Interview: Jackie Joyner-Kersee on Comcast’s Internet Essentials Expansion in Chicago

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CHICAGO – When Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Comcast Senior Executive VP David L. Cohen gather the press corp to represent the company’s “Internet Essentials,” it’s sure to become a benefit for the City of Chicago. The Essentials program seeks to close the “Digital Divide” – the gap for web access in poorer communities – and bring the internet to everyone’s home.

The program has been an amazing success so far. In the five years of Internet Essentials, Comcast has connected 750,000 families nationwide, with 43,000 families (172,000 people total) newly plugged into the web in Chicago. In addition to the connections, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (National Spokesperson for Internet Essentials) and David L. Cohen announced that $125,000 will be earmarked toward the creation of a computer lab within the Chicago Housing Authority (the public housing agency), a mobile learning lab and access to digital literacy training. For more, see the information below the article.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee (center, black/white collar) and David L. Cohen (back row, right) for ‘Internet Essentials’
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

As part of the rollout, got to talk to Jackie Joyner-Kersee and David L. Cohen, about the importance of this vital initiative from Comcast.

StarOlympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, National Spokesperson for Internet Essentials

The three words that exemplified Olympic sports celebrity in the 1980s and ‘90s were Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The Olympic star won three gold, one silver and two bronze medals in the 1984, ’88 and ‘96 Games, specializing in the long jump and woman’s heptathlon (which consists of seven track and field events). In the 1988 Olympics, she won gold in the heptathlon and established a world record that still stands. Sports Illustrated for Women named Joyner-Kersee the Greatest Woman Athlete of the 20th Century – right in front of her inspiration, Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Zaharias was a pioneer multi-sport woman athlete from the 1930s-50s). As the spokesperson for this amazing new program, how do you relate to the potential for education and receiving information that the internet offers, and how do you compare it to the curiosity and opportunities that made your life better?

Jackie Joyner-Kersee: I think it’s about the level playing field, society always needs a level playing field. In order to do that, you have to have opportunity, and providing that opportunity begins with ‘how do we bridge that gap,’ that so-called Digital Divide? How can we get internet into every home possible? Even if the person doesn’t know what the internet can do, we can bring it to them and show how it can make a difference in their lives. What is the greatest finish line that you ever crossed in your life, and what did it mean to you once you broke that tape?

Jackie Joyner-Kersee for Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials’
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Joyner-Kersee: This is more metaphorical, but the greatest finish line for me was finishing college – it was a pact I made with my mother, during a time when she fell ill. That happened during my Freshman year, and unfortunately she never saw me compete in the Olympics. But she really wanted me to finish college, because she never finished Junior High. Of all the sports your participated in, what is the hardest single element for you to master?…For example, the jump shot, the discus, the starting block…

Joyner-Kersee: The hardest one for me was the high jump, the technical aspect of having to lay out, timing it right and getting the technique correct. That was one of the key events in the heptathlon, and I had to learn it. It became a visualization process, I had to see myself laying out. I would get up early in college, practice laying out and then go take my classes. That was the hardest of them all, I had to work on that intently. One of your inspirations was the 1930s pioneer woman athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias. If you two were to have a conversation, what would you want it to focus on…what were you most curious about her?

Joyner-Kersee: I would have talked to her about her focus, and her fierce competitiveness. And our conversation wouldn’t be so much about her breaking so many barriers, but the agony she had to go through to break those barriers. As a woman, how did she silence the sports world that was constantly telling her she couldn’t or shouldn’t do it? How was she able to withstand that emotionally, and still do what she did?

StarDavid L. Cohen, Senior Executive VP & Chief Diversity Officer for Comcast Corp

Diverse is a good word for David L. Cohen, who has had success in his legal, political and corporate careers. As Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Comcast, he oversees and represents the Internet Essentials program for the company. After graduating from University of Pennsylvania Law School, he worked for Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell as Chief of Staff in the 1990s, and afterward was a partner at Ballard Spahr Andrews and Ingersoll LLP, one of the top 100 largest law firms in the country, before joining Comcast. He has been honored with numerous awards for his civic and charitable activities, including the American Red Cross Citizen of the Year. Since your background contains both high education and activism for diversity, how can a program like Internet Essentials help to uplift a person who participates in the program?

David L. Cohen: I live by statistics, so if look at U.S. Census statistics regarding families making over $100,000 dollars a year, 93% of them have broadband internet at home. If you look at the families who live below the poverty line, only 47% of them have internet access at home. And of that low income population, they are disproportionately urban and people of color, which makes it a social justice issue.

David L. Cohen for Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials’
Photo credit: Comcast

These people who are left behind in this ‘divide’ are lower income ethnic groups like African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. If we hold onto our American ideals, we’ve got to make sure that all opportunities are available – including access to the internet – no matter what income level you’re at or where you live. Since you’ve worked in both politics and commerce, where do those dynamics intersect best to provide for the American people?

Cohen: I believe we’re past the point where the government or the private sector can solve all problems, it’s all about partnerships. Comcast likes to step up in this space, because we have a lot of governmental, school district, library and community partners.

We get a lot of support from the federal government with the ‘e-rate’ programs, which helps to connect schools and libraries to the internet, and the Lifeline broadband program, which the FCC just extended. Those programs also help to close the Digital Divide, and the partnership that can exist between federal, state and local governments and Comcast, can make a great difference, and we can change everything together. That’s what I believe the best role is for the government and the corporate sector. What do you know about Ed Rendell that the rest of world doesn’t know?

Cohen: I know a lot that the rest of the world doesn’t know, but the rest of the world isn’t finding out in this interview with you. [laughs] I will tell you he is one of my best friends.

”Internet Essentials” from Comcast is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive high-speed internet adoption program.  It provides low-cost high-speed internet service, the option to purchase an internet-ready computer for under $150, and access to free digital literacy training – in print, online and in-person. For more information, or to apply for the program, click here or call 1-855-846-8376. Spanish speakers should call 1-855-765-6995. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

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© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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