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Morino Institute From Access to Outcomes: Digital Divide Report and Dialogue
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Discussion Summary:

Working Through the Community

Below is a summary of key points made by participants in an online discussion hosted by the Morino Institute from November 2000 to April 2001 with links to the full text of selected messages ("posts"). More information...


"Outside-led bureaucratic and interventionist approaches seldom yield long-term positive outcomes in low-income or otherwise fragile communities."
Kit Collins, Center for Educational Design and Communication

Many of the discussion participants agreed that technology implementation in low-income communities is best done through trusted community groups.

Identifying, supporting, and working through critical players what one participant called the "veins of strength" in a community is crucial to the success of technological and other initiatives in low-income neighborhoods. Those community groups are the ones with strong leadership, effective operations, the trust of the community, and missions that address real barriers to opportunity. They understand the community, its needs, and how best to engage residents.

Strengthening communities first

Trusted community groups that work collaboratively to address issues such as unemployment, poor schools, low literacy, discrimination, poor health, and weak transportation can have a potent impact on the lives of community residents.

Most well-intentioned technology efforts are not prepared to work on quite such a fundamental level. "We do not want to suggest that the efforts of so many are in vain, for when it comes to people in low-income communities, every resource and action helps," said Bob Templin of the Morino Institute. "But from a public policy and major resource provision perspective, we have to confront the enormity of this challenge or our collective efforts run a high risk of not leading to the change in lives these efforts should be about."

The hard truth is that unless a community is functioning at a certain level, the addition of technology will not have a significant impact on the community as a whole.

Said Paul McElligott of the Perry School Community Services Center: "[The community infrastructure] in many places must be substantially improved in quality, outcomes, capacity, and sustainability, and must be an effective conduit [to] 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... that creates and perpetuates poverty."

As Vivian Guilfoy of the Education Development Center noted:  

...Strengthening the community infrastructure probably has to leap beyond the traditional ideas about what each organization does. Some of the strongest groups are rooted in the old models of helping, operating as silos. It will be important to ask [whether] there must be some fundamental changes in the mission of the organization, how it works with its clients and participants, and how it works with other organizations in the community to create a 'seamless' experience for the user. It is also important to identify the incentives and barriers for members of the community infrastructure to collaborate.

Developing a collaborative planning process

Because the problems in low-income communities are often so intransigent, addressing them requires difficult, long-term, and collaborative planning and effort. "If nothing else, I have learned over the years that social change at a systemic level is an enormously difficult undertaking that can be solidly grounded only in deep convictions, shared and optimized resources, and the energy to commit to the long haul," said Kit Collins of the Center for Educational Design and Communication.

Groups that should participate in such collaborative planning processes will vary from location to location. Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy of the Academy for Educational Development pointed out that "there are highly individualistic civic and cultural histories that dictate the direction of local systems change. While there are elements/principles/characteristics of change processes that can be replicated, the precise types and categories of critical players can vary by locale."

The online participants indicated that the following steps should be part of every planning process:

  • Ascertain the community's involvement.

    Noted Andrew Mott of the Center for Community Change, "First, in order to change things in a low-income community, there has to be very serious community involvement. This depends upon the development of grassroots community organizations which have real ties to the community, strong and representative leadership, and the staff and resources to chart their own course...Without such an emphasis, it is impossible to get substantial involvement of low-income people in planning, implementing programs, marshaling power to bring about change, or strengthening community institutions and the community fabric."

  • Listen to what the community identifies as its needs.

    "For many of those engaging in digital divide efforts, there needs to be a much more factual and first-hand understanding of these communities, where they are, what they face, and how formidable the odds they face really are," said Mario Morino of the Morino Institute. "[T]he failures I've seen in this area come from a lack of effective dialog and honesty around these gaps in understanding. It is why one person believes that the most important thing we must do is get tech people energized to wire schools, when others look at this person in disbelief as to their basic misunderstanding of the needs of those they seek to help. How do we get across to those with the resources who want to help what the challenges really are?"

  • Incorporate community members into a process that is meaningful, in which their contributions matter, and that will result in long-term, tangible, and sustained benefits for the community.

    David Hunter of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation noted, "[W]e must understand (as much as we can) the local meaning of whatever changes we want to help introduce in a community... and should expect to invest a lot of time and effort working on relationships in getting to the point where we can reasonably believe that we know enough about the local context to offer useful inputs (of both information and resources) into local decisions."

  • Include a broad cross-section of community players.

    "Over the past several years, the [Center for Youth Development and Policy Research] has come to know a growing number of local organizations that define themselves as local capacity building intermediaries (CBIs)," said Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy. "These CBIs create neutral tables that bring the public, private, and nonprofit sectors together in an attempt to reshape policies, practices, and programs... [These] CBIs were (and are) demonstrating that sectors can come together in support of shared goals. They can stay together IF there is sufficient staff support (that means sufficient funding for the CBI) to keep people informed, to ensure meaningful involvement, and to keep all participants constantly aware of [what] THEY and their organizations or constituencies are gaining from coming to the table."

  • Identify the key leaders and players and include them in the process.

    Said Marsha Reeves Jews of Advanced Educational Solutions, "How are they viewed in that community? Does the community respect that person's opinion? It is possible, while the messenger may be a 'leader' in the broader community, they may not have any 'juice' in these communities."

