The problem with many news stories is that the reporter tends to assume far too often that the reader has been following the reporter's beat along with the reporter. (A beat is a journalism term that describes the type of stories that the reporter covers. Ex: sports, foreign policy, state politics, art and culture, etc.) Of course for a majority of readers, this is not the case. A typical reader has a job, a family, and other concerns to dedicate her time to aside from keeping abreast with the latest developments of a reporter's beat. So often I find it difficult to make my way through a news article without confronting a variety of questions that the writer assumes I already know the answers to. On top of that, the reporter will throw in random facts assuming I can put them into proper context concerning the subject matter of which I have nothing more than generalized knowledge about. The gravity of the situation that these facts attest to is lost due to my ignorance and the reporter's neglect to confront my ignorance. What does this lead to? Well, for many readers who find themselves in such a position, they grow frustrated at the inordinate difficulty in trying to understand what the hell is going on. They may also feel ashamed at not already knowing enough to tell what is going on, which - when you think about it - is absurd. Why read a newspaper that already assumes you know what is going on? From here many a reader disengage before they scream and tear the newspaper into tiny shreds. Thus the masses grow apathetic and uninformed. Business, politics, foreign policy and other important aspects of society become ever more distant and inaccessible. And journalism fails to do its job.
Journalism grows ever more elitist by ignoring its duties to educate the common man. A way to battle this is to introduce more pedantic elements into journalism. News people must remember that contemporary society grows increasingly complicated as bureaucratic substructures abound in almost every endeavor modern society offers. Reporters can no longer be mere messengers in a society where the masses are estranged from corporate and political echelons. Reporters must also be teachers and illustrate what the latest newsbreak means within the entire functioning system of their beat. This will require a radical renovation of the news.
Twenty years ago such a suggestion would be absurd. "Explain the latest developments in the context of the entire system?" A reporter would exclaim, "There's not enough room! I can't keep explaining the same thing, over and over, every single day!" Thankfully, these are the concerns of the print journalist, not his predecessor, the internet reporter (who has still to fully develop).
This is a perfectly valid suggestion against the backdrop of the internet. Let's say a news blog has released an article detailing a new contract between the US government and American contractor, Halliburton. Such an article will undoubtedly refer to some esoteric information that will stump anyone other than business executives and news junkies. With a simple click of the mouse, a befuddled reader could then be ushered to a page that would illustrate what this development means in the context of the whole system between contractors and the US government. Unlike newspapers, internet pages are infinite and (more or less) cheap.
Now the question is what would such a page look like? How could one explain entire systems of society to a reader who has almost no prior expertise? There are many ways to go about solving such a conundrum: the first would be to explain the system via text. But what are often undervalued in society are the skills required to explain complex systems simply and accurately to others: empathetic sensibilities bordering on ESP and complete comprehension of a subject matter. This skill set touches upon the core asset of good teaching. Many high-ranking academics (often professors at erudite universities) miserably fail to live up to this obligation themselves. But regardless of academia's problems, it's about time these principles were prized amongst journalists.
Ah, here we may encounter a dirty dirty secret: many journalists themselves do not know what is going on. It has almost become an industry standard to scan the internet and assemble one's article out of the disembodied parts of other articles, come Frankenstein. This shameful habit is almost an industry-wide practice. Don't believe me? Google a news story. Read the articles that pop up. Notice how mind-bogglingly redundant they all are. Rarely does anyone seek a different angle on a news story, let alone get different information from another relevant party. In fact, many quotes are the same en masse. As journalists grow increasingly lazier thanks to the internet and PR announcements, their collective knowledge grows weaker, their thoughts grow more dependent on others. Thinking and producing thoughtful work in the news industry looks reminiscent of mad cow disease: reporters eating and regurgitating the words of other reporters, who themselves have devoured and regurgitated the works of some public representative of the actual party. This pattern is a double edged sword, for not only does it seek to vanquish the reader's ever-mounting confusion, but it will undoubtedly rout out reporters who operate in partial or complete ignorance: the spores of mass confusion.
So, a reporter must be required to completely and thoroughly understand her beat. She is then required to explain the system as a pretext to her breaking story so that any reader, anywhere, will understand what the hell is happening. Not just businessmen, congress men, not just specific strata of society, everyone: housemaids, twelve-year olds, hippies, outdoor enthusiasts, former convicts, stay-at-home dads, artists, everyone.
The final benefit of this pattern is that the truth will be easier to discern from hype, spin and flagrant lies. How? Easy. Lies don't make sense. That's how we eventually know (other than a third party informing us) that we're being lied to. How do we tell the difference between a genius and a madman? The genius makes sense. Whatever explanatory system makes the most sense is the best candidate for the truth. There is nothing out there that can determine such a thing other than ourselves and our relationship to the truth. No matter where we stand in society, we all are tangent to larger operating systems that determine much of our lives. Systems of real estate development, agriculture, politics, and so on. We all have some first-hand knowledge of large newsworthy systems. That, combined with our intellect, is enough to suss out the truth. If someone can't explain to us how things interrelate simply and coherently, that's probably because they're full of shit.
Constructing news that attempts to place latest developments in the context of a large system should be an effective way to the cease the public's confusion over many issues and their resulting apathy because of it. Not only will the public be more informed, but news people will have more responsibility for the peoples' comprehension of the issues.
"One of the fundamental contrasts between free democratic societies and totalitarian systems is that the totalitarian government [or other totalitarian organization] relies on secrecy for the regime but high surveillance and disclosure for all other groups, whereas in the civic culture of liberal democracy, the position is approximately the reverse." -- Professor Geoffrey de Q Walker, now dean of law at Queensland University in Australia.
Over the past two decades, surveillance has permeated society in ways that only Orwell could have imagined. The increasingly low costs of electronics and data storage coupled with scare tactics like terrorism have given governments worldwide the green light to put public and private spaces under their eye. During 2008 alone, Sprint gave location data of their users over to law enforcement a total of eight million times. The surveillance infrastructure is owned and controlled primarily by those with political and class privilege. This creates a situation where people can be watched but cannot "watch the watchers". As a result, the accountability of police, politicians, and other authority figures decreases.
In any political / social context, from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian government. Sousveillance in a democratiic (or quasi-democratic) country is particularly important in times of overzealous governmental secrecy, propensity towards surveillance, and increasing political repression.
"Steve Mann presents the notion of sousveillance as a method for the public to monitor the establishment and provide a new level of transparency. This has been the role of the press, but with its strong orientation toward positive feedback, the media has tended to focus on less relevant issues, which get an inordinate amount of attention. One such example was the media's fascination with Gennifer Flowers and her claim that she had had an affair with President Clinton." -- From Joichi Ito's discussion of Emergent Democracy. One of the first thing that George W. Bush did when he became president of the US was to place his father's writings (which by law were supposed to be made public) into secrecy.
We live in an age where ever-increasing portions of the population have turned to social networking where they divulge the most personal and private details of their life to their friends, their co-workers, and most anybody who cares to look. Facebook, Google, and other advertising giants track every website a person goes to with an ad or a 'like' button on it. People scan their loyalty cards at grocery stories and give their entire purchase history, name, number, and address to the highest bidder in exchange for a few dollars off their bill. Those who run their surveillance infrastructure have not been blind to this and have begun investing significant resources into monitoring social networking sites and rich sources of user-generated information.
