Community Technology and Community Building

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Randal Pinkett
Building Community Technology (BCT) Partners, Inc.

The intersection between community technology (Beamish, 1999; Morino, 1994) and community building (The Aspen Institute, 1997; Kingsley, McNeely & Gibson, 1999; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Naparstek, Dooley & Smith, 1997; Schorr, 1997) holds tremendous possibilities, as both efforts seek to empower individuals and families, and improve their overall community. Ironically, approaches that combine these areas have received very little attention in theory and practice. From among the three models of community engagement with technology – community technology centers (CTCs), community networks, and community content (Beamish, 1999) – there is a limited number of projects that have engaged community residents as active participants in using technology to define processes for neighborhood revitalization. Conversely, from among the multitude of models for community engagement with revitalization – such as community organizing, community development, community building, and comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) (Hess, 1999) – we are only beginning to witness the benefits that are afforded by incorporating new technologies into these approaches in a way that truly leverages their potential.


This pattern could be used in physical, geographic, low- to moderate-income communities. The project that constitutes the basis for this pattern is the Camfield Estates-MIT Creating Community Connections Project, a partnership between the Camfield Tenants Association (CTA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), started in January 2000. Camfield Estates is a 102-unit, predominantly African-American, low- to moderate-income housing development in the South End/Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts. The Camfield Estates-MIT project has as one of its goals to establish Camfield Estates as a model for other housing developments across the country as to how individuals, families, and a community can make use of information and communications technology to support their interests and needs.

To achieve this goal, we have established a community technological infrastructure at Camfield by offering every family a state-of-the-art computer, software, and a high-speed Internet connection, along with comprehensive courses at the Neighborhood Technology Center (NTC), an approximately fifteen-computer community technology center (CTC) on the premises. We have also created a web-based, community building system, the Creating Community Connections (C3) System, that I have co-designed with Camfield residents, specifically to create connections between residents, local associations and institutions (e.g., libraries, schools, etc.), and neighborhood businesses. The project combined these elements in an effort to achieve a social and cultural resonance that integrated both community technology and community building by leveraging indigenous assets instead of perceived needs.


The Camfield Estates-MIT Creating Community Connections Project has employed a methodology that integrates community technology and community building as shown in the descriptive image. The paper will describes these steps in greater detail. The following is a discussion of the early results in relation to community social capital and community cultural capital.

Community Social Capital

I define community social capital as the extent to which members of a community can work and learn together effectively. Increased community social capital includes: 1) reconfigured (Contractor & Bishop, 1999) social networks (e.g., broader extent, proximity and valued inhered in strong and weak social ties) as opposed to reinforcing existing ties), 2) increased obligations and expectations of trustworthiness (e.g., increased reliance on neighbors for advice or help and other social support measures), 3) expanded access to information channels (e.g., heightened awareness of community resources), and 4) strengthened norms and effective sanctions (e.g., increased interaction among residents that inhibits negative behaviors). The following is a summary of the early results from the post-assessment in the context of community social capital:

* Social Networks: Participants have expanded their local ties. The number of residents that were recognizable by name increased from 30 to 40 out of a possible 137 adults; the number of residents contacted via telephone and e-mail doubled (t = -1.978 ; p = 0.063); 53% of participants reported that they were more connected to family and friends in the local area.

* Access to Information Channels: Participants have a heightened awareness of community resources. The number of City of Boston services, programs, and/or departments that participants had heard of or used increased from 34 to 43; a paired-samples T test of residents awareness and utilization of community resources in nine categories resulted in a statistically significant increase in four of those categories (a fifth was nearly significant) including: residents skills and abilities (t = 3.284 ; p = 0.004), volunteer opportunities in the neighborhood (t = 3.684 ; p = 0.002), social services and programs provided for the community (t = 3.240 ; p = 0.005), community projects, activities, and events (t = 4.371 ; p = 0.000), and employment opportunities in the community (t = 1.924 ; p = 0.070); the Camfield Estates website and the C3 system received high marks from participants when asked to rate its usefulness in this regard.

