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Discussion Summary:

Creating a Digital Peace Corps

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...


"There is indeed a new breed of technically (in the broad sense of the word) astute people who are not motivated to cash in on their skills as much and as soon as possible, who want to feel that being technically astute does not sentence one to a life behind a CRT, and who would welcome such an initiative."
Daniel Ben-Horin, CompuMentor

Early in the discussion, we floated the idea of creating a "digital peace corps."

The concept was to place corps members in a community for one- or two-year assignments. Their role would be to serve as change agents who work closely with organizational leaders to leverage the invaluable knowledge of community leaders to come up with ways in which technology can be thoughtfully, purposefully, and creatively used to address critical human needs.

The ensuing discussion made clear that what most distinguishes the corps concept from current programs that offer technical assistance to nonprofits is the characteristics of the recruits. The corps members would be well-versed in their field veteran teachers, public health workers, business managers and would have a proficiency in technology. Daniel Ben-Horin of CompuMentor illustrated the primary importance of field knowledge with the following example:

For several years we have been working with ESL populations... For the first years of the project, we staffed it with technical staff smart, committed people, but not particularly versed in Central Valley issues and achieved good results. For the past year, we've... [had] a project manager who has a strong background in organizing, immigration reform, and farm worker labor issues, as well as strong technical skills, and who is himself Latino.. and the results have been outstanding.

The corps members would be committed, experienced, process-savvy people who know how to affect change in organizations and through others. They would have both an intellectual and practical grasp of how someone working in their field can apply technology as part of broader, more comprehensive solutions. Noted Mario Morino of the Morino Institute:

Technology is not just about information, but rather about [how] it is applied for communications and engagement. Using pagers with... families [can help reduce] time to critical intervention. Using a Palm Pilot loaded with poison control information to assist an emergency medical team is a good use of technology. Using multimedia technologies [to enable children] to express themselves may be much more important than mastering Windows.

The crucial distinction is that the corps members, although no strangers to technology, would not be the ones working in the server closet. "As our staff consultants tell us ad nauseum, we often have to give organizational and business advice as well as technology advice," said Daniel Ben-Horin. "A database doesn't do an organization any good if they don't reengineer their information flow and ownership... If there's no history of a client service orientation within the organization, it won't take advantage of its website to reach and bond with the organization's audience... For this initiative to be successful it has to be prepared to offer this kind of organizational support as well."

The goals of a digital corps

Examples abound of how innovative thinking about technology can profoundly affect service quality and reach. In some communities, for example, public health nurses carry Palm Pilots when they make patient visits. They then upload diagnostic information to a physician, who emails back a course of treatment.

In contrast, a program currently underway in New York City is attempting to enroll thousands of children in a new health insurance program. "Mobile vans spread out on weekends trying to find kids to enroll, sometimes resulting in four kids enrolled after a full day of community outreach," said Barbara Chang of NPowerNY. "Doesn't something tell you that with today's technology, there has to be a better way?"

The concept of a digital corps is to make innovative processes more common. The corps members would be brought into organizations that are a trusted part of the community religious institutions, health clinics, human services organizations, schools, community colleges and universities, worker-training programs, and community-based groups. Their role would be to help stimulate community leaders to think more strategically and broadly about how to use technology to improve their organization's operations and outreach, and they would assist the community leaders with the time and resources for doing so.

Part of the corps member's function may be to help organizations find long-term, sustainable solutions to getting what Barbara Chang called the "real, low to the ground, tangible technical assistance" they need.   Their primary mission, however, would be to apply their knowledge to the organization's efforts to achieve real outcomes, such as helping people find affordable housing, coordinate transportation, find child care, start a small business, deter neighborhood crime, or receive health care.

The challenges

During the discussion, many members emphasized that in order for a digital corps to be successful, the relationship-building skills of the corps members would be key. In particular, the corps members would need the ability to:

  • develop and deserve the trust of the organization's leaders and messengers

    "A relationship must be built on trust and a trust that can only be earned by both sides over time, through experience, and by demonstration," noted Mario Morino. "This is even more challenging with [community-based organizations (CBOs)], as one can easily cross race, ethnicity, class, and other boundaries as one attempts to work with and support the CBO, elements that appear to be totally outside of the core task that brings you together."

  • be sensitive to significant cultural differences

    Noted Andrea Schorr of the Fund for the City of New York, "The primary limitation, potentially, is a mismatch between the needs and the capacity of underresourced community organizations and the skills and mindset of corps members coming from environments with vastly greater resources and dramatically different modes of operation."

  • honestly listen to and learn the needs and issues of the community


  • work collaboratively with the community's organizations and leaders

    "One of the challenges facing efforts to help communities bring technology into their worlds [is that] we should help them do it, and not be the ones imposing it on them," said Mario Morino.

Many discussion group members thought that the characteristics and skill sets the digital corps would seek are so highly valued that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to recruit such individuals to work in low-income communities for one or two years at a time. Jonathan Peizer of the Open Society Institute asked, "Technology people are in such high demand (and will be for the foreseeable future), I wonder what the universe of people really is that have specialization in their chosen field" along with the technical, community, and "operational experience to see the project through."

In response, Daniel Ben-Horin noted that the culture of the times may be changing to support such a recruitment effort. Andrea Schorr concurred: "There is good reason to believe that trends in values and lifestyle expectations are changing the assumptions about what kind of work and what kind of environment people with marketable skills desire."

