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Celebrating Black History Month: A Q+A With Dr. Jon Gant

Dr. Jon Gant headshot photo
Dr. Jon Gant


This Black History Month, NTIA celebrates the historic and present-day achievements of Black Americans who paved the way for innovation in telecommunications and tech sciences. We end the month with a spotlight on Dr. Jon Gant, Director of the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives. (Answers have been abbreviated).

My parents were from North Carolina, and their parents were teachers and social workers. At that time, the only schools you could go to were HBCUs. My parents were part of the Great Migration north, and were both chemists who really served their communities. My mom helped patent some of the ingredients in African-American hair products (like the Jheri curl conditioner). My dad also made products. He was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so using a computer changed his life. I saw how the computer changed his life and wanted to make it accessible for everyone. Ever since then, I’ve just carried this mantle of wanting to make the computer accessible for everybody. I worked on a lot of research projects that looked at the adoption and diffusion of new technologies, and I tried to understand: what does that mean for the everyday person that’s working?

I looked at the steel industry in the US and Japan, and I also looked at the adoption diffusion of digital government platforms, and how the technology could make it easier for people to access government and government services, The Internet was so cool, but there was a digital divide, so I eventually moved on to do more work there. I founded the Center for Digital Inclusion at the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, the first of its kind. One of the first high-speed broadband networks was built mostly by people of color/students of color, but there were also a lot of students saying, “I want to learn but the door isn’t open.” In Illinois, around the world—we developed the early idea of what a digital navigator looks like. We had to build trust, so we hired folks from the community. We got almost all the libraries, schools, churches and community service organizations connected for the first time.


NTIA was always on my radar since the mid-2000s as a place to work. When the opportunity came, it was perfect because they were doing all the equity work, building broadband. They also had a special program that focused on HBCUs. For seven years I was a dean at North Carolina Central University the only school of information in the country that was accredited to an HBCU. So, all the pieces just came together perfectly.

The other reason I wanted to come to NTIA was because of Dr. Francine Alkisswani—she’s a living Black history mogul. Mabel Pfiefer, too. Going back to the early 80s, they were involved in various projects to get HBCUs connected to the Internet. They always worked beneath the radar—they always helped HBCUs get federal dollars.

You know, there's been so many pioneers in the tech field, and their stories have really gone below the radar. There have been a lot of significant achievements that we see in many of the companies that are out there, from Apple to Microsoft. I think that's made a big difference in actually seeing [African Americans] in the tech field.

However, there aren't a lot, and there aren't enough, but they've made really large impacts on shaping the way the Internet works. In artificial intelligence, we see a number of Black tech pioneers that are in that space as well. I've been really fortunate to meet a number of Black pioneers in terms of building and deploying broadband networks.

The second thing is that a lot of the advances and opportunities to get access to the Internet has helped more and more African Americans in the United States get connected to more information about their history. And that is super exciting. You're able to get to more library resources online, digital archives, online and more. One particular area that's close to my family is our folks that will do a lot of work around ancestry type of things and you see the number of resources that are opening up and so forth.

A number of the colleges [NTIA] is funding are in the Black rural south. They’re making improvements in the network infrastructure itself, improving opportunities for online learning, and also helping faculty.

You also need Black staff to manage the computers, to make sure the faculty are trained well. A number of HBCUs are in cities and are able to link up with other nearby universities. But universities like Talladega are not near anything. You also must enhance digital literacy—it’s hard to believe, but there are not enough HBCUs with students in computer science programs. Meanwhile, elsewhere outside of HBCUs these same programs are oversubscribed.

A couple come to mind—I traveled to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where they’ve also landed a NASA grant about growing food for Mars. Kids can come to campus and now be a part of these research projects. If [the students] didn’t have stable Internet connection that we’re helping to put in, they wouldn’t be able to do this. Students can now be connected all around the world about these scientific discoveries.

Community colleges in Alabama spun up a broadband tech program. They trained folks just in the neighborhood on how to deploy broadband so it’s no longer a mystery. And the Morehouse School of Medicine, which is separate from Morehouse College, they are passionate about telehealth and telemedicine. Those were very memorable things.

Note: Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Morehouse College both receive NTIA CMC funding to support these projects.

Getting to see transformation in action in the community and doing it in a way where the community is participating with the grantee, working together hand in hand to see transformation in action. Just recently, I spoke at a school in New Mexico. While there, I spoke with the professor who was leading the grant, the program officer, and a couple of other team members. It was so cool to listen. They’re implementing the grant with a culturally and innovative approach. I could talk with those folks all day long.


About the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives

NTIA established the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives (OMBI) to promote equitable high-speed Internet access and adoption within minority communities across the United States. Its mission is to support and administer federal programs that expand access, adoption and use of high-speed Internet services and other digital opportunities equitably across the United States.  OMBI’s motivating vision, implemented in part through the Connecting Minority Communities (CMC) Pilot Program, is “to achieve digital equity for minority communities across the United States by supporting and building capacity in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) as catalysts for the expansion of broadband access.