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Celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month: A Q+A with Angela Thi Bennett

By: Maya C. James

This month, NTIA celebrated Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month with the theme “Bridging Histories, Shaping Our Future.” We close out this month by chatting with Angela Thi Bennett, NTIA’s first-ever Director of Digital Equity.

Tell me about yourself and your heritage. Photo of Angela Thi Bennett

I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, to a Vietnamese mother and a Black American father from the Deep South. After the fall of Saigon, my family faced numerous challenges, but we were determined to build a better life. We managed to relocate to America, where I grew up experiencing both Vietnamese and African American cultures. This unique blend of heritages has given me a rich perspective on life, enabling me to appreciate diverse viewpoints and experiences.

My mother, who dropped out of school at a young age to care for her ailing mother, always emphasized the importance of getting an education. She often said, "People can take things from you, but they can't take away your education," a sentiment I'm sure many other New Americans have heard. This belief has been a guiding principle in my life. Without access to a high-quality education, achieving the American Dream is impossible. Ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet, coupled with Internet-enabled devices and the resources to meaningfully use the Internet, is crucial. It empowers individuals and communities to achieve their version of the American Dream, just as my family aspired to do when we came to America. I wish she could see now the opportunities and progress that have come from her unwavering belief in education.

What brought you to NTIA?

My journey to NTIA was driven by my passion for technology and its potential to bridge gaps in society. During my time serving the community, I witnessed firsthand the disparities in access to technology and information. This motivated me to pursue a career in which I could make a meaningful impact. NTIA's mission to ensure that all Americans have access to vital communications services resonated deeply with me, leading me to this role where I can contribute to digital equity and inclusion. My experiences have shown me the critical importance of equal access to technology for all, and NTIA provides the platform to make significant strides toward this goal.

How does NTIA’s work impact AA, NH, and PI communities?

NTIA's work is crucial in addressing the digital divide, which disproportionately affects certain populations, including Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. By promoting policies and initiatives that enhance broadband access and digital literacy, NTIA helps these communities gain better access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. This work ensures that all individuals, regardless of their background, have the tools they need to succeed in a digital world.

Furthermore, individuals with language barriers are one of our covered populations. It's critical to ensure that those with low literacy and/or English language learners have digital access, particularly those individuals who may not be literate in their native language. NTIA's funding includes support for initiatives in multiple languages, as well as the development of programs that specifically address the needs of these communities. By doing so, we help to eliminate barriers and create a more inclusive digital environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Tell me about your experiences with digital (in)equity. What does digital inclusion/equity mean to you personally?

The barriers to digital access have been a persistent issue long before the pandemic. In my work with various communities, I've seen firsthand the struggles faced by many. Young learners often had to sit on the steps of libraries or in fast food parking lots just to get internet access, while their peers who had the luxury of internet at home could participate in afterschool activities and complete their homework with ease.

During my time on the Ohio State Board of Education, we made significant efforts to support students, such as creating "snow day packets" to ensure learning continued during inclement weather. However, these packets required internet access, highlighting the digital divide. It was disheartening to see that while some students could easily continue their education from home, others were left behind due to lack of connectivity. Digital inclusion and equity mean creating a level playing field where everyone, regardless of their background or economic status, has access to the digital tools and resources they need. It's about ensuring that no student is disadvantaged simply because of where they live or their family's financial situation. Personally, it means advocating for and implementing solutions that bridge these gaps, so all individuals have the opportunity to succeed in our increasingly digital world.

Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from your work thus far?

I have several memorable experiences from my work that stand out. One that particularly touched me was helping an elder in the Gila River community learn how to use Zoom so he could participate in Tribal meetings. Seeing his joy and sense of empowerment as he connected with others in his community was incredibly rewarding.

Another memorable experience was creating space for individuals from marginalized communities to have a voice. Facilitating these opportunities for people to share their stories and concerns has been a powerful reminder of the importance of our work. Additionally, during the Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, states and territories participated in robust, meaningful engagement where those who were most impacted had a seat at the planning table to co-design solutions that truly meet their needs. It underscored the critical role of digital access in enabling civic engagement and ensuring that all voices can be heard in our democratic process. These experiences have reinforced my commitment to promoting digital equity and inclusion, and they continue to inspire me every day.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is knowing that the work I do has a real, positive impact on people's lives. Whether it's through policy development, community outreach, or technical assistance, each effort contributes to bridging the digital divide. I find great satisfaction in working with diverse communities and seeing the direct benefits of increased digital access and inclusion. Additionally, meeting with individuals who are directly impacted by the digital divide and making sure they feel worthy and heard is incredibly fulfilling. Hearing their stories and understanding their needs drives me to work even harder to create solutions that make a difference.