The digital corps would recruit corps members from the business sector, but not on a short-term, volunteer basis, as is so often the case today. "The wise corporations will recognize that it's not an issue of freeing up some problematic downtime but of positioning themselves as aligned with the increasing public service zeitgeist in a truly meaningful way," said Daniel Ben-Horin.

Corporations would sponsor corps members. They would use the opportunity as a recruitment and retention tool (the members would pledge to work for the corporation after their assignment is over) or as a public service. Noted Mario Morino, "We've seen indications that there is a growing need within firms... There are folks who want to do more with their life than 'push the corporate buttons.' Yet they are quite good and if the firms had a way to encourage them to stay... their retention might go up and the satisfaction (and we believe capability) of the troops involved would increase."

Other issues came up in the discussion, including the need for a digital peace corps program to:

  • arrange for significant, long-term infusion of resources

    Said John Middleton of The World Bank, "Having played the role of the individual change agent I am cautious about how much an agent can accomplish without the coherent strategic investment process that the paper so ably describes."

  • consider the possibility that one person can't do it all and that a team approach may be more effective

    "Not to overgeneralize, but it is rare to find one person with expertise in the program area, a strategic vision for the project, and a strong technical skill set," said Tom Dawson of CompuMentor. "A team approach would allow a digital peace corps to bring all these different areas of expertise to bear on a project."

  • provide intensive orientation and training for corps members

    Peter Kleinbard of the Fund for the City of New York had several suggestions in this area: "Support [the corps members] with ongoing training in technology and also in community development strategies... Corps members themselves would come together in a regular (perhaps monthly) cross-community learning group to discuss their work and address issues common across sites... There would be an external assessment process to help them look at their work and understand their progress and lack of it... Finally, I suggest you consider providing a credential for the training."

  • plan to make changes sustainable, even after a corps member leaves

    Said Jonathan Peizer, "Once that person leaves, there often is no follow through. So the expertise plus the capacity to put the project together and implement it (or at least identify someone locally who can follow up) has to be there."

  • consider the role of government in creating or supporting a digital corps

    "No serious consideration of a domestic digital peace corps can be complete without thinking about the role of government," said David Hunter of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. "In the end, part of the strategy for bridging the digital divide between well off and poor people/communities has to include a plan for shifting social policy."

  • consider existing efforts to provide technical assistance to nonprofits

    "The idea of 'creating' a 'digital peace corps' is one that has lots of resonances with similar efforts, and to the degree it's adopted as a strategy and recommendation, it should be done in a way that's knowledgeable about and speaks to them," noted Peter Miller of the CTC VISTA Project. "Especially central are the programs being supported by AmeriCorps*VISTA, our country's domestic peace corps, which has a history of ad hoc local technology empowerment support projects which have culminated in the more focused programs from last year's $12.5M digital divide initiatives."


Some members of the discussion group also had alternative recommendations for a digital corps:

  • sponsor a national leadership program for community organizations

    Said Marsha Reeves Jews of Advanced Educational Solutions, "What might be interesting would be to include a leadership program for the digital peace corps to conduct."

  • develop a technical training program for those already engaged in community work

    "What we need is the ability to constantly train and develop our folks to be able to work with and utilize rapidly changing technology," said Brad Williams of LEAP, Inc. "We just need the help staying on pace with the technology, particularly when our work or the work of those we engage has not traditionally been technology-centered." He added, "That is where I think... the corporate sector can be so valuable... I would envision a 'hard core' training for four weeks or so and then ongoing (monthly) support throughout their time with regular convenings, maybe a long weekend once or twice a year."

  • create a cadre of technical workers to work in low-income communities

    Said Vincent Stehle of the Surdna Foundation, "We may be better off by creating a cadre of technology workers that can reach a wider audience of groups than by focusing extraordinary attention in a sharply defined community or issue area."


The potential

From the discussion, it became clear that several efforts that are similar in spirit to our vision of a digital corps are underway or under consideration. What we hope to do is raise the bar for the types of outcomes to expect. We believe the ultimate potential of such efforts is to unleash people's imagination, knowledge, and resourcefulness; to stimulate innovation and change; and to yield high-impact breakthroughs in the ability of community organizations to help individuals out of poverty. We hope that this vision will  become the core approach of new efforts or will inform existing ones.

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A chronological list of key posts on this theme:

01

John Middleton
The World Bank
Nov 26, 2000

02

Peter Kleinbard
Fund for the City of New York
Nov 26, 2000

03 Barbara Chang
NPowerNY
Nov 30, 2000
04 Daniel Ben-Horin
CompuMentor
Dec 7, 2000
05 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 8, 2000
06 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 9, 2000
07 Peter Miller
CTC VISTA Project
Dec 14, 2000
08 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 23, 2000
09 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Jan 16, 2000
10 Marsha Reeves Jews
Advanced Educational Solutions
Jan 24, 2001
11 Barbara Chang
NPowerNY
Jan 25, 2001
12 Will Reed
Technology for All
Jan 25, 2001
13 Jonathan Peizer
Open Society Institute
Jan 25, 2001
14 Jonathan Peizer
Open Society Institute
Jan 25, 2001
15 Vincent Stehle
Surdna Foundation
Jan 25, 2001
16 Brad Williams
LEAP Inc.
Jan 25, 2001
17 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Jan 25, 2001
18 Peter Miller
CTC VISTA Project
Jan 26, 2001
19 Andrea Schorr
Fund for the City of New York
Jan 26, 2001
20 Daniel Ben-Horin
CompuMentor
Jan 26, 2001
21 David Hunter
Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
Jan 29, 2001
22 Peter Miller
CTC VISTA Project
Jan 29, 2001
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