No matter where one turns, they can find information on their fellow citizen that they would rather not have revealed. Security cameras, credit cards, and RFID-enabled identification cards track our every movement. Normal activities which one might not want the world to know about like visits to the pharmacy, an alleyway make-out session, and a visit to Planned Parenthood all become a spectacle for those on the other end of the camera to enjoy.
While some of the information garnered by dragnet surveillance is available to the public or those of small financial stature, most of it is locked in databases and storage systems run by the rich and powerful. In 2005, it was revealed that for the past five years the National Security Agency had been collecting wholesale internet traffic, call records, and other private information from millions of Americans without warrants, subpoenas, or any judicial oversight. In a 2001 report, the European Union validated a theory that the United States, in conjunction with allies such as the UK, operated a global surveillance network called ECHELON which could intercept most worldwide communications. It is said that through publicly and privately operated surveillance cameras, the average Londoner is photographed 300 times per day. The majority of people are watched with intense scrutiny throughout the entirety of their lives while the minority of people who commit the biggest crimes sit behind closed doors where they can execute their plans for financial and social dominance in privacy and without interruption. People no longer seem to be surprised to hear that the dash-cam of a police car was mysteriously off when the officer flew off the handle or that the video from a jail beating is missing.
How can we change this dynamic? How can surveillance systems actually be used for widespread social accountability instead of preserving the interests of those who own them?
Study after study shows that surveillance does not actually reduce crime or make the average person safer and a steady stream of newsstories show that surveillance abilities are used improperly by those who have them. A study conducted by Hull University showed that one in ten women were targeted for 'voyeuristic' reasons by male camera operators. Norris, C. and Armstrong, G. "The unforgiving Eye: CCTV surveillance in public space" Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, Hull University, 1997. Seeing this, the simple solution seems to be to outlaw surveillance equipment entirely or create rules to hold its owners accountable. To some extent, this has already been done. The government is barred from using surveillance and search powers without obtaining necessary legal justification and corporations have similar but less stringent limitations. Nonetheless and unsuprisingly, these rules have not stopped widespread abuse as those who own surveillance systems are often the same ones who fare better in courts and the media due to societal privilege.
People must have the means to watch the watchers. Steve Mann's term "sousveillance" captures this idea. As the age of surveillance is here to stay (at least until we live in a world where people's privacy is put above the sanctity of property), there must be a way to change the dynamic of surveillance. Sousveillance requires tools which are easy for laypeople to use, a network for communicating among those who use them, and a method for spreading information that comes from sousveillance. There are many some tools such as Freedom of Information Laws, cell-phone cameras, and independent media networks which help facilitate sousveillance but there are not nearly enough and they are not as widely adopted as necessary. People must make these tools easier to use, put them into the hands of more people, and make their use ubiquitous enough to truly scare those who they are meant to keep an eye on.
Anti-poverty advocates and activists are isolated in their own communities. They often do not have the communications and education and training resources they need to do their work. Poor people do not have the information they need in order to take control over their lives and get the resources to which they are entitled, or to advocate effectively for themselves. Lack of access to communication severely limits the opportunities for building communities where poor people can help themselves access the resources they need and where advocates and activists in the anti-poverty community can be involved in organizing for social change locally, nationally and internationally.
The players in this online movement include poor people and advocates involved with community advocacy groups, settlement workers, multicultural groups, seniors organizations, disability groups, legal aid, test case interveners, labour organizations, public libraries, women
Poverty is a debilitating worldwide problem that affects poor people directly, and society at large. Although access to information and resources is critical to overcoming poverty and alleviating the problems of people living in poverty, poor people and anti-poverty advocates traditionally have less access to the internet and other communications technology.
Although poverty and computers do not make for an obvious alliance, it is clear that the two worlds have to connect unless we want to have a society where access to information and resources is only for people who can afford access to the technology. Public access sites are rarely adequate to feed public need; users need people to help them do online research, and free printers to print out forms and information. Hosts of public access sites need money to keep equipment up-to-date and tech support to keep computers and internet connections running smoothly. Lack of access to communication makes it difficult to connect communities in the anti-poverty world outside their local regions.
PovNet is a non-profit society created in British Columbia, Canada in 1997. It is an online resource for anti-poverty advocates and poor people, created to assist poor people and advocates involved in the communities identified above through an integration of offline and online technology and resources. PovNet works with advocates and activists across Canada involved in direct case work and social action and justice. Some of these groups include: * Canada Without Poverty (http://www.cwp-csp.ca/), a national voice for poor people, working to eliminate poverty in Canada * The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (http://www.policyalternatives.ca/), a left-wing think tank doing research for change in social policy * Canadian Social Research Links (http://www.canadiansocialresearch.net/), an all-inclusive resource for social policy information about poverty in Canada.
PovNet is an online home base for advocates in BC and across Canada. Its web site provides regularly updated information about issues and policy changes. Using PovNet resources is an interactive process. Advocates learn the tools because they find them useful in order to do the social justice and case work that they care about; poor and otherwise marginalized people find the web site when they need the information on it that is relevant to their lives.
For example, PovNet email lists have grown over the years to be an invaluable resource for specific campaigns (for example the Raise the Rates campaigns in both Ontario and British Columbia to raise welfare rates). They also provide an online support network for advocates working in sometimes quite isolated areas in British Columbia or in other parts of Canada. As one advocate put it: "I love the PovNet list - on the lighter side there's the kibitzing going on amongst the subscribers which often brings me to laughter - always a good thing in this job. On the serious side - the exchange of ideas and generous sharing of experience is a huge boon to those of us who often don't have time to pick up the phone to seek advice from our colleagues." Another PovNetter says: "The lists that I am a subscriber provide me with first hand current information on what issues are affecting BC residents and/or newcomers. I am able to provide useful information and referrals to some of the requests coming through PovNet lists. They are an invaluable and efficient resource for community advocates, settlement workers working with immigrants and refugees, especially those issues that are time-sensitive and need an immediate response."
Other PovNet tools include online education and training courses on PovNet U for advocates ("Introduction to Advocacy", "Disability Appeals", "Tenants' Rights", "Employment Insurance", "Seniors Residential Care Advocacy", "Dealing with Debt").
PovNet is a flexible tool in that it can adapt to needs as specific campaigns emerge. For example, we set up an email list for a campaign to raise welfare rates, and created an online hub for papers and press releases when a group of anti-poverty activists travelled to tyhe United Nations in Geneva to speak on behalf of poor people in Canada on social and economic rights.
Building a successful online movement in anti-poverty communities include, first and foremost, the people who are involved in the movement. Start by finding local community workers who want to broaden their connections, getting together key people (without computers) to talk about what is needed and identify the technological limitations, communicate with advocates and activists in diverse anti-poverty communities including urban and ural, First Nations, aboriginal, diverse cultural communities, disability groups, women, youth, seniors, workers, human rights and anti-poverty workers, and international anti-poverty workers. Then identify the barriers, which could include access to the technology (education, money, literacy, language), how to share information, resources and skills between "have" and "have-not" advocacy communities (e.g. community advocates and advocates in funded agencies, etc.), researching how to provide online resources in languages other than English and how to provide an online space for poor people to communicate and access information via public access sites and web based interactive resources.
