NSF Funding Incarcerated Women’s Tech Ed

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded the University of Kansas’ (KU) Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) $1.6 million to expand its employment-related technology education program for women leaving incarceration.

The robust digital literacy program – dubbed the RETURN Project – began in 2019 to empower formerly incarcerated women in Kansas and Missouri with the digital skills needed to reintegrate into society successfully.

The CDI team has previously won awards from Kansas Health Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Google to offer technology education for women recently released from jail or prison.

The project’s most recent three-year grant from NSF will aid KU in continuing and expanding this technology education project, with a specific focus on the train-the-trainer program for peer mentors and library practitioners.

“We work with public libraries, workforce centers and nonprofit organizations supporting women’s re-entry to train them to provide technology education sessions,” said Hyunjin Seo, CDI director and KU journalism professor. “The representatives from these entities attend our train-the-trainer workshop sessions so they are equipped with not only technology-related knowledge but also how to effectively mentor women.”

The funding additionally enables KU to host workshops aimed at empowering digital navigators – peer mentors who are alumni of previous program iterations. These navigators play an essential role in guiding and supporting women currently enrolled in the program, Seo said.

The program has trained more than 200 women so far, with a future goal of using the new NSF grant to up total to 600 women leaving or recently released from jails or prisons.

Seo said the department is working with a diverse group of partners to provide ongoing support for women beyond their initial digital literacy training.

“Our program focuses primarily on technology education, but also in those educational modules, we discuss topics such as how to identify and assess information quality to circumvent misinformation and disinformation,” she said. “And we’re not only addressing the issue of the digital divide or digital access but also really how and where participants get information.”

Jodi Whitt, a digital navigator in CDI, said her experience learning new skills when leaving incarceration inspired her to help women in a similar situation.

“Helping other women in the program has given me a purpose in life that I never dreamed would be possible,” Whitt said. “From experience, I also know learning new skills can help reduce recidivism. There is not a lot of opportunities for job training or employment for formerly incarcerated women. This program helps them gain experience and develop confidence for better opportunities in the workforce.”