ellohay! West Michigan

A Conversation with Dan Balfour

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Dan Balfour, professor in the School of Public and Nonprofit Administration and a faculty fellow of the Honors College at Grand Valley State University.

We discussed the organization, the program offering and our plan to run a pilot program in a GR public school classroom. We also talked about grant seeking classes offered at the SPNA at GVSU and how volunteer work is required in the curriculum at the SNPA (think “grant-writing”, or “research-assistance” for this project… yeah).

Biggest moment of the conversation:

Marie-Claire: “So, if there was one thing that would be a grave mistake if I didn’t do during this process, if there was one piece of advice you might give to me, what would that be?”

Dan: “Don’t stop”

Thank you so for your time, advice, and resources Dan. It was great meeting you, and I hope to talk to you again soon.

A Conversation with Ashima Saigal

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with Ashima Saigal, Director of Technology at Dorothy A. Johnson Center of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University.

I explained the project, the few programs that we have planned, the thinking behind it all. She had some really good suggestions and encouraging feedback as well.

• We should definitely get the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) Organization in on it, get them to set up a buy one get one program for the citizens of the city of Grand Rapids.

• She also expressed that we need to build in a give/get aspect to the donation process. Donors give something and they get something in return.

• She expressed that getting clients involved in their community would be wildly important. For example, 10 hours of community service with Mixed Greens gets you one laptop computer. This will help our clients realize the value of the tools we’re providing to the community.

• Open Office may not be compatible with MicroSoft word file formats, the file format that most educator’s machines, school computers or workplaces use. That may cause some annoying problems for our clients.

While I was laying out all of the elements of the program, (the lack of connectivity between the hardware and education and support and wireless connectivity) I mentioned that there were only a few resources for getting ones computer repaired, i.e. the “smart kid next door” or the “tech-saavy nephew / co-worker / acquaintance or Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

She misheard me, perhaps thinking that I had mentioned that there was an organization of smart kids that fixed people’s computers for them, smart kids next door. I clarified, adding that something like that would be really cool. She said something to the tune of, ‘that would be so cool if that existed for real’. A troop of friendly nerds that could roam the streets providing tech support for a simple trade of homebaked cookies or iced tea.

So I’ve been chewing on that, writing a new draft of the mission statement without my head up my rear, drafting program outlines, and memorandums of understanding.

I’ve got some more to write about this meeting, but nights seem to be getting shorter, so I need to stop if I’m ever going to get anything else out of my head.

Thank you for meeting with me Ashima, hope to talk with you again soon.

A Conversation with Bill Hill, veteran librarian, Grand Rapids Public Library

Posted in conversations, feedback, planning, players by forgr on March 31, 2008

On Friday, March 21st, I caught a quick lunch with Bill Hill from the Grand Rapids Public Library. I had contacted him about a week or so ago prior inquiring about the Public Library’s computer usage. I asked really specific questions in an email:

• Who are your internet station patrons? And if you were to speculate, why are they there?
• What are your hopes for the community and each citizen’s involvement with the technology?
• What are the library’s largest technological pain points?
• How many people log on to internet stations per day?
• What are your peak usage times during the week, the weekend?
• What is your itrain class attendance like for each session?
• If there was one thing that would boost your class attendance, (if that’s what you want) what would it be?
• What’s missing in the community, what’s the largest need?

So, when I finally met with Bill, he expressed that answers to most of these questions are not available. They keep the program moving, and continue to upgrade their machines because their mission is to provide the means for the community to learn about themselves and their world. The internet, like books, magazines, and movies is another tool to aid in this goal. They dont track usage, they don’t have any real analytics programs keeping track of things.

They only count the number of sessions and unique page visits.

Bill also told he about himself, his involvement with the library and various programs he’s involved with there, this one, this one, this one among others. I initially wanted to talk with him because he’s lived in this city for quite some time, he’s worked at the library for years, and he’s actively engaged in the community at many levels.