Barriers for advocates and activists using PovNet tools have changed over the years. Initially, fear of technology was a big factor. But as advocates saw the use of it as a communications tool, they taught and continue to teach each other. Money for computers and printers is an ongoing problem; as the technology demands higher end equipment, advocates in rural communities with dialup get frustrated with attachments that take up all their dialup time, for example. The anti-poverty work gets harder as governments slash social services; the advocates have fewer resources to do their work. Technology can't help that. But in spite of the difficulties, the network continues to grow, make links with other organizations both in Canada and internationally, and exchange ideas and strategies for making social change.
The most effective online anti-poverty communities are constructed from the bottom up rather than the top down. Their resources are defined and created by advocates and poor people to address the need for online anti-poverty activism as they come up. Electronic resources can provide additional tools but they are activated and made useful by the underlying human and locally based networks where the work of advocacy is actually being done.
Although information and communication are often conceived as abstract, intangible and immaterial, the systems that maintain them are, of necessity, constructed with solid things such as paper, lead, concrete, rubber, glass, mercury, cadmium and silicon which are fabricated into the delivery trucks, wires, library buildings, computers, chips and CDs. The manufacture (and ultimate retirement) of all of these things is often accompanied with environmental damage, as the 23 "Superfund" sites in Silicon Valley will attest, In 2005, 63 million computers in the U.S. were replaced with newer models. Up to 80% of the waste is then sent to developing countries where it often contributes to environmental and health hazards. Additionally, energy is consumed — often in immense quantities — throughout every stage in the life-cycle of a product. As devices are made with shorter and shorter life-spans and the uses of ICS increases worldwide, this problem will become more critical unless something is done.
Vast numbers of people are affected by the increasing "informatization" of the world. This includes people who are fortunate enough to capitalize on the new technology and those who are unfortunate enough to live with the refuse. This pattern can be used by people who have some control over the situation, including those who are in a position to develop laws and policies, producers who can lessen the effects of their products entering the waste-stream, and local communities who can develop policies and programs for responsible treatment of discarded technology. Community activists, health professionals, local governments, and neighborhood organizations will need to organize and work together in this effort. Other possible participants include computer geeks, social activists, environmental activists and those wanting to learn more about computers and new technology.
The use of information and communication systems is expanding enormously in countries like the US as well as in countries like China and India. This is causing immense demands on their infrastructure and on the environment. Computer technology has grown increasingly more sophisticated in a very short period of time. During that same time, the costs have dropped in relative and absolute terms, thus resulting in a massive number of obsolete computers and other technology much of which has been dumped somewhere where toxins like lead, cadmium and mercury can leach into the soil and water.
In addition to the new intellectual and social spaces that the new technology helps provide, we need to think about the impact that information and communication systems are having on the environment. Although we associate physical spaces like libraries and auditoriums with energy and resource use, the creation, storage, and distribution of information requires energy and resource use as well. Some of this use doesn't square with conventional wisdom. Computer use, for example was supposed to lower the consumption of paper because everybody would simply read the computer screen. The amount of travel was also going to decline because business could be conducted electronically, thus substituting communication for transportation. The electronics industry was also celebrated as an environmentally friendly industry yet there are 19 "superfund" sites associated with high-tech industries slated for environmental remediation in Santa Clara county, home to more of these sites that any other county in the U.S. IBM and Fairchild Electronics were disposing their waste products in underground tanks which subsequently leaked trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, Freon and other solvents into the drinking water of 65,000 people. There also seems to be an unhealthy link between the waste producers and the people who must deal with it, specifically prison inmates who work with inadequate protection and no health insurance working in for profit prisons.
Why pick on information and communication systems? After all, other sectors use energy and cause pollution. One reason is that "electronic waste is the fastest growing part of the waster system," according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Another reason is that it's important for people to realize that information and communication technology is not a utopian, magical answer to all problems. Obviously we need to consider the entire life-cycle of all products — including those related to information and communication. (While this task is not trivial, thinking about the "second order" effects while extremely important, is even more difficult to do meaningfully. The effects of the automobile on all aspects of life, including attitudes on sex, as well as the effects of the size of the weapons industry in the U.S. on foreign policy are both intriguing examples of unforeseen side-effects.) Understanding the entire "cradle-to-grave" (and beyond! as in the case of toxins that can reach out from the grave to poison air and water) is critical, but what should be done with the information? It may be easiest to require that every manufactured or imported product is covered under an ecologically-sound "Take-it-Back" (SVTC, 2005) policy that requires the manufacturer or importer to pay for recovery or safe sequestering of hazardous materials.
Free Geek was started in Portland, Oregon in 2000 by members of the open source software community to bring resources to bear on the problems of e-waste and the digital divide by helping "the needy get nerdy." The Free Geek approach combines participatory education and environmentalism. Free Geek addresses the problem of discarded computers and other electronic e-waste can be diminished by reusing and recycling. Free Geek uses volunteer labor to give new life to discarded technology. Volunteers are eligible to receive a computer after finishing a tour of service which educates the volunteer about computers and about the environmental impacts of ICT. The city government in Portland, as part of their effort to reduce e-waste helps support the project. A broad range of people are working together to cross the economic and social divides by working towards a common goal. The Free Geek concept has quickly spread to other areas including Washington, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
The Free Geek approach is not the only way to address the problem of lacking a community recycling program. There are many similar projects throughout the country that may or may not use open source software. But Free Geek is worth mentioning here for many reasons. First, Free Geek was developed by civil society; second, Free Geek is a partnership between several sectors and thus helps bring all sectors of the local community into a common struggle; and, third, Free Geek is an innovative approach that deftly addresses a multitude of issues within a common set of principles, assumptions and actions.
Starting and running a Free Geek or similar program requires a variety of skills and activities. The pattern can only be implemented by a group of people. To start that group one would post meeting announcements and invite members from local Linux users groups, college students and others. Since the overall environment for this approach will vary from community to community it's important to find out what's happening in your community and who's involved. The success of the project is likely to depend on how well you understand your community and can work with people in the community. Beyond that, there are many "nuts and bolts" issues including finding space and funding and developing programs. Associating with Free Geek is probably a good idea because of its network of dedicated people, useful documents and software for running an community recycling project.
The environmental problems associated with information and communication technology are severe and no mutually agreed-upon long-term, sustainable solution has been identified. People are developing a variety of creative and thoughtful responses to the problems of ICT-related pollution but more are needed. Information and communication technology can probably be part of the solution — but part of this involves stopping be part of the problem.
As a necessary part of stewardship and responsibility, it's essential to come to terms with the environmental impact of information and communication systems and devise suitable strategies towards minimizing their negative effects. Some combination of policy, consumer education, habits of consumption, social and technological innovation and recycling will probably be necessary for this take place effectively.
Although information and communication may seem abstract and immaterial, the systems that support them are built with solid things whose manufacture and disposal is often accompanied with environmental damage. We must acknowledge the environmental impact of these systems and devise strategies towards minimizing their negative effects. One group, Free Geek, uses volunteer labor to give new life to discarded technology by reusing and recycling.
Communities face a wide variety of challenges in areas of health, education, economic development, sustainable environments, and social order. But regardless of the difficulty of these challenges, a necessary condition for addressing them is for communities to find ways for members to work together. Too often, community members work at cross purposes and fail to develop what Jane Addams (1912, Nov. 2) called "the capacity for affectionate interpretation," resulting in what John Dewey (1927) called "the eclipse of the public." Community inquiry is what Addams and Dewey called their theory and practice for reshaping communities and, thus, society at large.
