Anya Dickson Arguello

“Our tech jobs are mostly occupied by young, white men. We have to change that. Lives depend on it.”

Piton fellow, early career cohort

By Michelle Takara Fairbairn

Editor: Will C. Holden

Creative Director: Algernon Felice Jr.

In her early 20s, Anya Dickson Arguello walked away from a lucrative job in the technology industry. This was after she sat down in her cubicle one day, scanned the room, and realized that the only thing she had in common with the younger white men surrounding her was her job title.

In her late 20s, Dickson Arguello found her way back to tech — this time in the government sector. And this time, she was at a professional development conference when she sat down, scanned the room, and realized she was surrounded by a group of older white men — with whom all she had in common was her job title.

The biggest difference this second time around? A better understanding of what was at stake and a determination to change this status quo.

Before, Anya thought, this sector was an excellent place to make money — she was right about that, it turns out. What she didn’t foresee was how important technology would become.

One global pandemic changed all that.

All of a sudden, digital devices weren’t just for music, movies and reading material anymore. Now, they were the primary vehicles for accessing healthcare, education, jobs and all government systems.

We’ve created a society that requires digital access, and we now know that 30,000 people in Denver alone can’t access the internet, with BIPOC communities being among the most heavily impacted. There’s no quick or clear answer as to how we address this crisis. But one thing has become clear to Anya.

As a representative of that community, she needs to be in the rooms where these conversations are happening.

It’s one of the many reasons why Anya was admitted into Gary Community Ventures’ inaugural cohort of the Piton Fellowship, which is actively working to change the face of leadership in Metro Denver.

If Anya has anything to say about it, that change should be coming sooner rather than later.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: PCs for People.

Anya Dickson-Arguello, how did you end up sitting here with us today talking about digital equity?

Wow, that’s a big question, and one that requires a bit of set-up before I can answer it. So I’m the youngest of four. Raised by a single mom here in Denver. I was the first generation of my family to go to college, and I piece-milled scholarships to get me through. When I graduated, I jumped straight into tech because I thought that was the smart thing to do. And then COVID hit, and like everyone else around me, it seemed, I freaked out and quit my job. I had great benefits. I was getting paid the most I’ve ever been paid. My job was extremely secure. But I was miserable. So I quit and started working part-time at a library, because I’ve always loved books, and I felt valuable there. I liked being able to help people, whether it was an older adult or a kid learning to read during story time. I needed that at that point in my life.

And then I got to a moment where I was like, “Well, I can’t keep getting paid minimum wage. That’s not gonna pay my bills.” So I started working part-time at the library and doing contract freelance web design work on the side to keep myself afloat. It was at that point that I started to realize the importance of digital equity and access and this idea of being able to connect people through technology as a bridge. That’s the first time I started to consider digital equity conceptually. And I found I was passionate about the idea of granting folks access and the freedom and independence to do what they wanted to do. At a high level, that’s what my current job as a Program Manager with the Mayor of Denver’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation is all about. And it’s truly a dream come true for me to be doing this work.

In some ways, this dream job landed in your lap. But in a lot of ways, it didn’t. Can you talk about the soul searching and personal revelations you had that led to this new career trajectory?

I think I came to the realization that I didn’t want to work a tech job that was measured solely by quantitative metrics tied to bottom line finances. For better or worse, I’m just not motivated by money. I feel like I need to be able to understand the bigger picture, wherever I’m at in an organization. How is what I’m doing directly contributing to the community I come from and belong to? If I can’t answer that question, then the job means nothing to me.

Where do you think your passion for contributing to your community came from?

Probably from my mom. She’s a former teacher, and is so hugely passionate about the power of education. She’s definitely where I get my creativity, my humility, my friendliness and my empathy. It’s cliche, but she really is my hero and my inspiration. I was raised with strong, community-centric values not just in my house, but in school settings too.

What about your school settings was so formative?

I was very lucky to go to the charter school La Academia of The Denver Inner City Parish, from seventh grade until I graduated high school. I still keep in contact with my former dean and teachers. I genuinely believe I wouldn’t have graduated high school if I didn’t go there. I originally was enrolled in my local public school and I just – didn’t go, literally.