  • Develop a plan of action that is clearly outlined and concrete.

    Said Rey Ramsey of the One Economy Corporation, "I want to make this point: Efforts in the community must be comprehensive enough to be helpful yet focused enough to be doable and accepted. Often these efforts are too far reaching, requiring so much time that they lose steam and support. New efforts must be implemented with a disciplined eye on integrating them or mainstreaming them because most projects have a shelf life. New planning processes if needed ought to be very focused because many community representatives around the country have told me that they are planned out."

  • Develop measurable outcomes and defined beneficiaries.
  •  

  • Ensure that sufficient resources are available to bring people to the table and keep them engaged.


Technology as a tool for change

One of the central themes of the From Access to Outcomes report is that technology can strengthen the internal operations and external outreach of community-based groups that have the trust of the community and are functioning well.

Said Barbara Chang of NPowerNY: "I believe empowering a community with technology will have a powerful impact directly and indirectly depending on what the core competence of the organization is. Technology for these organizations is an enabler not necessarily a direct bridge for the issues that define the digital divide."

Mario Morino cautioned that technology is not a magic bullet: "Technology can be remarkable in its application, but it can also be calamitous." He added that the effectiveness of technology within organizations requires a "clear, meaningful and relevant mission" along with strong leadership, good management, and adequate staffing. He said, "I know how unrealistic this may all sound to many, with so many great nonprofits who run on a shoe-string, being severely underresourced. But that's exactly the challenge. Because of this rather fragile structure of organizations, technology can have good or bad impacts on the organization's effectiveness. It all comes back to people, leadership and management."

As far as whom technology implementation should benefit, some of the participants in the online discussion believe strongly that community change should be the overriding goal, rather than change on an individual or even family basis. As stated in stark terms by Paul McElligott, "Helping people out of the ghetto does not change the ghetto." Carlos Manjarrez of The Urban Institute elaborated:

Unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest that individual level interventions such as the [donation of computers] translates into a stronger community infrastructure... Indeed, you might expect the opposite to happen. Successful individual level interventions might ultimately have a negative impact on community infrastructure, as those families with improved life circumstances would be more likely to move out of resource poor areas.

One of the messages of the Morino Institute and several others involved in the discussion is that powerful change can happen through the community even when most individuals don't have direct access to a computer. Jonathan Peizer of the Open Society Institute used an international example to illustrate this point:

[W]hat if every doctor in a community health center serving a number of villages had access to the Internet, information, and other doctors to whom he could trade questions, diagnoses, etc.... What if with a word processor and printer he could produce health information bulletins (using pictures if literacy was an issue) and distribute them [to help] reduce the spread of different diseases? What if he could confer with other doctors and hospitals in his own country and the region on particular issues, outbreaks etc.?... [In this case,] not everyone has or needs Internet access. However, if the access (and training) is put in the hands of the right people (in this case the health workers serving various communities), you can [still] make a significant difference in people's lives.

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To list of additional resources>>

A chronological list of key posts on this theme:

01

Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute

Nov 30, 2000

02

Kit Collins
CEDC
Nov 30, 2000

03 Barbara Chang
NPowerNY
Nov 30, 2000
04 Kit Collins
CEDC
Dec 4, 2000
05 Vivian Guilfoy
Education Development Center
Dec 4, 2000
06 David Hunter
Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
Dec 5, 2000
07 Dr. Randal Pinkett
Inner City Consulting Group
Dec 6, 2000
08 Paul McElligott
Perry School Community Services Center
Dec 6, 2000
09 Daniel Ben-Horin
CompuMentor
Dec 7, 2000
10 David Hunter
Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
Dec 8, 2000
11 Daniel Ben-Horin
CompuMentor
Dec 8, 2000
12 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 8, 2000
13 John Middleton
The World Bank
Dec 12, 2000
14 Ernest Wilson
University of Maryland
Dec 13, 2000
15 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 13, 2000
16 Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute
Dec 20, 2000
17 Barbara Chang
NPowerNY
Dec 21, 2000
18 Rey Ramsey
One Economy Corporation
Dec 21, 2000
19 Bob Templin
Morino Institute
Dec 21, 2000
20 Kit Collins
CEDC
Dec 22, 2000
21 Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute
Dec 22, 2000
22 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 23, 2000
23 David Hunter
Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
Jan 16, 2001
24 Jonathan Peizer
Open Society Institute
Jan 16, 2001
25 Thomas Kalil
New America Foundation
Jan 16, 2001
26 Marsha Reeves Jews
Advanced Educational Solutions
Jan 16, 2001
27 Jonathan Peizer
Open Society Institute
Jan 17, 2001
28 Daniel Ben-Horin
CompuMentor
Jan 26, 2001
29 Kit Collins
CEDC
Jan 27, 2001
30 Kit Collins
CEDC
Jan 30, 2001
31 Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute
Feb 6, 2001
32 Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy
Academy for Educational Development
Feb 6, 2001
33 Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute
Feb 7, 2001
34 Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy
Academy for Educational Development
Feb 7, 2001
35 Andrew Mott
Center for Community Change
Feb 12, 2001
36 Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute
Feb 15, 2001
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