Inclusion and our New Normal
I’ve been reflecting on the quick adaptations many of our cultural institutions have undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve moved from in-person tours to virtual experiences, from a paywalled journal to free digital downloads, from meetings around a conference table to computer screens and what feels like a million different online platforms. Almost without missing a beat, we’ve shifted to a model of work and engagement that could be considered more inclusive. Free is good and digital presences allow virtual visitors to reach us even when they could not do so otherwise, because of distance, physical impediments (stairs in a house museum, for example), or limited visitation hours.
Yet, I cannot help but focus on the inequities still built into this new digital era. Who has access to the internet and enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively) to participate in these adapted offerings? Are we calcifying unequal access to our services at a time when we must reach beyond our built-in audiences and core demographics?
According to Propublica’s multipart series on Kentucky’s technology divide, we are one of the worst states in the nation for internet usage, have one of the lowest rates of home computer ownership, and thousands of our fellow Kentuckians have limited or no access to the highspeed internet which makes our new ways of engagement possible. Relying on spotty cellphone coverage, or as a colleague told me about one student participating in a statewide contest, climbing to the top of a ridge to get enough connectivity to transmit an email, does not allow our core audiences to engage with us in meaningful ways. It privileges the best-connected amongst us.
My hope for our new normal is that we remain aware and committed to creating more inclusive and equitable engagement with all Kentuckians. The Institute for Museum and Library Services has directed a large portion of their CARES money for cultural institutions to expand internet access and make internet connected devices available in their service areas. When those funds are available in Kentucky, creating mobile hotspots like those available through the McCracken County Public Library will benefit hundreds of our fellow citizens.
Access to the internet is only one example of the myriad ways we can still see exclusion and inequity in our systems. It is imperative that we name and confront the ways our adaptations in this moment continue to exacerbate inequality. Those of us lucky enough to still be working, even from our kitchen tables, can serve our neighbors, friends, and fellow Kentuckians during a time of great uncertainty and constant change. May we do so with a steady resolve to create more equitable and inclusive experiences.