The leadership consisted of people of color, women of color at that. The students were predominantly Latino and Latinx. There were 60 of us in total, so it was a small school. We’d have daily standup-style meetings where we all shared happenings together – the highs and the lows. Whenever one of us got accepted to a college, it was a big deal. And when a teacher’s wallet was stolen at one point, that was being brought up in our daily meeting like, “OK, this is a resource issue. What’s going on? How can we fix it? Because strong, supportive communities don’t need to steal from each other.”

Having that experience to understand the value of a community in multiple settings — this idea that nobody really makes it without a community — anchored me and ultimately pushed me to be where I’m at.

We did your photoshoot at PCs for People because of your connection to their work. We then realized that when Gary Community Ventures was still the Piton Foundation – we provided a grant for them to expand their mission around access to technology. Is this shared connection indicative of how you see communities coming together and recognizing shared priorities?

It couldn’t be a better example. I really want to thank Tony Frank for facilitating this connection with PCs for People during his time there. [They] remain an important connection point in Denver’s digital equity work.

That’s really why this is a dream job for me. Sure, I love being the Digital Equity Program Manager with the Denver Mayor’s Office of Social Equity & Innovation as a job title. It looks great – but that’s not why I took this job. I took it to try to amplify voices and connect communities, and I love that I get to do that.

You have these community relations skills, but I also understand you were able to develop some highly technical skills from your time in the tech sector. Can you tell us about those?

It’s funny – when I graduated from undergrad in 2019, I had a degree in strategic communication and political science. As I was moving through college, I felt like I had no technical skills at all. And I didn’t think I was going to find what I felt was a good-paying job without them. So I just felt, you know – developers get paid a lot – that felt like a quick, easy way to make money, right? So I started teaching myself to code. In my senior year of college, I got into a really cool internship with Comcast Technology Solutions through a partnership with CU-Denver.

The internship was in project management, but I wanted to acquire more of those technical skills that I felt would make me a more competitive job candidate. I started asking a lot of questions on the engineering side – so I could learn. As a result, I remember being given a project where I was essentially doing manual software testing.

Thank god I learned and gained the experience that I did all before COVID, because I think that’s always how I’ve been able to keep myself afloat. I never felt worried about quitting a job, because I always had these skills I could fall back on if I needed to.

Can you tell us how you’re bringing all those skills together as the Digital Equity Program Manager with the Denver Mayor’s Office of Social Equity & Innovation?

I lead digital equity program initiatives at the macro level for the City and County of Denver. All of these initiatives tie back into three pillars:

    1. Internet accessibility – “how can we better provide access to affordable, high-speed internet?”
    2. Access to devices – “how do we get folks connected to computers, tablets and smartphones?”
    3. Digital education and support – “how do we make sure that people know how to navigate the internet and their devices safely and independently?”

My position’s focus is ending the digital divide in Denver, and implementing programs that reduce barriers to access and affordability within our city.

I understand you just put together a Digital Equity Strategic Plan for the city. What does that entail?

We’ve implemented a three-phase approach to our program design, with communities embedded in every phase. I want to stress I didn’t build this alone. I built this with people like Tony, the Denver Public Library, Denver Public Schools, The Denver Digital Equity Coalition, [and] The Denver Housing Authority.

    • Phase One: identifying community barriers.
    • Phase Two: resource asset mapping – identify existing community resources to expand and build upon without replicating programs.
    • Phase Three: co-creating solutions and building with partners.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: PCs for People.

You’re also working to address homelessness – a high priority for the current mayoral administration. Can you tell us more about that work?

We’re kicking off a pilot program with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) that we’re really excited about. They reached out about a rehabilitation program that begins the moment someone experiencing homelessness is discharged from the hospital. If you don’t have a home to go to where you can recover and heal – if you’re focused more on food, security and shelter than you are on healing – you’re going to end up stuck in a vicious cycle where you never fully recover.

The CCH takes care of the housing part of the program, in addition to service assistance and workforce development training, but you need to have access to technology to do all of those things. We found that while folks can check out a laptop from Denver Public Library, the waitlist is sometimes 200 people long. So utilizing a donation from Comcast, we are able to provide the coalition with their own ‘mini group collection’ for classroom instruction and recreational check-in/check-out.

I understand PCs for People is also part of that effort to expand access to devices. Can organizations beyond massive corporations like Comcast get in on this act?

