Investing in Alternative Solutions
for Delivering Technology
[Note: These comments are personal and do not reflect the position of Ms. Breeden's employers or funders.]
I'm Laura Breeden, director of the new America Connects Consortium funded by the US Department of Education to provide technical assistance services for community technology centers nationwide. I have been an independent consultant to nonprofits who are developing or launching technology-related projects, and was the first director of the TIIAP (now TOP) program at the US Department of Commerce (where I survived the government shutdown, Washington's worst-ever blizzard, and 3,000 proposals in two years). Before going to Washington in 1994, I headed an association of Internet service providers, and was very involved in higher-education computer networking. I have also worked in community based child care and raised money for Oxfam America.
I'm writing to ask whether this idea is worth testing: that the best "channels" or intermediaries for bringing technology into low-income communities are those community organizations (like BB Otero's wonderful center in DC) that are already using technology with some success. These organizations might also serve as centers of training and support for other NPOs at the neighborhood level that want to learn more about technology. Or they could serve as the hub of an informal support network for groups of NPOs that are using technology.
The wise comments about "trust" moved my thoughts in this direction. I'm wondering whether this group is familiar with examples in which community technology centers, libraries, community colleges, or other community organizations have served this function.
Two that come to mind for me immediately are the Seattle Public Library and the role it has played in building community technology infrastructure in the city, and the New Community Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, which successfully introduced computers and a community network in a very distressed neighborhood, with TIIAP and other funding, as early as 1994 (using software that was developed at MIT by Alan Shaw, a student in the same program where Randal Pinkett is now a PhD candidate).
Most communities have some institutions, or organizations, or families that are resilient and effective, no matter how grim the overall picture in those communities. Building on this existing capacity, and supporting the diffusion of technology (in ways which are culturally appropriate and linked to outcomes, etc.) via these resilient local players, might be one way to address a number of the conundrums we've identified (from trust to effectiveness). Of course, this approach requires funders to understand and underwrite the cost of technology capacity-building.
And perhaps BB and her colleagues don't want to take on this role?! In any case, if this is of interest, I could scan some of our sources for further examples, pro and con.