The challenges for constructive communities are as old as humanity and there will never be an absolute or universal solution to them. One reason is that every member of a community has unique experiences in life and thus unique perspectives, beliefs, and values. This diversity can be a source of strength within communities, but it can also lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict, and even violence. Diverse institutions have been created to address community challenges, including public libraries, public schooling, procedures for democratic governance, and venues for free expression. Often, however, these institutions are reduced from their idealized conception. With community inquiry, diversity becomes a resource and institutions are knit together productively.
As Jane Addams pointed out in founding Chicago's Hull-House, the first settlement house in the U.S. (Addams, 1912), and Dewey examined through the creation of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, democracy has been more realized in its political than its social expression. That is, even when formal procedures are established and maintained, meaningful participation is by no means guaranteed. For example, a public library might offer a large collection of books available at no charge to members of the community, but meaningful use of those materials depends also on available public transportation, broad-scale development of literacy skills, and a social organization that makes people feel welcome. In this and many other examples, it is clear that the problem goes beyond institutions, structures, and procedures, requiring instead the means by which every member of the community comes into the process of authority.
Community inquiry provides a theoretical and action framework for people to come together to develop shared capacity and work on common problems in an experimental and critical manner. The word community signals support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge that is connected to people's values, history, and lived experiences. Inquiry points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement.
Consider the case of East St. Louis. Its widely noted dissolution and destruction (Kozol, 1991) resulted from many factors, both internal and external. The integration of housing in neighboring cities had the perverse effect of East St. Louis losing most of its middle class and professional workers. Racism, both within and towards the city, was a key factor that led to its failure to get the resources it needed to maintain a vibrant community. Problems compounded as elements within the city began to pull in different directions, often serving their own ends at the expense of the larger community. For example, companies dumped hazardous waste and landlords allowed buildings to become dilapidated and dangerous. From a community inquiry perspective, East St. Louis exhibited a failure for democratic, participatory engagement and demonstrated little evidence of people within the city or larger entitiesstate and nationalcoming together with shared values and goals.
At the same time, East St. Louis has survived and in some aspects has developed the capacity to thrive. Community members have come together to address the severe problems they faced. Substantial assets, such as the talent and dedication of Katherine Dunham, have taken enduring form in her museums and international dance workshops for children (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/kdunham/). The community collaborates with other organizations, such the University of Illinois; their joint East St. Louis Action Research Project (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu) has helped improve conditions in the city by setting up, for example, community technology centers, new housing, a light rail station, and a youth-driven community theater. At the same time, ESLARP has provided new opportunities for university students, staff, and faculty who have worked in the community.
A key element of the work in East St. Louis is that it reflects continuing inquiry by people who are invested in the community in a variety of ways. That is, successes to date have not come from outsiders dictating and delivering solutions, but by bringing together participants from diverse perspectives to work together. Moreover, this work, while it addresses very practical problems of jobs, environment, health, education, cultural preservation and enrichment, and so forth, does not stop there. Instead, local action becomes a means through which the residents and those outside learn more about the community and its possibilities. In that sense, inquiry is both action and understanding. The lesson from East St. Louis, and similar communities, is that the process of community inquiry is ultimately of greater importance than the solving a specific problem.
We see many additional examples around the world of the power of community inquiry. In the domain of community development and learning, for example, a National Science Foundation study carried out in rural villages around Bangladesh related the finding that material from well-worn saris supplied a filtering material that worked better in reducing cholera than the nylon mesh that microbiologists had developed (Recer, 2003). In Reggio Emilia, Italy, with few of the resources found in affluent and advanced communities, families and teachers developed an innovative approach to education, now heralded throughout the world, that recognizes the potential of all children to learn and grow in relation with others, through the hundred languages of doing, being, reflecting, and knowing (http://www.reggioalliance.org). Community inquiry can also be manifested in the development of information and communication technology. See, for example, the culturally situated design tools developed collaboratively between Renssalear Polytechnic Institute and its community partners (http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/csdt.html) and the Community Inquiry Laboratory software created collectively by the University of Illinois and its partners around the world, who come from all walks of life (http://ilabs.inquiry.uiuc.edu).
Therefore: When a community faces some problem, think of it not simply as something to be fixed but rather as an opportunity for the community to come together, to build capacity, and to learn about itself and its situation in a manner that can be joyful and intellectually stimulating. Recognize that every member of the community has knowledge that may be critical to solving that problem but can be discovered only if that individual has a voice and a say in what the community does. Recognize also that most problems are not solvable in one step and even when they are, may recur in the future. Thus, it is critical for the community to not only fix its problems but to become an organism capable of further inquiry. The communitys knowledge about how to deal with challenges is not in fixed procedures but rather in the capacity to learn through ongoing action, or what Dewey called experimental knowing.
We have created a diagram to represent this cycle of ongoing community inquiry (see below): a spiral of asking questions, investigating solutions, creating new knowledge as we gather information, discussing our discoveries and experiences, and reflecting on our new-found understanding.
Verbiage for pattern card:
Communities face challenges in areas of health, education, economic development, sustainable environments, and social order. But regardless of the difficulty of these challenges, a necessary condition for addressing them is for communities to find ways for members to work together. Community Inquiry provides a theoretical and action framework for people to develop shared capacity and work on common problems in an experimental and critical manner.
Across the globe new information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly perceived as elements essential to citizenship in contemporary society. However, numerous preconditions must be met before a person can make use of the applications and systems that represent the network society. Sometimes understood as contributing to the phenomenon known as the digital divide, these preconditions include, at the very least, an income level that facilitates payment for the equipment, its maintenance and operation; skills to use ICT, the availability of electricity; an awareness of ICT might matter and confidence in oneself and in the possibility of an improvement in one's condition. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people on planet earth, these preconditions are not being met nor are they likely to be in the near future!
Telecenter projects can exist at various levels from the small local community, for example, to the neighborhood or grassroots organization in a village, to the entirety of a large country, or even at the international level. Telecenters are, on the one hand, rooted in particular circumstances and, on the other hand, a product of dynamic realities. Because no two communities are alike (different environments, cultures, norms, values, etc.) the idea that recipes, "best practices", models or the like can be found and mechanically replicated across communities is foolish. Nevertheless a clear understanding of basic concepts and principles might be a useful guide for individual and collective reflection, as once again telecenters emerge as significant network society phenomena.
This pattern might be useful for individuals and grass root organizations for whom the use of appropriate ICT might strengthen their efforts toward overcoming the limitations of existing social conditions. It might also be useful for local or central government agencies intending to undertake positive action, with the help of purposeful and appropriate uses of ICT, in favor of social progress.
In order to overcome the limitations listed above, the idea that public facilities might be established within communities is now fairly commonplace around the world (Menou 2003). Modern public access points to ICT are often referred to as "telecenters" even though their origins, ownership, purposes and modes of operation are so diverse that the development of a typology of public access points might be justifed, so that the commonalities and differences might be understood (Menou & Stoll 2003b).
