For so many of us in Baltimore and Maryland, our history is a reminder of what our faith calls us to do: serve. As former pastor of Union Baptist Church and now through my work with the Beloved Community Services Organization in Baltimore, I’m committed to continue the work of those who came before me by advancing the mission of the Civil Rights Movement while serving underserved communities.

Union Baptist Church has a rich history of championing the fight for equality in Baltimore. In the 1890s, Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson advocated for egalitarianism, standing up to prejudice in the state’s Baptist Union Association by forming the Colored Baptist Convention. He would later work with other leaders to form the Niagara Movement, a predecessor of the NAACP. Reverend Vernon Dobson later carried on Johnson’s legacy, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in sponsoring the March on Washington. His work also included helping to co-found Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the interfaith, multiracial community advocacy group in Baltimore.

Drawing on the lessons I learned from the reverends who came before me and my parents, who always said “education is your passport and service is the rent you pay,” I’ve focused on continuing our church’s legacy of servant leadership. And as I’ve examined the evolving barriers to equality in Baltimore, I’ve seen a new and growing challenge: the ever-increasing digital divide.

Now, as we work to build the Thurgood Marshall Amenity Center, at the site where Justice Thurgood Marshall learned to read and studied the U.S. Constitution as a young boy, we remain more committed than ever to provide the technological resources needed to close the digital and economic divides that continue to plague underserved communities.

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I became pastor at Union Baptist in 2007, as the internet was emerging as a bigger part of all our lives. I expected that our reliance on it would only grow, so I supported a project to create a cyber center at our church. Working with community partners, we created a state-of-the-art facility that included desktop computers, 3D printers, call center capability, and more.

This center would go on to host a community of organizations, including African American Girls Who Code Club and the Boyz Who Build Club, which teaches technology to young men through interactive activities. Since its advent, the Harvey Johnson Cyber Center, which was named for our own pioneer of access and equality, has provided expanded digital access to the community.

Despite the work our parish and so many others have done to increase internet access in our community, the digital divide remains. In fact, according to a recent report, nearly 560,000 families in Maryland that are eligible for affordable internet access still do not have it. This statistic is deeply troubling. In the post-COVID world, internet access is of the utmost importance, allowing people to access telehealth appointments, virtual job interviews, remote work, and educational opportunities. Increasingly, internet access is critical to health and prosperity.

Further, President Biden recently designated Baltimore as a Federal Tech Hub, investing millions of federal dollars in the city’s tech industry. As these federal funds fuel new jobs in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and health care, ensuring that our city’s residents have the access and skills they need to achieve tech fluency is critical. If we fail to address inequity in internet access, I fear a generation will be left behind as Baltimore moves into a tech-enabled future.

While our community has sought to do our part to address the digital divide, more must be done to expand access. Continued inequities in the digital space are the next civil rights frontier, and inaction is not an option. As we look to the future, our state and federal governments must avoid lawsuits and regulations that undermine ingenuity and creativity, and instead find ways to collaborate with tech leaders to expand the invaluable access to emerging technologies to underserved communities.

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Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. is the retired senior pastor of Union Baptist Church (2007-2021) in Baltimore. A Baltimore native, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the North Carolina College of Theology and a doctor of ministry degree from the United Theological Seminary.

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