I told him about our project, about the parts, pieces, people and plans. He listened, soaked it all in, asked a few questions.

He then gave some of the first negative feedback our project has received. He described many efforts that the community had tried to start up, and subsequently failed at, namely open computer labs. He expressed that it was likely than individuals would steal machines, sell them and then come back for more. He warned that I might be too optimistic, and to keep a realistic head on my shoulders throughout the project.

But it didn’t get me down. I knew going in that it was going to be rough. I know that there are going to be problems. All the more reason to try it, give it a genuine run, and see what happens. We’ll never know until we try.

As we wrapped up our lunch, I had asked him if he would be willing to stay in the conversation, and he said sure, but might better be able to help me by assisting with initial grant writing exercises.

A little bit ago, Bill emailed me following up afterwards,

>     I enjoyed meeting you very much, but I fear I left you with more of a
>     negative reaction than I felt or intended. Your mission to help less
>     advantaged folks gain more independence is sacred stuff.  I admire
>     your passion for this work, and hope I will be able to contribute something
>     from the library.

And then in another email said this,

>     We share much the same goal, to empower people by giving them free
>     access to information, and we do offer classes on using the internet and
>     word processing, although our next round of those wont arrive till
>     Fall.  You take it a step further than we ever will be able to, by
>     wanting to provide your clients with their own laptops. But our goals
>     have much in common overall.

Very nice conversation and correspondence, and just the right touch of reality to keep me fighting for this project.

Thank you Bill for the conversation, and I hope to talk with you soon about grants, and the future.

A Conversation with Patrick Shaffner, 826 CHI Outreach Coordinator

Posted in benchmarks, conversations, physical presence, planning by forgr on March 30, 2008

I spent the weekend in Chicago with some friends (taking a break from writing, but not from thinking). I dragged all five of my friends into “The Boring Store” which is a store front for the nonprofit writing workshop 826 CHI. You guessed it, it’s part of the 826 network of workshops started by Dave Eggers and friends.

The front is a spy supply store (disguises, gadgets) and the back is the one on one tutoring and writing workshop.

I was fortunate enough to catch Patrick, the Outreach Coordinator for the local 826 CHI program. He gave me, and my educator friend Wendy, a tour of the store, the writing workshop, and the back offices.

There are four full time employees, and over 600 volunteers. They offer a suite of programs to the community youth, you can find out more about them here.

I actually called Patrick about a month ago, asked him to tell me a little more about the program’s day to day workings and organization, and told him about the project that we were starting here in Grand Rapids. He remembered us when I mentioned the digital inclusion project and jumped up and down.

He said, “No, don’t start it in Grand Rapids, move here and start it here in Chicago!” I laughed, but he meant it, he said computer literacy is a huge issue in Chicago schools, and in the community at large. We agreed that it’s really a big problem across the nation, there’s no real way to get the guided tour through the whole experience.

There are those who:
know what a computer can do
know what they want to do with it
know what questions to ask at a store
can afford the computer
can get one-on-one attention to learn new tools
can get the computer fixed if it breaks
know how to get the right upgrades, new software
can excel on their own terms with the right tools
can expand their reach

And then there are those who have limited access, are behind the curve, under-served, poor, embarrassed, limited, left behind, scared or intimidated. We should serve that second set of individuals.

Talking with Patrick (who works with a similar set of children) made me realize that there is a large set of individuals who actually want to be served. There is a thirst and it can be quenched.

In 826’s experience 35 to 40 hours a year of one-on-one attention, can raise student’s grades up one level.

Dave Eggers talks about starting 826 Valencia in this TED video.

Initially they started the workshop and pirate supply store and no one came in. An obvious trust issue. So they talked with a teacher friend and make her the executive director, and started going directly into the schools and talking with teachers about their needs.