Telecentres first emerged in Scandinavia and the UK during the 1980s and early 1990 and were known as telecottages, telehus, teleservice centers and electronic village Halls (Day, 1996 a&b) while the first "Community Computer Center" in the US was established in 1981 in the basement of a housing project in Harlem (New York City) (Schuler, 1996). Intended to provide public access to computing technology, these initiatives were either run as community development projects, commercial ventures or a bit of both (Day, 2001; Day & Harris, 1997). In the so-called "developing countries" one might distinguish 3 main avenues that the development of telecenters took. Most publicized is "pilot projects" initiated by international development agencies such as UNESCO, World Bank, IDRC, USAID, etc., which resulted in the implantation of isolated facilities with limited involvment of the communities at the beginning, e.g. Timbuctu in Mali, Kothmale in Sri Lanka. Another line is government programs pretending to overcome the "digital divide" by the implantation of a large number of telecenters in "undepriviledged" communities (e.g. @Argentina) with the same drawbacks of a top down approach, no networking plus bureaucratic constraints. A third line combines individual initiatives by grass root NGOs in particular locales and a franchising model developed by the Red Cientifica Peruana in Peru, known as "Cabinas Publicas Internet" which entertained ambiguities between community service and small business development.
Today the variety of public ICT access points (or PIAPs) and the nature of their roles is more wide-ranging and can be distinguished according to:
- their origin, ranging from ad hoc initiative of an individual to national and international programs;
- their purpose, ranging from profit of business owners - e.g. cyber or internet cafés - to free support to community development endeavors - e.g. true community telecenters;
- their ownership, ranging from individual small entrepreneurs to community groups, local and central government entities;
- the community participation in their governance, ranging from nil to full control;
- the mix of ICT available, ranging from only one, e.g. public phone booths, to all (e.g. phone, fax, internet, radio, web TV, etc.);
- the variety of services offered ranging from independant use of ICT to a wide mix of economic, social, educational and cultural activities;
- whether they stand alone or are part of a more or less extensive network
True community telecenters are part of the efforts undertaken by community members to build community and improve community conditions; they utilise ICT as a means, among others, that facilitate the attainment of these objectives (Menou & Stoll, 2003a). The centers are designed and managed with full participation of the community (Roessner 2005). Non- community telecenters are only concerned with providing access to ICT at an affordable cost to people who are deprived from it, whether temporarily or permanently. For the remainder of this pattern we focus exclusively on community telecenters.
Community telecenters typically get started via two main avenues:
1) They are the brain child of interested individuals or grass root community groups who champion their development and implementation through various community strategies and actions; or
2) They form part of a top down (usually government or international agency) program purporting to bridge the "digital divide".
Telecenters face a variety of problems and challenges that can be categorized as either social, political, economic, or technical.
In the social realm the key issues are:
- the relevance of the telecenter and ICT use as a means to support the various development efforts undertaken by the community
- the appropriateness of its role, the social interaction it permits and the information it makes available, especially with regard to cultural and gender biases
- the availability of people with required skills to operate and manage the telecenter and provide training and support to the users
- the level of information and computer literacy in the community and the availability of intermediaries to offset their deficiency
- the availability and accessibility of local information.
In the political realm, key issues are:
- the degree of ownership that the community might have from the inception, or progressively reach;
- the level and continuity of community involvement in the management of the telecenter
- the support of, or conversely conflict with, local and national authorities and pressure groups
- the relationship with national programs in the area of universalization of telecommunications services and digital inclusion, and the ability of the telecenters to preserve their identity and autonomy though participating as appropriate in such programs;
- the attitude of telecommunication companies vis a vis competition, universalization and digital inclusion efforts.
In the economic realm, key issues are:
- funding for initial investments
- securing regular income streams that can can support the operation of the telecenter
- securing resources for the maintenance and renewal of the equipment
- offering employment conditions that are attractive enough for retaining the permanent staff
In the technological realm, key issues are:
- reliability and cost of power supply
- reliability and cost of telecommunications
- reliability and cost of access to the international internet backbones
- ability to implement a distributed network
- capability of operating FOSS applications
- capability of deploying media integration, in particular radio
In many countries central governments have funding programs to encourage the development of "telecenters". Significant financial backing from international organizations is also commonplace and support is also often available from local governements.
Telecenter associations have been set up and are seeking to establish their influence at the local level as well as forming broader groups at regional and international levels. These structures are powerful instruments for sharing knowledge and experiences, helping each other and consolidating the movement Menou, Delgadillo Poepsel & Stoll 2004). Such grass root organizations should not be confused with a number of top down portals and support schemes that pretend to represent telecenters and disseminate second hand knowledge for sake of specific political and commercial interests
Mirroring events from the 1980s & 90s when computers were parachuted into communities as part of top down development programmes, the current crop of telecentres face similar challenges of social, financial and technological sustainability. At that time telecottages and electronic village halls (EVHs) were very much flavor of the month among government and funding agencies (Day, 2001; Day & Harris, 1997). However, they were viewed as short-term project that were expected to achieve sustainability with no support or training. Some transformed themselves into small commercial ventures but most closed eventually leaving behind them a great deal of frustration and dissillusionment in the community.
Very few lessons from that period appear to have be learnt. In the UK, the UK Online Centre programme, some 10 years or so after the initial telecottages and EVHs closed, many of the UK Online centres have closed or are closing after massive amounts of public funds had been pumped into them. Across the globe, the present tranche of telecenters seem to be following a very similar pattern of contradictory trends. On the one hand they are recognized by governments and international agencies as key instruments for achieving digital inclusion. Thus a proliferation of funding programs to support their establishment has been witnessed in recent years. On the other hand the support currently being displayed has no long-term policy substance behind it and may not resist the medium term hazards of development endeavors. The pressure toward securing financial sustainability in the short-term - usually 3 to 4 years - may indeed push many telecenters to close or attempt to reinvent themselves as business enterprises wherever this is feasible despite the fact that by definition they serve a population which does not have a level of income sufficient for paying for non essential goods and services. Similar attempts in the UK and Scandinavia have historically proved fruitless and we hold out little hope for the future of most telecenters without significant changes being made to policy and funding strategies.
In the same way that public library services facilitated increased participation in society for the socially excluded through universal access to knowledge, so too can telecenters have a similar socially beneficial effect on citizenship in the network society by increasing access to and participation in information (content) creation, communication exchanges and knowledge sharing. However, history shows that treating community telecenters as short-term projects rather than part of the social infrastructure results in the long-term failure of these initiatives with community disillusionment and increased social exclusion ensuing. For telecenters to be effective instruments in bridging the digital divide and promoting social inclusion consideration of their policy, economic, technological and social sustainability is required.
We posit that a policy framework is required which establishes community telecenters as component parts of basic infrastructure supporting community life. Such policies should develop mechanisms that guarantee that appropriate levels of funding will be maintained to ensure long-term operations. In the network society, telecenters should be as much apart of our social infrastructures as public libraries, education, police services, etc. It is simply inappropriate to expect telecenters to function as instruments of social inclusion in the digital age by adopting business models from the commercial world. Similarly, the composition of the funding model that many telecenters are forced to live by is flawed. Relatively large sums of capital funding that support the purchase of equipment is made available but little or no long-term funding is obtainable for revenue functions such as equipment and network maintenance and renewal, on-going training, or the advocacy and awareness raising work that keeps telecenters at the hub of community activities and needs. Even in some of the most well intentioned cases a form of myopia exists, where ICT is concerned. Approaches that would not be accepted in other aspects of social life appear to the norm where technology is concerned. Simply throwing computers into local communities does not in itself address community need. If technology is to be both appropriate and effective it must form constituent parts of the toolbox that communities have for dealing with issues and problems. Telecenters must be grounded in the fabric of community life if they are to be socially sustainable.
