New Community Networks
Wired for Change
Besides obtaining basic government and community information and discussing community issues, Santa Monicans also discovered that a community network can support purposeful political action. Michele Wittig a professor at California State University, Northridge (1991) has described how the PEN Action Group, a diverse group of community members and some homeless residents organized themselves electronically using PEN, when they realized the potential for the local system to be a catalyst. In this case, the network provided a convenient medium for group discussion, deliberation, strategizing, and action. In August of 1989, Bruria Finkel, a Santa Monica resident posted an idea to the Homeless Conference on PEN based on discussions she had had with homeless residents. The concept, dubbed SHWASHLOCK (for SHowers, WASHers, and LOCKers) was intended to help homeless people find, and maintain jobs by providing them with morning showers, laundry facilities, and lockers for their belongings.
It is instructive to examine the process that the group followed. First, the PEN Action Group identified a problem. This first identification was followed by a period of self-education in which the group investigated local service organizations and resources. The group identified gaps in service that weren't provided by other local organizations; closing those gaps became the focus of the PEN Action Group. Other concerns surfaced during the process: Philosophical disputes arose as to whether SHWASHLOCK services ought to be provided at all. There were political concerns as well. At one point local social-service providers "expressed unease over the threat that the new group would be competing with them for scarce social service dollars" (Wittig, 1991). This fear was allayed by cooperating with existing agencies rather than starting a new one. Other sectors such as the business community also played a part. A locker manufacturer agreed to provide 30 lockers for seven months without charge. The Santa Monica City Council ultimately allocated $150,000 for lockers, showers, and a laundry facility, demonstrating that using on-line resources for community organizing can work.
Although PEN's SHWASHLOCK experience appears to be a success in electronic grass-roots organizing, it is critical not to underestimate the hurdles that must be circumvented nor think that the magic of community networking will make the job trivial. Commitment, hard work, intelligence, planning, creativity, and luck will still be needed. Being aware of the potential pitfalls and possible misunderstandings as well as the opportunities afforded by the new medium is also strongly advised: Knowing when a face-to-face meeting is necessary can save a committee or group hours of frustrating and useless electronic communication that could jeopardize the entire project.
Also, as the SHWASHLOCK experience suggests, there are always other players involved. In this relatively small example, there were no less than six "stakeholder" groupsQthe homeless residents, the on-line PEN Action Group, the social service agencies, various businesses, the City Council, and other residents of Santa Monica. The success of any project will often hinge on the relationships among and within various groups such as these.
I hope that this information is useful to you. Please feel free to send me (Doug Schuler) your questions, comments, and corrections. I will try to keep the information in these pages current.
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