comment on why eliminating the digital divide is important and why the people of the Valley should care, Barton said:

“I think the most important thing for us is to create a healthy economy where everybody participates. The digital economy is the economy. If we do not invest in digital inclusion and having people connected in digital skills at all levels, we are not going to meet the employment needs of the future. We are not going to meet the human and social needs, to have a strong democracy. This is fundamental, it is a fundamental area of investment.”

At the private stakeholders meeting, Barton started a power point presentation by showing the persistent poverty areas of the country.

“There are four, Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, some areas of the First Nation and Indian Country, and the border region. I showed the map. Then I showed the map of digital inclusion, it looks exactly the same. But when I did the colonia study, sure the statistics look terrible but the stories that I was learning from people were these brilliant incredible asset-based approaches to solutions, to creating well-being for children and families and prosperity,” Barton said.

“So, why are we still the persistent poverty area of the country, one of the four? This is a lever, this is a structural issue we need to deal with or we are not going to be able to change those persistent (poverty statistics).

Barton said she gets the persistent poverty issue.

“I understand it. It goes back to the Treaty of Guadalupe and the taking of property rights from Mexican Americans after the treaty. That is part of it. That is our history. And it takes many generations to recover. Just as wealth is persistent, poverty is persistent. You create a cycle, a vicious cycle. Property taxes fund schools. There is a history here. I am not denying that. I know why but what is happening on the border (now), it does not go with that. It does not fit.”

Barton said the Valley has “brilliant people doing those most innovative things.” She cited housing as an example.

“The most innovative affordable housing development in the world is Brownsville Community Development Corporation. They presented for us, we had a United Nations Habitat III conference in El Paso, then they went to Quito, Ecuador to present, we wanted to feature them. It is not just of the Valley innovation, it is for the world,” Barton said.

“And then you have Dr. King, transforming a whole school district, and his brilliant staff. You have Region 1, defying all the odds and organizing the banks for financial literacy across the border. These are people that know how to do things, know how to solve problems. It (the stereotype of the border) just does not fit. So, we have to look at the structural barriers. If we don’t then we will be telling that same story forever. We won’t have broken that cycle of poverty. We will not have transformed the economy of the region. We will accept greater and greater wealth inequality and a hollowing out of the middle class.”

Barton added: “We know the answers, and this is where we can prove it works. The energy here, the brilliance, the commitment, there is nothing like a kid from South Texas coming back home and doing things for his or her community. That power, in people such as Dr. Eliza Alvarado, those people, that is all you need. It is a commitment beyond the personal. It is a commitment to a people, to a region. It is amazing. I am inspired by it all the time.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporters Steve Taylor and Patricia Martinez conducted an in-depth interview with Jordana Barton about DO4RGV at the conclusion of the Dec. 1 stakeholders meeting. Click here and here to read the other two stories based on the interview.

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian staff members Patricia Martinez and Dayna Reyes contributed to this series.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story was taken by journalist Reynaldo Leaños, Jr., for a story about the digital divide. It first appeared on the KUT website. KUT is Austin’s NPR station.