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The way the world communicates has changed dramatically over the last five years. The Internet has given us a medium for instantaneous exchange of information. And while most of us find that our society is realizing the potential of this "information age," there is concern that many are being left out. Statistics show an enormous gap in economic status and racial background between those who are logging on to the Internet and those who are not. The growing fear is that low-income people and minorities will not have the same access to information and therefore will not be able to participate in the democratic process.
The term "digital divide" refers to this gap between those with access to the Internet and those without access. It has become a rallying cry for philanthropies, corporations, advocates and government to come together, pool resources, and invest billions of dollars in providing access points to the Internet and computer training at schools, libraries and community organizations in low-income neighborhoods. The efforts of theses digital divide initiatives are succeeding in establishing more points of access, but many fall short by not providing online content geared towards low-income people. However, grassroots organizations are picking up the slack and playing a very important role by using the Internet as a communications and empowerment tool for their members.
The problem in getting people to use the Internet often comes down to this: do you use it without really having a real life application for it?Think of it this way - did you buy a VCR before tapes were available to play on them?In my work with the Welfare Law Center's Low Income Networking and Communications (LINC) Project helping grassroots organizing groups use technology more effectively, I see first hand the role they play in developing online content geared specifically to their constituency. What makes these groups so effective is the way that they engage their members in leadership development and empowerment. By using the Internet to promote their policy campaigns, work in coalition with allies,and communicate with their members, they are effectively addressing the digital divide by encouraging their members to use the Internet as a tool to improve their lives. Here are some examples.
Grassroots Groups'Creative Uses of the Internet
Providing Low-Income Individuals With Information They Want.Through LINC's work with Community Voices Heard, a New York City organization comprised mainly of women receiving welfare, we have developed a series of workshops designed to introduce first time users to Internet applications that relate directly to their lives. The first workshop was developed after a CVH survey of its members revealed that what they most want to do online is search for employment. The workshop, Using the Internet to Find and Apply for Jobs, uses a basic online Internet tutorial that is designed to make participants feel more comfortable using a mouse, a web browser, and e-mail. It includes information on where to look online for job listings and tips on using the Internet in the job application process. Over 30 low-income women who attended a CVH membership recruitment fair last spring participated in the first workshop. The tutorial is now part of CVH's Workers' Center program and available to all its low-income members.
A second workshop, Using the Internet in Organizing and Advocacy, was then developed in response to CVH leaders' interest in organizing and advocacy strategies. The workshop was designed to help the leaders (all members of the low-income community) understand how information on the Internet can help drive organizing campaigns and help them get self-advocacy information. By using the Internet and teaching themselves and other CVH members how to use it effectively, these leaders also learn how to advance toward their ultimate goal - shaping public policy.
The two tutorials are available to anyone with Internet access through the Community Voices Heard website (http://www.cvhaction.org, which also has CVH's current newsletter, members' testimonials and information about their current campaigns) and through the LINC Project website (http://www.lincproject.org).
Communicating with Low-Income Individuals.As one of the first LINC Project activities, we set up an e-mail based discussion list for low-income organizers working on welfare issues. The purpose of the list was to provide a medium for these organizers to exchange information about strategies and campaigns. After establishing the list, we found that it provided an impetus for some low-income groups to get connected. After participating in our listserv, several organizations became inspired to establish lists for their own members to keep them better informed.
Washington State's Welfare Reform Organizing Coalition (WROC) has established an e-mail based discussion list since many of its members live in rural areas. WROC hopes that the list will help members unable to get to meetings to contribute to the development of WROC's organizing agenda and to participate in legislative actions. Although WROC acknowledges that many of its constituents are not online yet, the discussion group helps provide an incentive to get online and aids in WROC's long-term communication strategy.
Missouri's Reform Organization of Welfare (ROWEL) has developed the POWER Peer Advocacy project which has a listserv that enables members to use e-mail to get advice on case advocacy matters from experts at ROWEL state headquarters. Plans are currently underway to expand this list serv. ROWEL also hopes to get technical assistance to make interactive computer guides available so that members can access community education and advocacy materials and sample letters. Like WROC, ROWEL's members are spread out over a rural area. Because the group has identified the Internet as a key part of its communication strategy,it also provides workshops on the Internet for members at its headquarters and has helped get their low-income board members online.
LINC has also worked with other organizing groups including Montana's Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL), New York City's Make the Road by Walking and Welfare Rights Initiative, Massachusetts' Survivors Inc. , and California's People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) to develop online content for their websites specifically for members. Survivors Inc. publishes Survival News, a robust newsletter created by women on welfare for women on welfare. It will soon launch its website (http://www.sojourner.org/welfaremediaproject/) as part of the Welfare Media Project - a joint effort with Sojourner Feminist Institute in Boston.The focus of Survival News has always been to provide women on public assistance with information they need to know to survive in the welfare system. The site has a wealth of information that Massachusetts recipients will find useful, including how to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, how to recertify for food stamps, and how to apply for disability benefits.
