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The MIRA Model for Community Internet Awareness

                    by Frank Odasz, frank@lone-eagles.com

About MIRA, Managing Information for Rural America

Caroline Carpenter is the key figure behind the conception of MIRA. She was hired by Kellogg soon after received a prestigious award from the Council on Foundations in 1995 for her work in W. Virginia with rural communities. Kellogg’s MIRA information is at http://ola.wkkf.org/mira/

A MIRA planning meeting was held with many rural innovators attending in 1995, from which a roster of 100 MIRA presenters was created by the Heartland Center for Leadership Development. Evaluations for all MIRA presenter presentations are included in this database. The MIRA project ran for two years, with six regional MIRA clusters per annual cycle. Frank Odasz presented for five of the six clusters each year, with two presentations for the Hawaii cluster the first year and five presentations for the Taos, NM cluster the second year.

MIRA Trainers Roster with evaluations

The Taos, New Mexico MIRA Cluster

Taos, NM is a tri-cultural community, Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American. Taos is the third poorest county in the poorest state in the nation, yet has been the home of many innovative projects. The first web-based community network, the La Plaza Telecommunity, was created in Taos. In 1995 a national community networking conference was held and La Plaza received a million dollar grant from the Kellogg Foundation. Many separate innovative projects have been created in Taos, where an attitude of open mindedness for new possibilities is evident in the prevailing artists mentality and evident spirituality of the community.

One such innovative initiative, WESST, the Women’s Economic Self-sufficiency Team, has multiple offices in New Mexico that have successfully served rural women for years in developing entrepreneurial enterprises. Having proved their programs work, often dramatically exceeding expectations, WESST is ready to move to the next step marketing their programs as products. The web has not been a component of their programs prior to WESST Artisians.

WESST Artisians was created as a result of the Kellogg MIRA project ( www.wkkf.org  ) The La Plaza Telecommunity director, Judith Pepper, and local leader Bill Swann wrote the original MIRA proposal, winning $150,000 to create nine teams of ten individuals who were required to attend six full day Saturday workshops conducted by presenters selected by the Taos MIRA steering committee from the MIRA database of over 100 possible presenters.

WESST staff, Dawn Redpath and Clare Zurawski, were key leadership figures keeping the Taos MIRA steering committee motivated and organized. The six workshops focused on team-building, participatory decision-making, project planning and evaluation, community applications of information technology, and proposal writing. Each of the nine teams understood there was $15,000 per team reserved to fund their proposals if they kept their teams organized in order to produce a final proposal.

The greatest challenge was helping everyone understand the rules of the MIRA project and to create motivated, cohesive teams that would stick together and produce a well thought out final project proposal. For most participants, planning a project and learning applications of information technology presented a completely foreign experience. A prevailing undercurrent of anxiety was evident.

The WESST Artisians team, among others, were unfamiliar with how to create a web site. While MIRA presenters demonstrated how to create simple web sites, and showcased many related web sites, several teams decided that use of MIRA funding to contract for professionally designed web sites would make better sense than having novices attempt to become webmasters, given the time available. The WESST Artisians team took the lead by developing a flow chart and projected budget for creating the web site. The flow chart showed how many artists would post a specific number of products and the number of separate web pages and digital photographs that would be required and the resulting cost.

Note: Nancy Montano, trainer for the La Plaza Telecommunity, has a project funded by the Open Studio project where she assisted local artists in creating their own web sites.

Review of costs and options for merchant accounts and web site maintenance costs were a key factor, and challenge. The resulting web site was well-designed, with the remaining issue of how best to market a web site still unresolved.

Though a local person was paid to assist in the web marketing effort, the low number of online product orders suggest this marketing effort was inadequate.

A local version of the MIRA project might be considered with one or more teams coming together with the express purpose of creating a web site to help meet team objectives. Web templates and free hosting sites make it feasible to quickly create multiple web sites if content and design issues can be resolved or copied from other projects. The many issues behind web site development are best dealt with in a cooperative fashion as opposed to having multiple projects deal independently with the many decisions in web site planning as detailed in the following steps and tips.

Five Key Steps:

1. Team Building: The MIRA project brought together ten teams of ten local individuals, both youth and adults, to create teams devoted to a particular issue or cause. They learned to commit to work together, and learned participatory decision-making skills in order to make decisions as a group. Each of the six workshops had a set theme and time for interactive small group activities that allowed the team members to share ideas, bond, and develop components of the project. Participatory decision making skills were presented in concept, and then applied in small group activities. They learned to stick together to achieve a tangible goal.

