Tales from the Frontier of Internet Empowerment

The following short essay was posted to community networking listservs in Fall 1997, for New Years 1998. It was rediscovered as a posted file on the Organization for Community Networks web site http://ofcn.org/  Sept. 2001.

TO: Everyone

FROM: Frank Odasz

Big Sky Telegraph

RE: New Year's Greetings and Resolutions (4 pages)

I'd like to offer the following vignettes as my New Year's Greetings to everyone...

Monterrey, Mexico was the twin site for the TELED conference this year, shared by satellite link with Tampa Florida. School/community networking synergies was the topic of my presentation, and the final question asked was regarding the risk of viruses. I answered that American communities are threatened by something far more deadly than computer viruses, the lack of caring in many communities is something we must all rally against, particularly in light of the new abilities we share for community building and community empowerment.  The highlight of the Monterrey conference for me was when I was surrounded by students at the vendor displays begging me to sit for a presentation on Monterrey. They pulled up a chair for me and presented eight multimedia presentations, one per student, in English no less(!), with their teacher beaming in the background. The event ended with a quiz, gifts for their solo audience and a group photo. Needless to say I was pleased to see Mexican kids doing so well! 

After a fine dinner that evening, as I stepped onto the street at almost midnight, I was surrounded by children again, pressing close, hands high, speaking rapidly... this time begging for pesos. I quickly gave out a number of paper bills, embarrassed that I couldn't speak Spanish to ask what school they went to and what their teachers' names were. I strolled around the town plaza, now deserted, which hours before had been filled with people, young lovers cuddling at every turn and shadow. As I waited for a street light, I felt a tug on my jacket and found a lone, very small boy, lean and dirty, motioning toward his mouth that he wanted food. Again I pulled pesos from pocket, knowing it would mean little more than a single meal. The next day, as I flew across central Mexico, looking down on rural desert towns, I wondered about who will get Internet and 'learn to earn' and who would go without.

Two days later, I flew to Galena, Alaska, to present a Thinkquest workshop for members of 12 Native American villages scattered along the Yukon river. A friend from Montana took a job there two years ago as school superintendent and won an NTIA TIIAP grant for Internet via satellite for Galena. In addition, the local air force base has been donated to the school district, opening many possibilities for this community of 200. Perhaps a charter school will be created, or a training center for remote Internauts?! 

During a community breakfast in a small cafe, with 50 persons crowded together, an elderly fellow in a wolf fur parka stood up and said it was about time the community did something for the kids. The Internet and new options for the community were obviously being taken very seriously. After much discussion, just before the breakfast meeting ended, the elderly fellow stood up again, it was clear everyone held this colorful champion of Alaska's land and people, in very high esteem. Sidney Huntington, an early pioneer of the area, half white, half Athabaskan, and author of the book "Shadows on the Koyukuk" ended his remarks by shouting so loud my ears rang; "Don't give these kids nothin'!" Then, gently with a wink and a smile, he added "Make'm work for it!" It turns out Sidney has a life history of helping native kids get an education.

After another bushplane flight, watching a simultaneous sunrise and sunset over Denali (MT. McKinley) and snapping photos of the wide white winter highway of the Yukon river, I found myself at the Fairbanks airport sitting in front of an interactive kiosk learning about the various huge expanses and parks of Alaska. All of the sudden behind me, I heard a loud shouting wail and turned to find a Native boy about 18 years old, some distance away, completely overcome with tears. He made a couple phone calls and continued to cry loudly, without inhibition. I wondered if it was a girl friend's rejection, or a tribal death. I wondered if it was the cry of an ancient way of life under siege by change.  On my flight home, the northern lights flashed for hours out the window of the plane along the entire southeastern arm of Alaska as the many faces I'd seen recently struggled to communicate their meaning to me.

A couple days later I found myself presenting Thinkquest and Internet to 150 members of the Pullman Christian School, (Pullman, WA) where I was able to evangelize a bit about the responsibility that comes with the power of the Internet...as I helped parents and teachers understand that their kids will in many ways be the change agents in this modern pre-millennium age, and that we need to work closely with them to help all members of society understand the opportunities the Internet represents. "If you don't like the content on the Internet, bring your shining light to make sure others WILL find something of value." "Caring and connectivity go together, and with this God-given capability you can no longer claim powerlessness to change the world...you bear a real responsibility to use the Internet for doing good."

Its been a difficult year in many ways; most government agencies, corporations, and foundations seem to be very naive and short-sighted about what the Internet is now, and with vision and direction, what it could become. Universal service legislation risks wasting vast sums of money providing Internet without funds for thorough training. Many corporations appear to believe they can mandate community networks, but are finding citizen participation is not won so easily. More white elephant project failures are to be expected before the builders of these networks will understand they must partner with the intended users to succeed. Foundation folks, for the most part, appear minimally aware of the need for multiple 'citizen minigrants' to "give citizens the opportunity to create the diversity of applications required for a successful National Information Infrastructure," as suggested in the Congressional OTA report "Electronic Delivery of Federal Services." The US Government has since shut down the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, (so it goes.)

The NTIA TIIAP program struggles every year to retain its limited funding for community networking. Dillon, MT has a $97,000 NTIA grant for 12 Internet public access computers for various public offices, won by two motivated retired teachers, eager to share their vision of the Internet. The hard reality is most Dillonites don't yet have a vision; "What's in it for me" has to be answered for each individual..an enormous task for these two local leaders. Despite Big Sky Telegraph being available locally for 8 years, most Dillonites have never been online, or can answer why they should be. 

In Glasgow, MT I presented a Thinkquest Internet workshop to members of a K12 Vocational Consortium from Eastern Montana, the same week local access became available. At the Cottonwood Inn, a mother told me that when their kids graduate High School, "We hand them a suitcase and a goodbye; there's nothing to keep them here." Will Internet make any real difference anytime soon for these kids, or those on the neighboring reservation? 

MCI and the Morino Institute have partnered to create an entrepreneurship web site for the Washington DC area. What will rural communities find on the web which will prove to be of real use in Glasgow, Montana?!! Or, Butte, MT., or Galena, Alaska, or my town, Dillon?! Such is our joint challenge for survival! LIFELONG LEARNING appears to be where we're all headed. Mini-lessons, or 'guided learning tours' which incorporate 'fun, social, learning' suggest the emerging format, in the short term. (Note: Bill Gate's latest book says the three emerging industries are education, social services, and entertainment; "hence - fun, social, learning.) All citizens stand to become both learners *<and teachers,>* all the time, in the global classroom.

Even Bill Gates, whose mother's women's club once chipped in to get young Bill an online service connection...failed to recognize the potential of the Internet until last year. He's since declared war regarding his domination of this collaborative medium, again missing the whole point, (in my humble opinion.)  Big Sky Telegraph is between projects, continuing to do what we can to share the best of what caring people have put on the web...for those who would use it to do good in the world. http://macsky.bigsky.dillon.mt.us (The University of Montana/Western pulled the plug on Big Sky Telegraph in 2000, having never shared the vision despite ten years of hosting the site on campus.)

This year, I resolve to learn more about the instructional applications of the growing variety of online collaborative environments to learn how to better bring people together to make good things happen. Happy New Year! Frank Odasz Director of Big Sky Telegraph Western Montana College of the University of Montana 

NOTE: Current Contact Information: Email: frank@lone-eagles.com Web: http://lone-eagles.com