Contemplating the skull of a 300-million-year-old woolly mammoth in the last decade of the 20thcentury it’s unlikely that Jenny Lee, hired to rearticulate dinosaur bones in the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, had any inkling that in 2023 she would find herself selected chair of the Ulster County Citizens’ Commission for Digital Inclusion.
But life is like that. Full of surprises. Perhaps more so the life of a sculptor who works in welded metal, an adjunct professor of fine arts for 25 years at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Last spring, she was cooking sausages and hash browns for the pancake breakfast at the fire hall in the Town of Denning. “March Gallagher and senator Hinchey came to the pancake breakfast,” said Lee, “and they were talking about how they wanted to build out universal broadband.”
Someone at the breakfast knew about Lee’s efforts in this area and told Gallagher and Hinchey they had to talk to her.
“So I was pulled out of the kitchen,” said Lee. “I went out there in my apron and everything. March gave me her card. Senator Hinchey gave me a card. I wrote to both of them, and March called me in a week.”
During the pandemic, Lee and her husband had moved up from Hoboken, expecting to stay for a month or two. They ended up living there full-time. Lee volunteered to be a member of the Claryville volunteer fire department in Denning. This was the reason she was cooking at the pancake breakfast.
“I would say you don’t really know community until you join its volunteer fire department. My husband and I took state training, with like 20-something-year-old men, you know?” Lee said, laughing. “They were so supportive, every one of them.”
What had gotten the comptroller’s attention was Lee’s knowledge of broadband connectivity. Long before the commission, during the time when she had first arrived in Denning, Lee had found herself getting involved in quality-of-life issues. The lack of broadband connectivity had attracted her attention.
“We’re in the hamlet of Claryville,” explained Lee, “which straddles two counties and two towns. Neversink in Sullivan and Denning in Ulster.”
On behalf of Neversink and Denning she learned how to identify cables, and spent 2020 and part of 2021 biking up and down the roads. “And because I’m in the fire department I have the fire district map where dots correspond to 911 numbers. So that makes it really easy.”
In assembling the digital inclusion commission, Gallagher had tried to pick representation from towns in which broadband coverage was found wanting. Denning, Shandaken and Wawarsing were the top three localities with the most properties without coverage. Lee was a perfect fit.
“In Wawarsing, we have Paul Tuzzolino,” said Lee, “who is a member of the town board. Shandaken is represented by director of the Phoenicia Library Liz Potter.”
By May the 13-member commission had been rounded out. Its mission was to usher in universal connectivity for all Ulster County residents and their businesses. The goal was equitable, affordable access to high-speed cable fiber, broadband and cellular service.
Over the summer the commission mapped the existing coverage countywide, identifying where coverage fell short.
So it was that the FCC found the local commission prepared when it released its map purporting to account for coverage nationwide in August. The FCC invited state, municipal and individual feedback challenging the accuracy of its map. Billions of federal dollars hung in the balance nationwide, portions of which would be granted to help build out the remaining broadband infrastructure according to the information submitted.
When the January 13 deadline arrived, Ulster County had submitted a bulk challenge to the FCC map which identified 435 lack-of-service challenges and 165 missing-location challenges. A bulk challenge refers to the fact that challenges or corrections are based on multiple locations at the same time rather than individually.
“I want to commend the Citizens Commission for Digital Inclusion,” said Ulster County executive Jen Metzger when it was finished, “and county comptroller March Gallagher for their important work to identify gaps in broadband service across our county.”
The mission to render an accurate accounting of coverage now complete, members of the unpaid commission are discussing reorienting their activities. “It started off being a commission for broadband,” said Lee, “and I brought up this notion of digital inclusion, which goes beyond access. So it involves access to appropriate and adequate devices, and digital literacy.”
The path they’ve started on is more holistic, Lee said. It attempts to address failings in equity, considering especially those historically shortchanged and chronically disadvantaged when solving for the way resources have been made available to them.
“Some of the members were concerned about the amount of work we would be taking on, you know,” said Lee. “It is ambitious.”But if you don’t do anything, the status quo remains and it deepens the digital inequities.” I work very closely with Denning town supervisor Dave Brooks on this. We speak regularly, and he updates the town board. I also keep Neversink supervisor Chris Mathews apprised, since our roads, utility poles and aerial cable, and rivers are connected. I speak to supervisor Brooks’ brother, Sullivan County legislator Mike Brooks, who chairs that county’s Broadband Local Development Corporation.”
Librarians are in the thick of it. “We’re attending a consortium of Hudson Valley libraries systems in February,” said Lee. “The Ulster County Library Association invited us. So we’re just beginning the conversation.”
There are 21 libraries in Ulster County. The Southeastern New York library resource council serves them all.
But to return to the mammoth skull.
At the Museum of Natural History, halfway through the nineteen nineties, Lee was part of the team that articulated the dinosaur bones set up in the hall for the exhibit.
“It was amazing,” says Lee. “We dealt with the original fossilized specimen. The real bones. I was given the woolly mammoth to work on. And you’re there with a woolly mammoth’s fossilized skull and you start to think, this is 300 million years old! It’s much heavier when it’s fossilized. Over maybe 300 pounds, you know. We worked in a sandpit because sand can absorb impacts. The granules shift with the contour.”
As a multi-disciplinarian, Jenny Lee is game for whatever comes next. She can weld it, if need be. And it couldn’t be any stranger than articulating the bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex tail 30 feet long. It took a difficult counterbalance to support the proper posture of the ancient predator, which is quite different from the upright posture previously familiar for decades.
“Jenny Lee’s experience spearheading the identification of broadband gaps in Denning,” said Gallagher, “and her keen research and technical skills make her a tremendous asset in seeking full last-mile buildout for Ulster County.”