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From Twitter Threads to COVID Relief

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Tasneem Meem

Author • Nov 4, 2022

COVID-19 – the pandemic that hit us all, but devastated marginalized and lower-income districts the hardest. From job losses to sold-out grocery stores, inequality only increased in a city like New York. Yet, with considerably all news outlets covering stories of pandemic updates, one issue remains salient on the lips of many New Yorkers: access to education.

School closures, one of the most prominent consequences of COVID-19, resulted in roughly 1.6 billion students learning from home. The pandemic produced staff shortages and zero alternatives to teaching in-school, forcing educational facilities across the world to switch to online methods of learning. Analyses of these public schools revealed that this transition has disadvantaged students, from data showing pupils falling behind in subjects to collaterals, including compromised chances of attending college in the future. The pandemic redefined what it meant to have a quality education, affecting not only students whose families have sustainable incomes but also heavily on those with lower income backgrounds.

Noticing the lack of aid to these families, many non-profit organizations sought to minimize the burden of COVID-19 and provide households with access to materials for COVID relief. Here’s where Christopher Knight, co-founder of Devices for Students, comes into play.

While working as the sales and operations manager at Google, Knight manages Devices for Students, a non-profit organization dedicated to dissolving the digital divide in public schools.

The question is, where, and just how did this project all begin?

The switch to virtual learning on Zoom and Google Meets caused students to access a device in order to join these applications. For many families, this was a major obstacle to their child’s learning and development. Knight noticed his teacher colleagues having a difficult time teaching because so many of their students disappeared from their virtual classes. With no access to a device or the internet, students physically could not attend these classes, and thus, learn.

Well-known companies such as Facebook and Google made announcements of providing computers to families and households that needed them. Unfortunately, COVID-19 closed and delayed shipping lines, forcing a shortage of computers and causing devices to become unavailable.

Knight and his best friend, Jay Pettigrew, both co-founders of Devices for Students, grew up with limited access to electronics and felt that they needed to take immediate action. Understanding firsthand the impact a lack of access to devices can have on education, the two sat down to create what the world now knows as Devices for Students.

“Just kind of wanted to be doing something”

The story of how Devices for Students came to be is both fanatical and inspiring– Knight has empowered making change occur, even if it means starting with a simple tweet.

Starting a non-profit takes time, effort, and money, and not all of it comes easy. Knight and Pettigrew started their first few days by messaging everyone they knew, whether it was someone they met years ago or even last night. The goal was for Devices for Students to gain acknowledgment and for people to be aware of the non-profit’s existence, especially influential individuals. Truth be told, it takes great deals for a company to run and take off without money; this is where donations and funding became especially important.

While reaching out, Knight was asked whether he knew what Stuart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack Technologies, was doing on Twitter. With their idea in merely infant stages, Knight and Pettigrew broke off responsibilities between creating a website and reaching out simultaneously. Finishing their website in one night, the two created an official Twitter account and email domains for Devices for Students, with which they began their process of reaching out.

Butterfield made a Twitter post about giving away $25,000 to five listed charities and to whomever would match with him. Taking up the opportunity, Knight tagged Butterfield in a tweet and asked for his team to check out Devices for Students’ mission. The single tweet was ignored, especially since the non-profit was brand new, but it did not stop Knight and his team from trying again. The Devices for Students’ team expanded to their personal network, which yielded significantly more impactful results– every one of their friends made Twitter accounts to retweet and tag Knight’s tweet so that the non-profit would gain traction. Eventually, with over several hundred individuals mentioning Devices for Students, Butterfield’s social secretary noticed the engagement, and direct-messaged Knight to inform him that the Slack team would “see what they can do.” The secretary messaged back and informed Knight that the $25,000 was only available for the charities and companies mentioned, but the Slack team could make a donation of $1000.

Knight took up the opportunity and even got another donor who committed a donation. However, Knight made a deal between Devices for Students and the two donors where one would donate more if the other did not, eventually scaling to where both organizations donated $10,000 each. Knight and his team received commitments of $20,000 by their third day.

Starting strong, Knight and his outreach team worked with SPARK, a non-profit partner, that established donation lines which allowed Devices for Students to take in donations and reach out to other donors, getting as much recognition and support as possible. The money took time to transfer, but in the meantime, Knight and Pettigrew invested $20,000 of their own money to ship computers in and out, and get their non-profit started. They began by contacting the schools of Knight’s teacher colleagues and donated devices directly to students through school lunch lines, simultaneously protecting the students’ privacy and efficiently sending computers out.

Successfully supporting over 30 schools, aiding students all over the state, and donating over 2,000 laptops, Devices for Students have slowly dissolved and turned all authority over to SPARK. Reaching the impact that was initially sought, Knight and his team turn over the responsibility of their mission to nonprofits and organizations that have both more time and resources to provide for students globally. Instead, Knight and his team are working towards more long-term projects that are just as impactful. The team has already made its mark by helping establish a creative agency called D/CAL in Detroit, and other businesses to raise 5 million dollars used to fund schools with brand-new computers. Knight has also been working with Google to establish more robust networks to aid in distributing devices and work on projects with similar missions on a larger scale.

From a serendipitous tweet to a now dissolving COVID-19 project, Devices for Students remains one of the unique and inspirational non-profit initiatives to exist.