A pre-requisite for social sustainability is community engagement. This demands community people getting actively involved in shaping and running telecenters in some way. In all likelihood this will involve learning directly from the experience of community telecenters operating in conditions similar to their own, so social networking skills need to be developed. Social sustainability means identifying what contribution a telecenter might make to community development efforts and involving community groups in designing, implementing and developing the telecenter. Operation and management training for members is essential if telecenters are to prosper. Support and advice in identifying and acquiring appropriate funding sources is a necessity. Finally, local communities can assist themselves in these matters by electing public administrators and lawmakers who genuinely support community technology initiatives and who understand the significance of their role in the community environment.
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Across the globe new information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly perceived as essential to citizenship. In the same way that public libraries increased participation for the socially excluded through universal access to knowledge, so too can Telecenters that provide free or inexpensive ICT facilities. Remember that numerous preconditions must be met before Telecenters can effectively meet their objectives.
How do people find a job without a telephone? How do they avail themselves of services, receive timely information, or stay connected to loved ones if they do not have a reliable message number? Even in this very wired age, the need for a phone number remains; the lack of a constant telephone number becomes a very real obstacle for the homeless or phoneless.
Communities around the world have different levels of technological sophistication for supporting the everyday conversations of its members. The health of a community is sustained by these conversations and people who are blocked from this universe of conversations are, in a fundamental way, blocked from membership in the community. For that reason the integration of people into the broad community conversation network is important to all communities. Voice mail is a low-cost solution that substitutes for dial tone for those unable to afford it. Community Providing voice mail to a community of people cut off from the communications infrastructure is technologically plausible and works well in urban environments where there is existing infrastructure (telephone service, community providers, and pay telephones); however, the need for the service exists anywhere there are disconnected people. The audience of users runs the gamut from the homeless to the working poor to people fleeing domestic violence or dealing with health problems in need of a confidential communication link that is easy to access.
In 1991, two program directors at the Seattle Worker Center conceived of a small project that had an unpredictably potent impact. Called Community Voice Mail (CVM), the idea responded practically to a specific problem: How can a homeless person find work or housing, receive medical or social services, or navigate daily life without a reliable and direct point of contact? Furthermore, how can the job developer, the doctor, the advocate, in short, the social services system charged with the mission to respond to the needs of the poor and homeless, do so efficiently and effectively if they must devote hours to tracking down the individuals they serve?
Community Voice Mail responds to this need by acting like a home answering machine for thousands of people across a community. The CVM service is a shared resource operated by the CVM national office and a local community-based organization that takes on the role of host. This host builds a network of participating agencies to maximize the distribution of the resource cost-effectively. People in crisis and transition may enroll in CVM through any number of social, human, or health services agencies in the community. By providing multiple points of access, the service allows practical and flexible eligibility criteria while maintaining basic measurement standards.
As of 2008, the program operates in forty-one U.S. cities and in Melbourne, Australia, connecting more than 461,000 people annually. The CVM national office provides guidance on how to start a CVM service and supports the resulting federation of peer sites. Cisco Systems is the majority funder of the nonprofit program and donated equipment and software for a centralized network that uses Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to manage accounts for tens of thousands of users. The networks advanced capabilities include a broadcast messaging feature that is used to distribute information about job openings, training opportunities, community resources, and emergency weather warnings to the voicemail subscribers.
Connecting individuals via communication services integrates people into existing communication networks but, also, helps establish new networks. These networks could help support the community of people who use the system by allowing the users and the managers of the system to share relevant information and mobilize users in relation to specific issues and events.
Universal voice mail presents a meaningful pattern and objective that can assist communities by encouraging the integration of all people into the community. At the same time the employment of this pattern will necessarily take a wide variety of forms depending on many factors. These forms will be determined by the people who will use the services, organizations in the community that are providing the services, and the general nature and climate of social services in the community. Other things, including the technological infrastructure, social capital, and the ability to raise funds in the community, perhaps through an innovative commercial sector are relevant as well. The dedication of the organizers is also key, as is their ability to collaborate and incrementally improve the level of support over time. Since technological systems are still changing rapidly (although they are unevenly distributed, with the more technically sophisticated systems concentrated in economically privileged regions) the nature of the service needs and the technological support that is needed to support the service will undoubtedly change as well.
Universal voicemail should be available as a low-cost alternative to telephone service so that all people, regardless of income, have a reliable point of contact that maintains dignity and restores connection to opportunity and support.
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Even in this very wired age, the lack of a telephone number can be a real problem. Universal Voice Mail is a low-cost solution for those unable to afford their own telephone. Potential users include the homeless, the working poor, people fleeing domestic violence, or those otherwise in need of confidentiality. Universal Voice Mail should be available as an alternative to telephone service so that all people have a reliable point of contact and a link to their community.
Fifty years ago, there was little doubt that unions had dramatically raised living standards for workers. But while more than one in three American workers belonged to a union in the early 1950s, today scarcely one in ten workers do. As companies move jobs away from unionized workplaces, its no coincidence that fewer workers have health insurance and that pay has stagnated. Non-union workers are only one-fifth as likely to have reliable defined-benefit pensions. In their heyday, American unions became somewhat complacent, confident that they were an accepted part of American life and secure in their ability to bargain middle-class living standards for millions of workers. Many neglected the need to vigorously organize new members or reach out to the public.
New technology has helped businesses consolidate into huge multinationals that swiftly move jobs around the world to where labor costs are the lowest. This has vastly strengthened the power of employers to keep workers from unionizing and getting a fair shake. American workers watch their jobs transfered to Mexico, where workers can be controlled by management-run unions. When Mexican workers organize real unions, they encounter government hostility and threats to move work to China. In this global
Recent surveys show that U.S. workers want to join unions. But employers often prevent this from happening by illegally threatening or firing union activists. More than 23,000 U.S. workers are dismissed or punished each year for exercising their legal rights to form or join a union.
Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT further weaken worker power. While they strongly protect corporate intellectual property and investment, they open up nations to unfettered competition in terms of jobs and living standards. Even workers in high-tech fields like programming see their wages and job security battered by international outsourcing.
Unions have historically helped workers overcome this competition by uniting them to win across-the-board justice for the majority. In the 1900s they won equal pay and benefits across whole industries like automobiles and steel. The challenge today is to overcome international competition and join hands to win good wages and conditions worldwide.
The challenge is daunting to say the least. The AFL-CIO split in 2005 when several big unions formed a new federation that pledged to organize more vigorously. This division, however, may also dilute the clout of labor to act in concert. Nonetheless, steps being taken today suggest ways we can move toward the vision of global worker justice and unionism, aided by fast, global Internet communications. These steps include:
Build broad support for workers and communities, regardless of location or whether there is a union contract, and apply pressure to encourage government support for workers.
People can join AFL-CIO campaigns to support better laws and worker rights at workingamerica.org. The Jobs for Justice coalition also rallies public support for worker-justice battles. The campaign against Wal-Mart, one of the most powerful economic forces on earth, is proof that the movement can reach beyond its members. Wal-Mart paved the way for retailers to aggressively demand lower costs from producers around the world. The union movement is using the Internet to tap into a broad reservoir of resentment to these tactics, including small businesses and towns devastated by Wal-Mart super-stores, states fed up with covering health costs Wal-Mart should have paid for its own workers, and young people upset with the Wal-Mart-ization of culture and opportunities. Laws are being passed in Chicago and elsewhere to demand that major retailers pay good wages and benefits.