Details on the structure of the six MIRA workshops are at www.wkkf.org but basically there were six workshop themes, typically with two co-presentors, one of which was required to focus on interactive small group activities while the other was allowed to primarily present content and demonstrations related to the workshop theme. Each MIRA steering committee was given some latitude in choosing among a listing of acceptable themes, and had free choice as to the presenters listed in the MIRA presenters roster.

Workshop Themes
1. Living With Change
2. Participatory Decision-making
3. Technology as a Tool for Community and Economic Development
4. Maintaining Momentum
5. Project Planning and Implementation
6. Project evaluation

A favorite first activity is to have each team draft short written press releases on what they hoped to accomplish, which were recorded as digital mini-movies as a youth from each group spoke before the whole assembly during our staged "live" CNN newscast. With plenty of fanfare, they announced in past tense that which they yet hoped to accomplish and were limited to only one minute. This helped everybody focus on tangible results and how to present their future successes to the press and media.

Another example of a small group activity was demonstrated at the first Taos MIRA workshop, living with change, where each team was asked a number of questions, and then filled flip charts with their groups comments, organized the comments and presented them to the group as a whole. The questions were:

1. What factors in your community contribute to the building of community?

2. What factors contribute to the destruction of community building?

3. What can you do to support building a better community.

As everyone’s ideas were listened to, recorded and posted for all to see, and presented to the greater group, the bonds within each team, and among the whole group, grew stronger. Every workshop was required to have interactive group activities and time for teams to discuss and plan their projects.

For more on team building see "Reflections of a MIRA presenter" Below.

2. Learning What’s Possible:

During each workshop dozens of web sites were showcased in a non-technical entertaining and humorous fashion so everyone could get an idea of what was possible. A three minute web site was created with animations, photographs as background, live hyperlinks, and everyone was amazed and encouraged that a web page could be easily created. The perception had been just the opposite.

During the time set aside for team interaction, they reviewed and discussed the new technical capabilities and options they had just seen. A combination of the overall vision of empowerment, community networking, and Internet, was complemented with specific skill demonstrations like how to find information quickly and easily with search engines by using keywords and putting phrases in quotes.

Demonstrations on the benefits of information technologies were given in non-technical language with emphasis on the more motivating applications such as digital photography, digital art tablets, digital storytelling examples and models, MIDI music applications, highly visual graphical web pages, and a very simple demonstration of creating a quick web page. Thinkquest CD’s were given to all participants with web authoring software, tutorials, and examples of youth-created instructional web pages created for this million dollar International annual competition. (Thinkquest no longer gives away free CDs but the competition continues. http://www.thinkquest.org )

Motivating encouragement was given on the availability of grant funds, on the unique innovative energies and opportunities of the local teams and community, with copious offers of continued assistance by the presenter. All supplemented by rich web tours of funding sources and grantwriting tutorials, distributed as printed handouts and also as a web page.

All teams were given printed copies of "Common Ground - A Self-directed Learning Internet Guide" for self-directed hands on learning after the workshop: http://lone-eagles.com/guide.htm (Native American Version: "Echoes in the Electronic Wind) http://lone-eagles.com/nativeguide.htm ) Teams were encouraged to retitle and customize these guides for resale as fundraisers, ideally with local links listings and other local content added. Example " The Taos Pueblo Internet Guide."

They democratically discussed and developed their ideas based on new learnings from the presentations, made group decisions, and co-authored, a plan of action. A key challenge was learning the questions they didn’t know they needed to ask and assistance from MIRA presenters was required. The presenter would visit each team table repeatedly to listen, to encourage, and to respond to questions.

3. Organizational Planning: The team learned to organize their plan of action with a timeline, budget, and successive milestones. They had to write their plan of action in a proposal format containing an abstract, background, methodology, timeline, budget, staffing, and evaluation sections. A MIRA presenter’s simplified handout on proposal writing: http://lone-eagles.com/mira2.htm

This was so new to most team members that their proposals had to be reviewed regularly and continual examples given of each component. Their excitement was intoxicating as they began to believe they were actually going to make it happen. At the fourth Taos Workshop local leaders from the Taos Chamber and Taos business allience attended along with a formal evaluator from the Heartland Center, sent by Kellogg. As each team gave an update on the status of their report, highlighting the tangible outcomes and scheduled timelines, every one in the room was in awe. Not just at the quality and innovation represented by the individual reports, but by the fact that nine out of nine teams actually had a plan and were visibly excited about making it happen! Everyone felt a part of something of even greater significance than their individual team projects. They were a successful MIRA cluster, breaking new ground on community empowerment innovation!

