Breakout 1, Day 1: The Information Needs of ‘A’ Community

The Information Needs of A Community

Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008, Segovia Room

Leader: Bob Calo, University of California at Berkeley Scribe: Christelle Langer, The Minneapolis Foundation

Rethinking the paradigms. How can the disruption and eruption of new technology lead us in new directions?

We were asked if any of us had “put our toes in the water.” Two examples came forward, which formed the basis for our discussion.

Supporting the development of a technology-based communications tool. In Columbia, S.C., the Community Foundation of South Carolina funded the development of a community blog and podcast – developed by students – to help teach Spanish to individuals in rural areas. As the project evolved, the foundation worked with the high school students to spin off a private company, the purpose of which was to train community members on the use of technology. Taking on the project provoked confusion on the part of the board about how it would work, but when it was demoed, it helped them understand it’s potential. Since then, the foundation has used it as a tool – having bought the license. The technology is being used for returning veterans re-entering community. Partnered with another nonprofit – success led to spin-offs. Contact: Margie Gilbert

Helping the community develop the capacity to develop and communicate content. In Chicago, LISC and the Chicago Community Trust wanted to spur community development in several neighborhoods and chose to use websites and blogs to develop an intra-neighborhood communications system. What has happened? Four of 8 sites continue to provide their own content, advocacy stories, and publicize business and retail redevelopment opportunities. The project started in print-based media, but as the community developed the capacity to “report” and the tools to distribute the information electronically, the project evolved to the web. The community found that if it “could tell the story, it would tell the story.” According to Patrick Barry, who manages the project, there is a viewpoint expressed on the sites and blogs, but it is appropriate to the group, and transparent to the viewer. Contact: Patrick Barry, LISC.

The two examples provided a platform for further discussion of the role of foundations in using technology to promote civic discourse.

The question arose: “Is it our role to be the medium – are we comfortable developing and promoting the medium? Isn’t it our goal to provide the information? What about our role as neutral convener? How do we control or monitor the content?

Perhaps, it was commented, our goal should be to provide a community forum not to manage it, but provide the opportunity. In that case, it’s not media promotion, it is community promotion. But, on the other hand, don’t our local governments view promoting community involvement and discourse on policy and development as their role, not ours?

Shouldn’t we ask ourselves what kind of information compels action, what works? If our intent is to build community, part of our job should be promoting the appropriate media to reach all segments of community. Our question is how do we seed enough of these things so that all segments – old, non-English speakers, young, etc., some traditional, some not, are engaged.

The digital media can divide us. How do we think holistically about community? Perhaps we should ask what problem are we trying to solve? Are we trying to inform? Motivate? Generate ideas?

What about the risks? Some were concerned that donors may want to “shoot the messenger” if the perception is that the foundation has taken a position. On the other hand, others have found that taking a risk may actually attract donors.

What about the proliferation of information? Isn’t there enough information? Maybe there is too much. People aren’t bumping up against the information they need – they don’t know what it is like to look for housing, be hungry, etc.

Maybe this is exactly how we first thought about the computer – we thought of it as the means, almost an end in itself, but now we think of it as a tool – one among many. So, perhaps this, new media, is a collection of tools that we can use either to be the:

  • Town Square: Goal is place where people can see, hear, listen, exchange, or
  • To inform and promote action because you have information that is critical, that needs community attention.

We are using a 90-year-old model. We may have to step out on a limb, take a risk.