Absolutely. The City and County of Denver is actually fueling its own initiatives through the team at PCs for People. So think about all the laptops that organizations go through. At the City, we replace them once they reach a certain age, but it doesn’t mean they’re no longer usable, right? Many of them are still highly functional. So PCs for People securely wipes all data from the devices, refurbishes them and gets them back out into communities that need and deserve them most.

From The City and County of Denver partnership alone since 2016, we have donated just over 7,000 computers, which supported 12,000 people. It also saved 93,000 pounds of e-waste from landfills. So if you’re an organization that utilizes technology in any way, you should absolutely be talking to PCs for People about ways to repurpose your old machines.

I think there may be misconceptions that technology and internet access is readily available to anyone who wants it. What have been some of the most eye-opening discoveries as you sought to expand digital equity?

There are 30,000 people in Denver who don’t have access to the internet at all – that’s more than 10% of our population who are entirely disconnected, and those are overwhelmingly communities of color.

One in three Denverites who make less than $30,000 a year don’t have access to the internet or a technology device.

One in five Denver high school students don’t have access to the internet or a device at home.

And while we don’t have these stats readily available, I think about older adults and the disabled community all the time. Not everyone has someone at home who can help them when they have a tech question — or when a system changes and they have to learn something new.

Bottom line: Technology plays a vital role in our day-to-day life, and we’re leaving communities of color, income-restricted folks, students, seniors, and the disabled behind. [Especially] if they’re not actively centered in these conversations – we’ve got to fix that.

You’ve also mentioned that in rooms where conversations about access to technology take place, there aren’t a lot of people who look like you. Can you elaborate on that?

Working in technology often means working solely with young, white men. While that is thankfully changing, that was my experience in my first few roles. At the time, I was very uncomfortable, and I developed this deep sense of imposter syndrome.

As time has gone on, I’ve grown a lot more confident, and that confidence is rooted in roles that call on me to deliver for the community that raised me. So now, I get to walk into rooms saying, “I will be in this room. I will be advocating, I will be championing, I will be demanding a budget.” Because people’s lives depend on it – and the data is there to back me up.

Having the power of that information riding shotgun with me has been a game-changer. My tech job isn’t just about getting people access to movies, music and books anymore. It’s about telehealth, job security, and education. I’m humbled I get to be the person thinking about that and pushing for it.

You were part of our inaugural Early Career Cohort for the Piton Fellowship. You’ve mentioned specifically that you have found your people through this fellowship and that it has played a significant role in helping you find your current role. Can you elaborate on that?

I was just with Demetrius [Parker] last weekend. We were all at Bre [Donnelly’s] house the Friday before. During the pandemic, when I got laid off, instead of getting up to get ready for work, I got ready and went to eat breakfast at Monica [Amador’s] house. I formed all of these relationships through Piton, and they’re not cutesy relationships where you go to happy hour a couple times a year. I do, feel like I found my people. I can go to them for things I can’t go to my mom or siblings for. These are people who get what you’re going through, who feel the same passion and are driven in the same way. It’s not an overstatement to say this [fellowship] changed my life, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

What’s one thing people can do to help you advance your digital equity and access work today?

Two things:

Learn about and promote the Affordable Connectivity Program – a federal program that offers a $30 credit each month to help community members access internet or mobile devices with multiple ways to qualify.

Also, in promotion of the National Digital Inclusion Week, we carried out a device drive in partnership with PCs for People. We ask organizations to donate their end-of-service-life laptops. Those interested can reach out to me directly to start the process.

    1. Companies donate their used tech
    2. PCs for People conduct data destruction and refurbishment/repair
    3. The city buys back the devices to support various communities

Denver needs devices, and we are working to answer the call.

Denver's Digital Equity Plan

 Read the digital equity report Anya’s team created for the City of Denver, including the identification of community barriers, resource asset mapping and ideas for co-created solutions.

Federal Affordable Connectivity Program

Learn more about the Federal Communications Commission program that offers monthly $30 credits to help community members access internet or mobile devices, with multiple ways to qualify.

Donate Your Used Tech

In partnership with PCs for People, the City of Denver is asking organizations to donate their end-of-service-life laptops. Those interested can reach out to Anya directly to start the process.

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