After eyeing a career in international diplomacy, Painesville native and Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship alum Joshua Edmonds became one of the nation’s first digital inclusion directors for a municipal government. After four years advancing digital equity initiatives in Detroit, he’s brought his talents back to Greater Cleveland where he’s working to close the digital divide as CEO of DigitalC.
Launched in 2016, the Cleveland Foundation’s Public Service Fellowship brings emerging leaders together from across the country and immerses them in the work of Cleveland’s public sector, providing them an opportunity to develop their skills, enhance their networks and jumpstart a career in public service. We caught up with Edmonds, a member of the inaugural fellowship cohort, to hear more about his experience in the program, how it’s impacted his career and what he’s looking to accomplish in his new role.
Why did you initially decide to participate in the Public Service Fellowship?
I was familiar with the fellowship program because I’d also completed a Cleveland Foundation summer internship as an undergraduate. I’d spent some time studying abroad in college, and my original plan was to focus on foreign affairs and diplomacy. I wanted to be a U.S. ambassador in Mexico. I’d passed my foreign service language exam and was on the path to do it, but after living abroad again in graduate school, I realized I wanted to come back to Cleveland. International diplomacy is one thing, but I realized diplomacy locally is a thing too. I saw the Public Service Fellowship as an opportunity to take the original government experience and trajectory I already had and apply it in a new way: How can I leverage this diplomacy pathway in the interest of Cleveland?
How did the fellowship help shape your career trajectory?
I didn’t have a host site in mind, but CMHA (Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority) chose me, and it was a joy. They set me on the trajectory of digital equity. I didn’t have that as a dream before the fellowship, but through that experience they helped me cultivate that. I worked on ConnectHome—an Obama administration initiative that sought to connect public housing estates across the country to the internet. I actually worked with DigitalC to provide internet service to the Cedar High Rise apartment complex, and that’s really what sparked my passion for digital equity.
I’ve always been infatuated with technology. I was one of those kids who would play around with the settings on our home computer and check out the developer mode on video games. I worked doing IT support in college, and I would take calls from people getting scammed at least once a week. I felt terrible and didn’t know what to do about it. When I got to CMHA, I saw people I knew from the community, and they felt like family. When I saw what people struggle with, it was something I couldn’t ignore. Once you see the digital divide, you can’t unsee it. So I’ve dedicated my career to it—it’s a personal obligation mixed with a professional interest.
What are some of your most memorable experiences as a fellow?
Before we deployed the internet service at Cedar High Rise, I did focus groups where I went to every CMHA property county-wide to talk to residents about the project. We were trying to get people signed up for email addresses, and so many residents pushed back—they were concerned about their privacy. These seminars gave me a chance to get to know folks and their needs directly. It also inspired me to plan the first Cleveland Housing Hackathon, where we gave residents a chance to work with developers on digital projects to help bridge that trust gap and show them the tangible value connectivity could bring to their lives. These experiences taught me a lot—intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, coalition building—things that are key to the work I do today.
Can you tell us about DigitalC and the work you lead now as their CEO?
DigitalC is a nonprofit, technological social enterprise dedicated to expanding internet access and investing in social innovation. We deliver reliable, affordable wireless internet service through our provider EmpowerCLE+ and manage the MidTown TechHive, which provides coworking and community engagement space. Everything we do revolves around what I call our Five Cs: community, connectivity, collaboration, culture and Cleveland. Our ultimate mission is to make our community’s digital future equitable.
What are your digital inclusion goals for Cleveland?
A digitally equitable Cleveland is a city built on choice. That choice is missing in a lot of neighborhoods where people may only have one option for internet service. If every Clevelander has access to an affordable solution, then it changes the trajectory of these families who’ve gone so long without internet. We want to connect everybody—the most innovative thing you can do is take care of your people.
What advice would you give to someone considering applying for the Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship?
I would tell them to do it and to be bold. It’s the perfect environment to think big. Fellowships aren’t that common, at least they weren’t when I was in school. It’s more than just a job—treat it like the opportunity and experience it is. It’s a continuation of your educational journey. Learn all you can. You might feel like you’re not comfortable, like you’re too young or too inexperienced to come in with big ideas. But it’s like basketball—if your hand is hot, shoot the ball!
Are you passionate about public service? We are currently accepting applications for the 2023-24 cohort of Public Service Fellows! Learn more about what the program could do for your career and how you can apply here.