Working Through the Community
Your Nov. 17 letter helped to shape my comments on the Draft Report "From Access to Outcomes." The comments obviously are based on my experience and observations, and may not apply to others. They follow the sequence of the questions in your letter.
1. Six basic premises of your point of view.
a. Agree with premise no. 1.
b. I would qualify premise no. 2.
Community infrastructure should be the channel to reach low-income areas, but must be responsive and responsible community infrastructure with proven impact on the community. If you look behind the infrastructure in communities where problems are persistent, you are likely to find inefficient organizations, churches with minimal community impact because most of their members are not from the community, organizations that do not adequately communicate or collaborate and are more concerned with turf than results, poor schools, organizations that provide services but do not achieve outcomes especially if they are publicly funded, organizations with visions or missions too narrow for the complexity of the problems present. The presence of community infrastructure is no proof of a quality community infrastructure.
c. I would continue to emphasize effectiveness over empowerment in premise
3. Is the infrastructure producing or capable of producing real change in the community, or are they providing a variety of services that are not having real impact on the community? Strength, effectiveness and sustainability are key. Better tools for evaluating programs are a critical need. But an empowered community infrastructure must result in empowered community residents. Otherwise you are not reducing dependency on the infrastructure.
d. Would agree with premise 4 and three ends. Again would emphasize that ultimately the need is for empowered--happy, healthy, educated, competent, good--people in the community.
e. Would say for premise 5 that investment should ultimately be driven by building the capacity of community residents to understand and apply technology. This usually (but not always) passes through organizations. But the ultimate recipient and user is the community resident. If the capacity to understand and apply technology stops at the organization, true community change and capacity is unlikely.
f. Would agree with premise 6, especially in view of comments on premise 5. Community residents must be able to access, understand, and apply technology. However, I would not agree that cost-effective and pervasive technology in low-income areas will be sufficient for real change unless the multitude of negative factors--apathetic individuals, institutions and organizations, negative peer pressures, low expectations from teachers, poor teachers, fear, isolation, etc.--are not addressed.
As I have noted above, community infrastructure can be a path to social divides, but that infrastructure in many places must be substantially improved in quality, outcomes, capacity and sustainability, and must be an effective conduit in building the capacity of community members themselves. It is not only the erosion of the web of support; it is the replacement of that web with poor systems--education, health, public safety, social services, public services, recreation, housing, etc.--that create and perpetuate poverty. Failure to address the cross-currents of these poor systems will also fail to bring about meaningful and sustained change. It is the concentration and constant interaction of negative conditions that make the problems persistent, and all must be changed for fundamental change. Helping people leave the ghetto does not change the ghetto.
2. I am not sure that any nonprofit has a long enough track record that would show significant and sustainable impact from technology. Some possible places to look would be LEAP (with which you are already familiar), organizations that are reputed to have track records, e.g., New Community Corp. in Newark, Bethel New Life in Chicago, to see what impact technology has had in achieving these reputations, and a careful review of winners of Department of Commerce TOP grants.
3. Five ideas for sparking catalytic change. While all the ideas are good, all focus on technology and technology, even with making the case, having an academy and digital peace corps, having a better delivery system, and nurturing social entrepreneurs, will not result in catalytic change unless the many other negative factors which create and perpetuate poverty are addressed. Demystifying technology is important. People must be shown how technology can help them in their daily lives, with problems they face every day. Price is still a barrier to personal ownership, but not as high as before. Hope these comments are helpful.