Baltimore Teens Fought To Provide Communities With Fast and Reliable Internet

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

Last spring, whenever Kimberly Vasquez and her two younger sisters logged into their respective Zoom classes, the internet in their Baltimore townhouse would crash. Their teachers’ faces pixelated and screens froze.

On May 26, 2020, Kimberly Vasquez and other teenage activists announced demands to Comcast to provide adequate high speed internet to low-income families. (Nicolas Mackall)

The Vasquez’s experience wasn’t isolated to their home. Many neighborhood families with the Comcast Essentials package who relied on their internet for school and work during the pandemic, quickly realized their internet could not sustain the increased workload. Across the country, the increase in remote school and learning exposed a digital divide due to the growing income gap, according to the Federal Communications Commission

Vasquez’s unreliable WiFi started to hinder her schoolwork. Her grade point average dropped but her family could only afford the low-cost plan that wasn’t suitable for remote learning. 

On Feb. 24, 2021, SOMOS announced their demands for an equitable school reopening. (Nicolas Mackall)

Well-off students are more likely to have the equipment needed to attend online school, according to a study published by the Economic Policy Institute. Seven percent of poor eighth-graders in the United States don’t have internet access, compared to only 1.6 percent of non-poor students.

When Vasquez learned 40 percent of households in Baltimore experienced similar issues, especially in the “Black Butterfly” or primarily Black neighborhoods, she felt compelled to act on it.

Yashira Valenzuela is a member of Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS). (Nicolas Mackall)

Vasquez was joined by Yashira Valenzuela and Aliyah Abid, two friends from Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS), a grassroots organization tackling systemic issues of injustice in Baltimore schools. They soon organized to petition Comcast to make their plans faster and more economical for low-income families. 

“We just got kind of riled up and we wrote a proposal, did interviews and press conferences,” Valenzuela, 19, said. “After all our research, we just felt happy to help and that fueled our advocacy.” 

After rallying at Comcast headquarters, the city’s largest provider made the most affordable option for internet run at twice the speed. 

Throughout the journey, Vasquez and her team have amassed a high profile following; including the Baltimore City Council, Baltimore Teachers Union and City Councilman Zeke Cohen. 

On Twitter, Cohen wrote about Vasquez’s efforts. “The voices of students and parents must be included in the reopening plan. How different would Baltimore look if we listened to our children?”

The issue speaks to the digital gender gap in the country, says Jessica Posner Odede of Girl Effect. “Women are 26 percent likely to use the internet than men and boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls.” She said girls could be missing out on opportunities and education without access to technology. 

Vasquez brought her activism to the White House in May 2021 when she spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Members of SOMOS demonstrate outside of Comcast on May 26, 2020. (Nicolas Mackall)

“We had no idea what we were doing, but seeing all of those organizations support us made me feel kind of special,” Valenzuela said. “It definitely changed my view on the power of a teenager.”

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Shreya Prabhu is a student journalist based in Connecticut. She enjoys reporting for her school newspaper, reading and being an active member of her Model United Nations team.