With much of life and learning moved online during the pandemic, access to high-speed internet has been more essential than ever. However major disparities persist in who has that access. According to a report from the University of Michigan’s Urban Collaboratory, 70% of school-age children in Detroit do not have internet access at home, with this digital divide especially pronounced in marginalized neighborhoods.

Shiva Shahmir, MPS Arts and Cultural Management ’22, is a member of the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) that since 2015 has worked to establish neighborhood-led internet infrastructure around her home city. She was recently interviewed about her work with EII for the Hill’s Changing America video series. Shahmir answered a few questions about EII and how this digital advocacy fits into her current studies at Pratt Institute in the Arts and Cultural Management (ACM) program with its emphasis on aligning human enterprise with advancing the Global Goals for sustainability set up by the United Nations Sustainable Development Group:

How did you get involved with the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) as a digital steward?

I am grateful that I became a digital steward at the turn of the pandemic. It really exposed how dependent society is becoming on the internet and the inequalities that are leaving many behind. I was substitute teaching at a high school by the Rouge Ford Auto Plant and a Marathon Refinery where I witnessed the digital divide with my students. Weeks before the pandemic hit, I was invited to join the Equitable Internet Initiative team at Grace in Action Collectives in Southwest Detroit by Nyasia Valdez, our network coordinator who I had met while assisting with tech and media production at the organization Inside Southwest/The Alley Project.

I have always been active in the community wherever I have lived and tech has been a key to finding purposeful ways I can engage and support it. At 16, I got involved with community radio which is where I began my journey as a sound and audio engineer and radio enthusiast. It led me to become an FCC-licensed amateur radio technician through which I learned that sound, light, and internet are all waves and frequencies just going at different speeds and wavelengths.

My family being from Iran has also greatly influenced me in this work. There is no net neutrality in Iran and the web is highly censored and monitored. This is why I believe that access to information is like liberty. My parents came here so that I could stand up for what I believe in without persecution, which I never take for granted.

Your work with EII involves installing and maintaining a high-speed network to bring low-cost internet to Detroit’s underserved neighborhoods. What is a day as a digital steward like?

Our team in Southwest Detroit is quite small, typically four digital stewards besides our network manager. Since we all come from different backgrounds, we bring different skills to the table. As I say in the Changing America video, we are community members first. This means that our clients have our line to call us directly whenever they have any issues and all of our clients know at least one digital steward by name. We are all hands on deck during our install but I mostly handle network maintenance and troubleshooting. I get network updates through emails at all hours. Initially, I try to resolve the issue remotely but sometimes we have to go to the client site. These site visits include climbing up onto roofs; our area has a lot of trees and our networks rely on line of sight and so we often spend a lot more time maintaining than installing.

Shiva Shahmir, Karizma Valdez, and Anderson Walworth building internet infrastructure in Detroit

Shiva Shahmir, Karizma Valdez, and Anderson Walworth (photo by Erik Paul Howard)

What interested you about the Arts and Cultural Management program at Pratt?

The Arts and Cultural Management program teaches us to “lead as if life matters” and I can’t imagine leading any other way. In 2016, I was invited to be an artist in residence at Spread Art in Detroit; eight months later I was trying to save the organization.

Spread Art owns a very old building in Detroit and formerly hosted international artist residencies which sustained the organization but also isolated it from the Detroit community. When the previous director left, the organization was in debt. I changed the structure to a community-programmed one and have been able to sustain the organization as a volunteer. We have a theater, gallery, and nine artist studios and up until the pandemic were hosting over 80 community events annually.

As I have been learning to manage and reorganize this organization, I became interested in pursuing my master’s in arts administration, which is when I learned about Pratt’s Arts and Cultural Management program. Within the first months of being in the program, I wrote a successful grant, so I have already begun to see its impacts.

Have you learned anything at Pratt that has influenced your work with EII and Spread Art?

It has been great to be able to apply what I am learning at Pratt directly to the work I am doing. There are a lot of models and frameworks that we learn about which I can find purpose for whether it be looking at a situation through a SWOT model (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), conducting a stakeholder analysis, or implementing appreciative inquiry. I feel like I’ve had to learn a lot of things the hard way and so I have a lot of appreciation for all the tools I am being exposed to, especially the emphasis on team and group work.

In my capstone project, I am bridging the mission values of Spread Art and EII which are both centered around accessibility. With fellow Pratt students Marguerite Smith, Paige Flannery, and Cher Zheng, we have formed a group called MeshArt. We will be partnering with THE POINT Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Hunts Point in the Bronx to incorporate a local arts platform that will be accessible at their public internet hotspots and intranet network. There are a lot of similarities between Southwest Detroit and Hunts Point; both are culturally rich and deeply affected by industry and climate change.

I hope to continue finding purposeful ways to apply and share the skills I have acquired to empower communities towards a more equitable world. I hope that our capstone project can expand and support more cultural institutions to implement public wifi and community intranet resources while also providing an alternative platform to better support and amplify the arts.