Connect with immigrants and workers across national borders to build permanent support networks and apply global pressure on companies and governments to respect workers.
Given the vast distances and differences in living standards, culture and language, as well as interference from repressive governments, reaching across borders is not easy. To succeed, unions must connect with other social movements and take maximum advantage of technology to communicate quickly and cheaply around the world.
Organize globally against corporate threats to play workers against each other.
The New York-based National Labor Committee exposes the appalling conditions in foreign sweatshops through creative media events that attract support from churches and the public. The Campaign for Labor Rights in the U.S., Britains LabourStart and the U.S.-based UE electrical workers union (which publishes a virtual newsletter on Mexican labor and is allied with a democratic Mexican union) also organize powerful email campaigns to support union struggles around the world, while groups like the Comité Fronterizo de Obreros organize on the ground across borders.
Challenge the commercialization of culture and inspire an ethical framework in which people are called upon to make sacrifices such as not buying products made in sweatshops to press for gains that benefit all.
Students are organizing to support labor rights locally and globally. The first group of Mexican workers to organize at a maquila clothing factory (i.e., a factory producing products for export under conditions favoring multinationals) was at the Korean-owned Mexmode factory in Puebla. A courageous strike by young women workers won a new union in 2001 through key support from the U.S.-based United Students against Sweatshops, which in turn is allied with labor and global anti-sweatshop groups. They quickly mobilized using the Internet.
Share technical ideas, information and organizing experiences with activists and labor supporters worldwide.
Academics have been sharing information globally on labor organizing, as evidenced at the Global Unions conference sponsored by Cornell in 2006. And union supporters from several nations meet biannually at LaborTech conferences to showcase creative uses of modern communications.
Push for trade agreements that protect not just corporate investment but workers rights, with trade penalties for mistreating workers. Insist on democratic input into international trade rules.
Several Latin American governments have rejected the neo-liberal basis of modern trade agreements and the anti-worker conditions imposed by lending institutions. In 2006, a popular French revolt against watering down job protections for young workers won a surprise victory. Recent rounds of trade talks have failed, and Mexican voters turned out en masse for Lopez Obrador, who wants to renegotiate NAFTA.
The labor movement cannot and will not die. Workers are struggling for union rights around the globe -- even against the greatest of odds. And the public is increasingly supportive.
After decades of losing ground, unions and advocates of worker justice are striving to overcome the competition for jobs that pits worker against worker in a global race to the bottom. A vision of global progress, based on humane values, solidarity and local community, can motivate a union movement that transcends borders and involves all workers and allies. The Wal-Mart campaign, the anti-sweatshop movement and international networking are evidence that unions, the public, foreign workers and academics are reaching out in new ways to form support networks to raise standards for all workers. And they are pressuring governments to reject the neo-liberal trade policies that disadvantage workers, and insist on trade rules that require justice for workers.
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As companies move jobs away from unionized workplaces, fewer workers have health insurance and pay has stagnated. New technology has helped businesses create huge multinationals that move jobs to where labor costs are the lowest. Labor Visions, based on humane values, solidarity and local community, can motivate a union movement that transcends borders and involves all workers and their allies.
Anti-poverty advocates and activists are isolated in their own communities. They often do not have the communications and education and training resources they need to do their work. Poor people do not have the information they need to exercise control over their lives and get the resources to which they are entitled or to advocate effectively for themselves.
Lack of access to communication severely limits opportunities for building communities where poor people can help themselves access the resources they need and for advocates and activists in the anti-poverty community to be involved in organizing for social change locally, nationally and internationally.
The players in this online movement include poor people and advocates involved with community advocacy groups, settlement workers, multicultural groups, seniors organizations, disability groups, legal aid, test case interveners, labor organizations, public libraries, women
Poverty is a debilitating worldwide problem that affects poor people directly as well as society at large. Although access to information and resources is critical to overcoming poverty and alleviating the problems of people living in poverty, poor people and anti-poverty advocates traditionally have less access to the Internet and other communications technologies.
Although poverty and computers do not make for an obvious alliance, it is clear the two worlds must connect unless we want to have a society where access to information and resources is only for those who can afford it.
Public access sites are rarely adequate to satisfy public need; users need people to help them do online research and free printers to print out forms and information. Hosts of public access sites need funding to keep equipment up-to-date and tech support to keep computers and Internet connections running smoothly. Lack of access to communication makes it difficult to connect communities in the anti-poverty world outside their local regions.
PovNet is a non-profit society created in British Columbia, Canada in 1997. It is an online resource for anti-poverty advocates and poor people, created to assist poor people and advocates involved in the communities identified above through an integration of offline and online technology and resources.
PovNet works with advocates and activists across Canada involved in direct case work and social action and justice. Some of these groups include:
* The National Anti-Poverty Organization (http://www.napo-onap.ca/), a national voice for poor people, working to eliminate poverty in Canada
* DisAbled Women's Network of Ontario (http://dawn.thot.net/), an online inclusive community fostering virtual activism and individual empowerment locally and globally
* The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) (http://www.fafia-afai.org/home.php), a coalition of over 50 Canadian womens equality-seeking and related organizations organized to further womens equality in Canada through domestic implementation of its international human rights commitments.
* The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) (http://www.tdrc.net/), a group of social policy, health care and housing experts, academics, business people, community health workers, social workers, AIDS activists, anti-poverty activists, people with homelessness experience, and members of the faith community who provide advocacy on housing and homelessness issues and lobby the Canadian government to end homelessness by implementing a fully funded National Housing Program.
PovNet has become an online home for advocates in BC and across Canada. Its Web site provides regularly updated information about issues and policy changes.
Using PovNet resources is an interactive process. Advocates learn the tools because they find them useful in order to do the social justice and case work that they care about; poor and otherwise marginalized people find the Web site when they need information that is relevant to their lives.
For example, PovNet email lists have grown over the years into invaluable resources for specific campaigns (for example the Raise the Rates campaigns in both Ontario and British Columbia to raise welfare rates). They also provide an online support network for advocates working in sometimes quite isolated areas in British Columbia or in other parts of Canada.
As one advocate put it: "I love the PovNet list - on the lighter side there's the kibitzing going on amongst the subscribers which often brings me to laughter - always a good thing in this job. On the serious side - the exchange of ideas and generous sharing of experience is a huge boon to those of us who often don't have time to pick up the phone to seek advice from our colleagues."
Another subscriber says: "The lists that I am a subscriber provide me with first-hand current information on what issues are affecting BC residents and/or newcomers. I am able to provide useful information and referrals to some of the requests coming through PovNet lists. They are an invaluable and efficient resource for community advocates, settlement and family workers, especially those issues that are time-sensitive and need an immediate response."
Other PovNet tools include a Web site which is updated once a month with new information, online education and training courses (PovNet U) for poor people (for example the course, "Be Your Own Advocate") and for advocates ("Introduction to Advocacy," "Disability Appeals" and "Tenants' Rights"), as well as an online space for anti-poverty community groups to have their own Web spaces, calendars, and discussion boards.