What community wouldn’t be envious of nine committed action teams of youth and adults who understand how to apply information technology and proposal writing skills to create a suite of exciting projects to benefit the community!

The nine Taos teams are listed at http://www.taosmira.net

4. Execution: After receiving funding they found additional decisions were necessary as they began execution. Each team member had to author the descriptive text and content for their web display. Cost management and future planning issues required continual attention, and coordination. Questions arose as to how else can we market our web site? Where can we learn more about how other artists are marketing their art via the web? Where are artists aggregating and co-marketing on the web? What web sites can we partner with to swap links and ideas? How can Ebay and other auction sites be used to sell arts. What global markets can we tap, and how? And on and on… The journey began with a single step, and a world of opportunities and adventure is now straight ahead.

5. Reflection and Next Steps: While additional proposal ideas were a direct result of the MIRA experience, reflection highlighted the issues of web marketing as being the key missing ingredient required for the desired level of success. True expertise in this area was lacking despite a local contract with someone who claimed to have this expertise. The overall impression was there was far more to planning a web site than anyone had imagined, but there were proud of their final product.

The next steps were to consider what their next proposal would entail, going ‘Beyond MIRA’ to approach funders directly. Taking the simple structure of their initial MIRA proposals and adding higher budget figures, longer timelines, more ambitions outcomes, more partners, and grander measurements of success. All the Taos MIRA teams created additional proposals and held together as motivated teams. Each has a story to tell, not of just what they did within the MIRA project, but more importantly what they felt empowered to do beyond the MIRA project. Much of these stories are not yet reflected on the web, but they are very real.


1. The first thing to do is collect and review as many local or similar web sites as possible to get a feel for the design issues, content display options, features such as calendars, frames, navigation bars, graphical design, interactive forms, shopping carts, email and discussion forums, etc. There’s a lot to learn from what others are already doing! For example a great example of an interactive calendar by the local Taos Arts School was show http://www.taosartschool.org  

While this is great advice, it is likely no one will take the time and invest the effort. Knowing this, the MIRA presenter showcased such a review of many Taos web sites and presented it efficiently using an offline browser which completely removed all unnecessary wait time. A common Internet connection would have been inadequate for this purpose! The web tour URL was given so attendees could easily retrace every step in the demonstration, or present it themselves to others, as was the case for all web presentations.

This local web review was conducted as part of the MIRA presentations to raise awareness of who is already on the web locally, what web malls currently exist, and how others are attempting to use the web for individual and cooperative marketing. http://lone-eagles.com/taos.htm A web tour of the best and easiest free web tools: http://lone-eagles.com/currtour.htm Fifteen topical web tours on health, parenting, education, etc., http://lone-eagles.com/webtours.htm A web tour of community networking applications http://lone-eagles.com/aspen.htm

A vision paper was created to raise awareness on the opportunities and to motivate all concerned to think BIG on their future funding potential opportunities. http://lone-eagles.com/taosvisions.htm

2. The second thing to do is list the decisions you’ll need to make regarding your web site, and who will do the primary planning and, who will do the actual authoring of the site. External expertise is desirable if funding is available. (There’s a lot of thinking and planning required!)

The WESST Artisians team decided they didn’t want to attempt to learn web-authoring to create their own site. They found it too overwhelming and the risk of failure and frustration was daunting. Following advice from private team meetings with a MIRA presenter, they created a detailed flowchart that made it clear how many web pages would be needed, for how many artists, requiring a set number of digital photographs, biographical and descriptive content from each artist, and as a result, specific cost bids were attainable based on this specific plan.

- They learned about merchant accounts and compared competing services.
  They learned about online transaction options, online shopping cart features,
  and product shipping costs and policies.

- They learned about flow charts and web site planning, about digital
   photography and the importance of high quality photographs to promote
   their products.

- They learned about web site hosting mechanics, update scheduling options, and costs.

- They learned about domain names, costs and options.

- They learned about web design issues and interactively worked with the
   web designers to agree on a web design layout.

- They learned about issues behind web marketing, printing a mailing list,
   reciprocal link agreements with other web sites, press releases, promotional
   planning, metatags regarding search engine rankings, and listservs.

