Podcast: How Jordana Barton became the Valley’s champion for eliminating the digital divide

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MCALLEN, Texas – Jordana Barton says her upbringing in a colonia in South Texas helped shape her choice of career – as a champion for investment in low-income communities.

Barton is perhaps best known in the Valley for authoring the Texas Border Colonias Study for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. That led to her working to address the digital divide in cities such as Pharr and Brownsville. She recently moved over the Methodist Healthcare Ministries.

“I grew up in Benavides, Texas, a very small, rural community near Laredo. It was designated a colonia by the Secretary of State’s Office, when they were labeling places. It is incorporated now but it was designated a colonia because we had very substandard housing and a lack of infrastructure, such as safe drinking water and some of the basics, such as paved roads and things like that. For example, it was not until I was in graduate school that my family got connected to city sewage, not a cess pool.”

Barton made these comments in an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian via Zoom.

Jordana Barton, vice president of community investment for Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc.

“That is where I got my passion for service and – I did not know it was a field back then – community development. Being able to invest in low income communities where other people may not see the assets that are there. I knew there were assets there,” Barton said.

“You can stand outside of my home, where I grew up and you could look at it and say, what could have come out of this, because, you know, there is no insulation, there is no central air and heat. It is dilapidated and not up to code. But a lot can come out of it.”

In Barton’s case, what came out of such a home were two surgeons, a surgical PA, a COO, herself.

“That is the advantage I had all my life. I know that things are not always what they seem and that appearances can be deceiving. Add that there is so much to invest in to create opportunity in low-income communities.”

As she has done in presentations at conferences, Barton cited her brother as an example of how great things can come out of a low-income communities.

“Sometimes I tell the story of my brother who dropped out of high school as a sophomore and he ended up working middle-skill jobs, surveying, on the oil rigs, and then got his GED, went to community college, went to pharmacy school, went to medical school,” Barton said.

“Has served in Iraq and Afghanistan to be a surgeon, saving lives, serving his community, a bilingual surgeon. If we had given up on him then, right, as a high school drop out, imagine what we would have lost.”

Never mind the lives her brother has saved and what he has contributed to the community, Barton pointed to the taxes he has paid. “That is what I know about these (low-income) communities. That there is so much innovation, there is so much human capital and it is worth creating opportunities for them.”

Barton is proud to have created a program for students called Latino Financial Issues.

“I wanted students to understand how our economy works and how capital flows into low income communities. I have bankers from Wall Street and I had leaders from nonprofit organizations like La Union Del Pueblo Entero, Juanita Valdez-Cox and others. So they could see all the different ways they could use finance for good.”

Barton said the students were studying public policy, government practices and individual behaviors that either inhibit the creation of wealth and assets or promote them. She wanted the students to grow up to be leaders with a conscience.

“Understanding red-lining and all the issues we have dealt with in our country and how they can make a difference and how they can be comfortable in the boardrooms of Wall Street and in the grassroots. For Latino students, that is their asset. We are comfortable being uncomfortable. For them to understand they had a right to be there. That we needed them there. And for them to feel comfortable.”

Barton said this led to her career in community economic development, including specializing in micro-finance with Accion Texas, which is now known as LiftFund.

“I was the vice president for development and communications and then community development banking, working in this region. Some of the most important work I did was in affordable housing along the border, in Brownsville and other areas along the border. Workforce development and small business development and so forth.”

Which brought Barton to the Federal Reserve.

“It brought all my experience together. I was helping banks understand how to make investment in low-income communities, where the greatest needs were. Not only working hand in hand with communities. I started producing research that could be helpful,” Barton explained.

The border region’s digital divide

“When I did the Texas Border Colonias Study for the Federal Reserve, that is when the issue of the digital divide came up. I was not asking those questions but I was doing a mixed method study, quantitive and qualitative. Of course, if I had just been looking at data sets I would never have learned the things I learned being with the people and doing 45 interviews across the border region and mini-focus groups,” Barton recalled.

“That is where the families were telling me about this digital divide. Moms telling me about their children who could not do their homework because they did not have access to the internet. Or the mother not being able to do a workforce development program at South Texas College because she did not have access to the internet.”

Barton said the issue became “very real” for her when she heard those stories from the mothers in the Valley colonias.

“Of course, I did not know all the answers. But when we had that conference in McAllen, the people got together and decided we want to close the digital divide. It was a little paragraph in the colonias report and it was mentioned in the education section. But it became an area that I had to research.”

Barton said she had to learn about the digital divide alongside the mothers from the colonias. And she had to investigate ways to fix it.

“I did not want band aid approaches that would not solve the problem. At that time, my mayor, Julian Castro was going to be HUD secretary and he opened the doors for me to meet of people in broadband around the country.”

Barton said lacking access to broadband can affect a person’s life in myriad ways. According to the Census Bureau, the metropolitan statistical areas of Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo are among the highest in the nation for lack of broadband access.

“What I understood from the people of the border region and the people that I served was this was one of the biggest ethical challenges of the fourth industrial revolution that we are in the middle of. The fact that lower income families and lower income people, minorities, people of color, certain people are left out. I began see how the digital divide was impacting jobs,” Barton said.

“The story of my brother, he had opportunities for upward mobility. He got his GED, he got middle skill jobs, put himself through school. Those kinds of opportunities are closing off unless we recognize what the new opportunities are. Whether a child goes to college, having internet at home is a big factor in that.”

Barton pointed to research from Michigan State University which shows that students are much more likely to choose a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) if they have internet access at home.

Then came COVID. Once the pandemic hit, Barton said she no longer found herself having to explain the digital divide and why it matters. Instead she was bombarded with questions on how to fix it. She is pleased to say the City of San Antonio listened.

“I presented a solution to the COVID social services committee of the City of San Antonio. They asked, what do we do about the digital divide, about remote learning. I presented the idea of using the fiber backhaul of governmental entities and basically aggregating student households, aggregating demand, producing efficiencies, into one account. Instead of paying millions of dollars for mobile hotspots that are not sustainable and are of the highest cost… for a fraction we could have permanent infrastructure in low-income communities.”

Barton said there is a “great law” in the state of Texas called the inter-local agreement that allows municipalities to share resources among governmental entities and create efficiencies.

“And so the city (San Antonio) adopted it and they are going to cover 50 low-income zip codes in low-income school districts across the city. We are doing two pilots right now. In Dallas, they are doing five demonstrations and so, it is basically good for all parties.”

Barton said that while working for the Federal Reserve she was pleased to be given the job of “producing efficient solutions that were sustainable and produced resilient communities.” She said this acceptance that a permanent investment in low-income communities is needed contrasts hugely with the history of dis-investment and under investment.

“No, they (low-income communities) are worthy of having the best technology we have access to. Off the shelf technology, right. In Pharr, we have demonstrated that. How do we take it to the scale. Likewise I am working with Brownsville. They are going to be working on their middle mile fiber. Pharr is going to be working on their middle mile fiber. Now, we just want to move forward as fast as we can. It is so essential to creating resilient communities.”

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