Community Cultural Capital

I define community cultural capital as various forms of knowledge, skills, abilities, and interests, which have particular relevance or value within a community. Activated community cultural capital constitutes: 1) exchanging knowledge and resources (e.g., formal or informal sharing of information, products, services, etc.), 2) improving technological fluency (Papert & Resnick, 1995; Resnick, Rusk & Cooke, 1998) and the ability of community members to express themselves via technology (e.g., the ability to create a personal website that portrays a particular interest such as books), 3) coalescing around shared interests (e.g., a group of mothers discussing effective child rearing practices), and 4) shifting individuals’ attitudes and perceptions of themselves and the world (e.g., renewed confidence in their abilities, their capacity to learn, and their appreciation of assets in their community). The following is a summary of the early results from the post-assessment in the context of community cultural capital:

* Knowledge and Resources: Participants are better informed about local issues and there is an improved communication and information flow at the development. Almost half of participants (47%) reported that they are more aware of what is going on at Camfield when compared to before the project was started; this was partly due to the fact that a core group of residents and staff have taken the lead in actively contributing to the Camfield Estates website and the C3 system; the most popular C3 modules were the resident profiles (31% of traffic), calendar of events (18% of traffic), and discussion forums (13% of traffic) on the Camfield Estates website, and while these modules experienced moderate use, their traffic has steadily increased since the site went live.

* Attitude and Perception: Participants have cultivated the meta-competence of a renewed confidence in themselves and their ability to learn. Qualitative responses from the one-on-one interviews revealed a shift in participants’ attitudes and perceptions of themselves as learners. Several participants described their personal transition of moving from a reticence toward technology to envisioning themselves as (or taking actual steps to becoming) web designers, network administrators, and programmers. In particular, their participation in the training has given them a greater appreciation of their strengths, and it has given the community a greater appreciation of its most basic assets, the skills and abilities of its residents.


Since its inception, the Camfield Estates-MIT Creating Community Connections Project has sought to integrate community technology and community building by drawing upon the theories of sociocultural constructionism (Pinkett, 2000) and asset-based community development (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). However, the community technology movement, primarily in the form of community technology centers (CTCs), and the community building movement, primarily in the form of community-based organizations (CBOs), have historically existed in separate, rather than holistic spheres of practice. Leaders in both fields must devise strategies to connect these two movements toward unleashing their collective transformative power. For this to occur, the following things must happen:

* Theories must be developed. This paper will offer the theoretical framework of sociocultural constructionism and an asset-based approach to community technology and community building, which represents just one of a growing number of theories dealing with these issues. There is both a need to further develop this perspective by applying it in different contexts toward different outcomes, and a need to establish new perspectives that suggest alternate approaches which can also be explored. Such a strategy can simultaneously serve to broaden and deepen our understanding of these issues.

* Research must be advanced. The Camfield Estates-MIT project is one of a growing number of initiatives seeking to demonstrate the role of technology for community revitalization (Kirschenbaum & Kunamneni, 2001). These other examples fall into the categories of advocacy and online organizing, community information clearinghouses, networking and online communities, innovations in service delivery, interactive database development, and community mapping (Kirschenbaum & Kunamneni, 2001), and are beginning to grow in number, size, and scope. We must to continue to study and highlight examples of community technology and community building projects as a means to disseminate lessons learned and advance our understanding.

* Practices must be changed. Community technology practitioners must connect their activities to more traditional, outcome-driven program areas such as youth, workforce development, and health care – as these areas also represent more established and stable sources of funding. Community building practitioners must closely examine the role of technology in improving their organizational effectiveness and supporting their efforts to reach out to the community – as such an examination also holds the greatest promise for identifying new innovations in the work they perform.

* Funding must be shifted. There are a number of grant programs that will provide money for hardware or software only, without associated funds for the necessary courses and training required to make productive use of these tools. Conversely, there are a number of grant programs that will provide money for specific programs, such as youth development or improved delivery of health care, without simultaneous support for technology development and infrastructure. Community technology and community building initiative requires funding that allows them to pursue an integrated and comprehensive agenda. Although both movements combined would benefit from additional resources, and easier "win" could be achieved by simply leveraging existing resources more synergistically.

* Policies must be altered. For example, the federal E-rate program that provides subsidized telecommunications services to schools and libraries, should be extended to nonprofit organizations. In short, government must acknowledge the inherent synergy between programs aimed at bridging the digital divide and those aimed at alleviating poverty.

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