- Client participatory agreements were authored and signed. Attorneys were consulted.

- They are still struggling with the key issue of successfully marketing their web site.

3. Dedicated leadership is necessary to keep the team on track, organized, and motivated. Many people lack organizational skills and the tenacity to do what they said they’d do and need someone to make sure they meet their commitments. The real work will often fall on the shoulders of one or two individuals who have the organization skills and dedication the others lack.

With the Taos MIRA cluster, Dawn Redpath and Clare Zurawski, of WESST, were the key organizers on behalf of the Taos steering committee. When decisions had to be made and deadlines met, it typically fell on their shoulders, or it wouldn’t get done. Who is bringing the flip charts, ordered the lavelier microphone, made sure the screen would be set up, ordered the food for the event, etc., etc.

4. Burn-out is a real issue as many team members grew weary of the many meetings and decisions required of them. If a presenter was boring to the youth, adults, or both, the success of the entire MIRA cluster was threatened for regular attendance to all six workshops was required for the funding would be lost.

The leaders were required to be cheerleaders, to praise everyone for attending, for doing a good job, reporting that Kellogg was pleased, that indeed the funding was real and would be forthcoming. Individuals that did not feel bonded to a team were at risk of being lost, so team members tried hard to retain the membership of their ranks. The logistics of not having any conflicts for any members for six Saturdays were huge!

Presenters had to be sensitive to the mood and endurance of the group. If the youth were restless, cut the presentation short and jump to the engaging group activities.
If everyone is enjoying the multimedia presentations, lunch will be 20 minutes late.

5. Teams met individually with MIRA presenters to get ideas and bolster confidence. The personal rapport and support of someone with expertise was a key factor for continued motivation by the teams. The need for continual encouragement and support was evident. Knowing there was someone to go to for personal counsel and advice, that really cared, was very important in sustaining interest. Humor and warmth were essential to make everyone feel comfortable and accepted, all the more so when they confess they find the technologies daunting and overwhelming, but exciting at the same time. "Do you really think I could learn to create a web page, I mean, really?"

6. Web marketing strategies that are proven to work were intangible. The lack of data on proven successful marketing strategies counter balanced the many examples of web pages offering products for sale. Metatags can be used to improve rankings in search engines. Mall sites allow aggregation of similar products, such as artwork.

Swapping links with partner sites made good sense, as did print-based promotion and use of other traditional media. Understand the web is too new for any long term established models and your web site is part of this new frontier adventure! Perhaps your site will become the innovative model others will look to!

7. WESST has a video on the "Fear of Success" and found rural women needed an attitude adjustment in order to pursue entrepreneurial activities. Attitudes regarding technology are a big issue and most people find technology thoroughly intimidating. Identify attitudinal barriers and address them directly. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of technology, can all present very real invisible barriers. Finding a starting place based on openness to new ideas is essential.

Internet Tools, and Workshop Resources:

Listservs were using for convenient ongoing communications between team members. Group MIRA presentations required a multimedia projector for multimedia training and awareness presentations. Maintaining interest and motivation was a key challenge for the presenters as teams had initially weak levels of commitment. Presenters used offline browsers to allow quick and efficient display of many sample web sites. Attendees were easily overwhelmed as most had minimal previous experience with computers and the Internet. Group interactive activities were an important part of the MIRA workshops.

One of the MIRA presenters created a listing of the top Taos web sites, highlighting important replicable features to consider. http://lone-eagles.com/taos.htm
A review of project and promotional ideas was distributed to motivate and get people thinking on a grand scale about their genuine opportunities http://lone-eagles.com/taosvisions.htm

A web tour of the best and easiest free web tools: http://lone-eagles.com/currtour.htm Fifteen topical web tours on health, parenting, education, etc., http://lone-eagles.com/webtours.htm

Each MIRA team was given a printed copy of "Common Ground – A Cross-cultural Self-directed Learners Guide" http://lone-eagles.com/guide.htm Hands-on web tours and hotlists of important self-guided tutorials and resources provided the opportunity for quick access to high level resources and self-directed awareness-raising opportunities. Many related resources, including community networking articles, guides and model sites were accessible at http://lone-eagles.com/ One of the first handouts was a listing of such resources: http://lone-eagles.com/teled.htm

A simple outline for a standard proposal was given in printed form along with a presentation explaining the process of project planning and proposal writing. http://lone-eagles.com/mira2.htm