Building Computer Skills of Low-Income People.While digital divide initiatives typically provide access and training, LINC Project groups go a step further to offer low-income members hands-on training in developing real online content. The LINC Project's groups also involve their members in development of their own websites, so they can get hands-on experience working with such a dynamic medium. POWER has formed a committee of their members (largely CALWORKS participants) that will be responsible for coordinating content and development of the site. POWER is about to conduct a training on web development for the committee (called the Voices of POWER). CVH is including a website curriculum as part of its Workers' Center to help build members' employment skills. Those participating in the curriculum will get the opportunity to work on the CVH web page. Make the Road by Walking is developing a role for its youth group to have in the Make the Road Website (http://www.maketheroad.org).
These efforts complement the other programs and tutorials described
above that encourage members to use computer technology.
Organizing Low-Income Individuals and Allies To Shape Local Policy.LIFETIME, an California organization ofwomen college students receiving welfare, has been using the Internet effectively in an organizing campaign to get college study time counted towards satisfaction of the welfare work requirement. Diana Spatz, the group's founder and director, realized early on the potential of the Internet to reach out to those who would be affected by such a policy, since all college students receive free Internet access and e-mail accounts when they register for class. LIFETIME also uses the Internet to communicate with its allies. By posting to various e-mail discussion lists related to welfare policy, LIFETIME has effectively informed a broad community of activists. Anyone subscribed to one of these lists has seen has seen Diana Spatz's updates on LIFETIME's campaign. As a result of LIFETIME's sending action alerts and updates over the Internet, the group has been able to get enough support for legislation that passed the California legislature last fall. (The Governor subsequently vetoed the bill containing the provision. The effort on this issue continues, and the state Assembly recently passed a bill to count study time. ) This is a great example of how a group of women on welfare can come up with an idea while sitting at a kitchen table and then use the Internet to help turn it into public policy that improves their lives.
Shaping National Policy Debates.The TANF block grant expires in 2002, and Congress is expected to consider reauthorization before then. Low-income groups are already using the Internet to strategize and dialogue about how to include the voices and experiences of low-income people in the national debates around both TANF reauthorization and long-term policy decisionmaking. This is in striking contrast to the policy debate that occurred before the passage of the 1996 federal welfare law when these groups did not have the means to use the Internet and low-income people had little role in the development of the federal law. Emerging coalitions of low-income organizations, such as the Western Regional Welfare Activists Network (WRWAN) which is coordinated by WEEL, are relying on the Internet to both coordinate their campaigns across state lines and get their members voices heard in the upcoming policy debates. We can expect to see more of this use of the Internet grow in upcoming months as coalitions take shape. In addition, many potential allies already use technology effectively in their advocacy work, making it critical that low-income groups do likewise so that their perspectives are part of the dialogue.
Early pioneers in using the Internet to shape public policy debates, including the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (http://www.libertynet.org/~kwru) , show other low-income organizations how it is done. KWRU's website, established before the LINC project began, gives information on upcoming marches that the group is organizing and updates on the Economic Human Rights Campaign. The site supports KWRU's efforts to document economic human rights violations by providing violation forms and instructions that can be downloaded, completed, and returned to KWRU. The site is also used to communicate and coordinate with other organizations and individuals around the country who participate in the Economic Human Rights Campaign.
Effective Internet Use Strengthens Low-Income Groups
As the above examples suggest, when low-income groups use technology strategically to advance their goals,they build and strengthen the overall capacity of the organization. By usingthe Internet to communicate with members or its Board,enhance leadership development programs,provide basic skills development for members,stay in touch with colleagues and allies,advance an advocacy campaign, or educate the public and media,groups can maximize their limited resources and be a more effective voice for justice in their communities.
Beyond E-Commerce: Using the Internet to Engage People in Civic Life
Commercial forces are having a significant effect on efforts to close the digital divide. Internet Service Providers now receive advertising revenue from the Internet that allows them tooffset the cost for a dial-up connection to the Internet and provide some free Internet access. Consumers see the price of computers falling dramatically. Within the next year we will see the appearance of low- cost and easy- to- use computer appliances that will open the Internet to even more folks. These factors have both a negative and positive effect on efforts to get people online. While access grows and the Internet is easier to use, more online content is geared to commerce and consumerism. The challenge for all of us is to maintain a vision of the Internet that goes far beyond electronic commerce (or e-commerce). The Internet has the potential to be a powerful force that promotes the ever broader participation of individuals, including low-income people, minorities, and other often excluded groups, in all areas of civic life. To realize this potential we must demonstrate and publicize these creative uses of the Internet. Grassroots organizations are among the trailblazers in this effort as they generate material for their low-income members and show their members how to use the Internet as an empowerment tool.
1. Dirk Slater is the Circuit Rider
for the Welfare Law Center's
Networking and Communication (LINC) Project. Gina Mannix, WLC Program
Director and LINC Project Director, contributed to this article.For more
information on the LINC Project and the activities oflow-income groups
visit the LINC website:
To apply to join the LINC organizers' listserv (limited to low-income organizers),
contact Dirk Slater by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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