PovNet is a flexible in that it can adapt to needs as specific campaigns emerge. For example, we set up an email list for a new campaign to raise welfare rates, and created an online hub for papers and press releases when a group of anti-poverty activists traveled to the United Nations in Geneva to speak on behalf of the social and economic rights of poor people in Canada.
Building a successful online movement in anti-poverty communities includes, first and foremost, the people. Start by finding local community workers who want to broaden their connections, getting together key people (without computers) to talk about what is needed and identify the technological limitations, communicate with advocates and activists in diverse anti-poverty communities, both urban and rural, First Nations, aboriginal, different cultural communities, disability groups, women, youth, seniors, workers, human rights and anti-poverty workers, and international anti-poverty workers.
Then identify the barriers, which could include access to the technology (education, money, literacy, language), how to share information, resources and skills between "have" and "have-not" advocacy communities (e.g. community advocates and advocates in funded agencies, etc.), researching how to provide online resources in languages other than English and how to provide an online space for poor people to communicate and access information via public access sites and interactive Web-based resources.
Barriers for advocates and activists using PovNet tools have changed over the years. Initially, fear of technology was a big factor. But as advocates observed its use as a communications tool, they taught and continue to teach each other. Money for computers and printers is an ongoing problem; as the technology demands higher-end equipment. For example, advocates in rural communities with dialup access get frustrated with attachments that take up all their dialup time. The anti-poverty work becomes harder as governments slash social services; the advocates have fewer resources to do their work. Technology cannot address such needs.
Despite the difficulties, the network continues to grow, establish links with other organizations both in Canada and internationally, and exchange ideas and strategies for advancing social change.
The most effective online anti-poverty communities are constructed from the bottom up rather than the top down. Their resources are defined and created by advocates and poor people to address the need for online anti-poverty activism as it arises. Electronic resources can provide additional tools, but they are activated and made useful by the underlying human and locally based networks where the work of advocacy is actually being done.
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Because anti-poverty advocates and activists often don't have the education and training resources or communications they need, their opportunities for building communities are limited. At the same time, poor and marginalized people don't have the information they need to exercise control over their lives or get the resources they need. The most effective online anti-poverty communities are defined and created by advocates and poor people to address needs as they arise.
The people who are the most affected by the digital divide typically need to access information from nonprofit organizations. However, most NPO's do not have the time, personnel, and/or skills to create and maintain web sites. Thus, the service-oriented information needed the most by lower income community members is often not online. In addition, many lower-income community members lack the skills necessary to effectively use web sites. Finally, data supporting the local impact of the digital divide is often insufficient or even non-existent.
This problem has a unique solution in regions surrounding college campuses with service-learning programs.
The groups most likely to be impacted negatively by the digital divide are paradoxically the groups that need access to basic service-related information the most. Quite often, members of these groups also lack the skills needed to use the Internet effectively. In addition, nonprofit organizations (NPO's) often have the information needed by these disadvantaged groups, but also paradoxically are unable to make this information available online. The needs of both groups are in conflict, and create a context in which it is extremely difficult for either groups needs to be met. Digital Divide Impacted Groups Needs: * easily accessible and up-to-date information * interaction with service providers * appealing design * intuitive navigation systems * training NPO's Needs/Lacks: * personnel to put information online while still meeting clients' needs * additional time to create and maintain web pages * knowledge and skill to create effective web sites * funds to pay for server space or a webmaster One possible solution is for the NPO's to rely on a volunteer from the community to create and maintain a website. However, relying on volunteer labor for web sites is risky, due to the turnover rate and varying skill levels of volunteers. What is needed is a pool of skilled, but cost-free, assistance. One place to find this pool is on college campuses with service-learning programs. Service-learning is a pedagogical method designed to link course content with external experiences. Students learn the course-related materials through traditional learning in the classroom and through practical projects in and with the community, as well as about the reality and significance of the social issues faced by the community; while simultaneously providing a service to the community by meeting specific needs of the agencies or the populations with which they work. A service-learning class intentionally links the content of the course to a relevant NPO's goals. Students benefit from the chance to apply their skills to a real problem, and to learn about the needs of the community; while the NPO's benefit from the chance to have some of their goals and needs met, and to influence the next generation of leaders. In the long run, research has shown that students who take part in service-learning courses feel a greater sense of connection to their local communities, as well as an understanding of their interdependence with their neighbors. Connection and interdependence are building blocks of responsibility, and responsible citizens are in turn the building blocks of strong communities. The initiative for a service-learning course can come from a number of different places. Individual professors can choose to use this pedagogical method in their courses, universities may require service-learning in certain classes, or community agencies may propose projects that fit with the learning objectives of a class. Regardless of the source, effective service-learning requires collaboration between the members of the community and the academic institution: it should be done WITH the community, not ON the community. The goals and needs of the community must be combined with the goals and needs of the course. This process of collaboration is often facilitated by offices on the campus specifically designated to assist with service-learning. The service can take one of three forms. 1) Direct service: students work with the community members served by local agencies. In the case of the digital divide, students in a wide range of courses could train local community members to access and evaluate online information. This training could be done at the local library, senior centers, retirement homes, elementary schools, and any other locations with the necessary facilities (connected computers). 2) Indirect service: students work with the local community agencies to provide them with some needed assistance, which indirectly benefits their clients. In the case of the digital divide, students in web design courses can be required to create and/or update web sites for local NPO's, or run workshops training agencies representatives to maintain their own sites. 3) Community-based research: students (with faculty support) conduct research for and with a local community agency. In the case of the digital divide, people trying to change the existing systems sometimes lack the hard evidence needed to prove that a problem exists. Students in a wide range of research-methods courses could conduct survey research into the impact of the digital divide at the local level. But most importantly, the impact of a service-learning course goes beyond the immediate project: it results in changed lives. This is because a critical component of any service-learning course is reflection. Research shows that we don't really learning anything from experience (we often make the same mistakes repeatedly); we learn from thinking about our experiences. Students in service-learning courses are required to reflect on their experience in rigorous, thoughtful, and evaluated ways. This process drives the learning home, increasing the integration of knowledge they have gained in the present course with the way they live their lives in the future. For example, to create web sites, students must understand the agency, which means they must research the role that the NPO plays in the community, the populations that it serves, and the social issues that underlie its mission. This research helps students understand how critical access to the right information is for everyone, and how information is always related to power. Putting students in contact with members of the local community can also help dispel stereotypes. Students' easy access to computers often leads them to mistakenly believe that the digital divide is just a "Mercedes divide." Requiring students to work with underfunded and understaffed non-profit agencies, who are themselves working with disadvantaged groups, can open their eyes to the very real informational needs in the communities in which they live.
Service-learning provides a way to use the resources of a college or university to meet real community needs, such as designing web sites for NPO's or training community members to effectively access and evaluate information online. Students can create valuable resources for the community while simultaneously becoming more aware of the social issues in that community. This ensures that once people are able to cross the digital divide, they will find the local information that they need, and not just more places to shop. This also creates the possibility for the next generation of leaders to have a better understanding of the information needs of their local community.
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While many important community issues are ignored, higher education often focuses on abstractions. It can miss the myriad issues that are everywhere. Service-learning connects learning and research to practical projects. In relation to the online world students could maintain web sites for non-profit organizations, train agency representatives to maintain their own sites, and train community members to access and evaluate online information.