Simple Grant-writing tips and sources for grantwriting tutorials as well as funding sources for community technology projects: http://lone-eagles.com/granthelp.htm

In specific response to the need for a low cost, short term local MIRA model, a recent resource has been created hosting a rich listing of youth-driven citizen engagement strategies and training resources.
See the Bootstrap Academy at http://lone-eagles.com/academy.htm


The fact that I was the Taos presenter five times is unique among the six annual MIRA clusters and allowed us to develop levels of relationships that were more meaningful and sustained. The content and approach of my presentations relates to the issue of maintaining motivation among MIRA attendees. There are many issues to consider discussing here, how to present the Big Picture as well as specific new vocabulary and technical skills. Knowing how much technical detail is TOO MUCH. While most don’t need the technical training, it is important they have some idea of what creating a web page can involve as well as what the Internet is and how it can be used.

Reflections from a MIRA presenter: Different Strategies for Different Audiences

In Mississippi my audience was 90 black youth from Duckville, MS and other very rural communities, and eight adults. I showed how to use a Sony Mavica digital camera which uses floppy disks and had 100 floppies on hand. Everyone attending left with a disk of their first digital photos which they took themselves. I showed a digital art tablet and a MIDI musical keyboard. After the presentation young girls were creating their first digital art and older kids were playing music, swaying and singing with the MIDI keyboard. It was pretty important to keep the attention and excitement of the youth by showing them demonstrations of technology they could relate to. We created digital minimovies of youth from each team telling the whole group, and CNN and the world, their planned accomplishments in the context of a future formal press release.

In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the teams were 2/3 adult and 1/3 youth. Many adults were critically reviewing the funding potential of ideas presented and were hard at work politicking within their teams so their ideas would steer the funding. A mixed variety of presentation style and content was necessary to create a single presentation that was meaningful to all concerned. Youthful web masters, confident in their technical proficiency sat next to web novices of earlier generations.

At several of the MIRA events it was clear there were power struggles within some of the teams regarding whose idea would steer the direction of the team and the pending funding. Attitudes toward technology were particularly varied. Older folks disliked technology demonstrations and were intimidated, the kids loved them. The MIRA evaluators at the heartland center remarked that evaluations for my technology presentations were always very positive, which surprised them as evaluations for technology presentations by others had shown consistently negative remarks by a portion of the group. Experience reveals that it is important to avoid using technical and academic vocabulary and to keep presentations focused on the benefits and applications, not the details of step by step how-tos.

A Physical Analogy Activity for Building a Community Network

In Ohio’s Appalachia Region, co-presenter Dick Gardner, director of the Idaho Rural Partnership, hosted an amazingly effective group activity which I adopted in all my later MIRA presentations. Dick had everyone stand in two big circles with about 50 people each. He then produced two big tightly wound balls of year. He eloquently set the stage by talking about giving and sharing as fundamental to building community.

He then gave a ball of yarn to a member of each group and asked them to state loudly what they had to offer to the group as skills, time, encouragement, etc., and also what they would ideally like to get back from the group. Then the ball was tossed across to someone on the other side of the circle who repeated the exercise, until everyone was holding a part of a geodesic design simulating a community network.

Excitement grew as people learned how much there was that people were willing to give, and how many people needed what they had to offer. True appreciation for what they could accomplish together was evident! Dick ended the exercise with having everyone hold the strings high and low and shake them all around and make some noise. I have some mini-movies of groups at this climatic moment which I can email to you.

Relationship-building with Key mentors and Presenters

When I was asked to present a second time for the Hawaii cluster I was gratified by being able to continue building on the initial relationships and to add value to my second presentation based on what I learned about the individual and group interests at the first session. When I was asked to return five times to present for the Taos MIRA cluster, I was able to continuously review their proposals, schedule private counseling meetings with the various teams as part of each visit, and enjoy actually getting to know and appreciate the individuals involved. Emails were exchanged between workshops, exchanging proposal drafts and suggestions.

In Taos, I was able to deliver resources and encouragement far greater than the sum of any other five MIRA presentations I’d delivered as one time events. The relationships with the Taos teams have endured, while the relationships with all other MIRA teams have not. All Taos teams took my advice to draft funding proposals beyond the scope of the MIRA project’s limited funding. I believe there’s an important lesson here about building meaningful relationships both within MIRA teams, and with outside mentorship and expertise.