The program was then a success, now they serve in classrooms and in the workshop. They are an anchor in their community. They have volunteers and employees who have flexible hours available during the school day and just after. They created their network of volunteers out of graduate students, writers, educators, and thinkers. All of these people are able to give just a few hours a month, and make a huge difference being able to shine a light on a child and their work.

So, brilliant. Yes. I got a serious boost from talking with Patrick. And now I know, we need to keep up the conversation with teachers, we’re headed in the right direction.

Wendy, my educator friend who toured with me yesterday, wants to volunteer there now. She’s got the Summer off and wants to do something other than graduate school, and beach lounging. 826 CHI will also help her students next semester too. She’s pumped about it.

Patrick, the Outreach Coordinator, wants to be kept up to date on when our program is coming to Chicago :-)

It’s great having existing programs nearby, and being able to visit and talk with them is absolutely wonderful. Thank you Patrick for your time and encouragement.

A Conversation with Lee Weber

Posted in conversations, discovery stages, donations, meetings, organization, planning, projects, wifi by forgr on February 29, 2008

I met with Lee for lunch on Tuesday. We talked for quite a while about the wireless project here in the city, the infrastructure, the troubles, and the future.

The more meetings and conversations I have with people in my community, the more wildly apparent it becomes that there IS a need for something like this in this area. There’s a need for a program that provides potable technology, includes tools, offers education, and is dedicated to support.

I think the most inspiring thing about our meeting was that she believed in this project and the concept. She seemed like a supporter and wanted to stay in the conversation too.

Past the initial business plan, the pilot program may be the next goal. She suggested that we piggyback with an existing non-profit organization so that all donations are tax deductible for their donors (that was one of our largest barriers for a pilot program). They would also lend major credibility to our effort as well.

To get the pilot off the ground, that leaves:

• a venue for the event
• recipients
• volunteers, lots of smart volunteers
• a venue
• tracking, note-taking tools
• a fearless leader
• a fearless planning committee
• time

She gave me some new contacts as well, my list now is 40 people long. I thought it was shorter… phew! But I’ve made contact and had valuable conversations with 15 individuals… so 25 more right? At least.

Thank you Lee. I hope to talk to you again sometime soon.

Hi, I’m Marie-Claire -OR- Finally, an introduction to what you’ve been reading

Posted in discovery stages, projects by forgr on February 13, 2008

It’s time for an introduction to what you’re reading, and it’s time I introduced myself. For those visiting, all two of you, my name is Marie-Claire. I live in Michigan, I’m 27, I work full-time as an Interaction Designer at a design consultancy, I’m also an active volunteer.

I’d work full time with and for nonprofit organizations if they could reliably take care of my everyday needs.

I’m not a mom, a teacher, or a practiced blogger, and I don’t think I’m a good writer either (I used to have a blog in 2001 but I abandoned it because I didn’t have anything I wanted to say to the people who were reading it, I wrote about what I had for dinner. It was just terrible). Today I’m logging events with a loose goal in mind. Whether it’s technological/digital inclusion in the community, talking through Grand Rapids getting wifi, or getting whatever this IS out into the air. I’m just young and in love with passionate people and ideas.

I wish I could provide a definitive mission statement right here, but no, I’m learning to keep my expectations low these days, so I’m not going to have one here for a long time.

Moving on to the reason this post exists. A few weeks ago my husband and I started thinking about the history of the municipal wifi initiative that was started here in Grand Rapids, MI. About five years ago at least, we saw a yellow Sprint billboard on 196, or 131… can’t remember… with a map of Grand Rapids, that advertised wireless access all over the city. I’m pretty sure it said “Coming Soon” or something like that. We simply thought, “Score! That sounds cool!” I think I might have wondered how much it would cost, or if would be free.

Fast forward through five years of life, countless directly related instances and a handful of wifi-enabled devices… to now, naturally I have a lot more questions. My initial question is, what’s taking so long to get wifi here? Along with that question, I have at least 20 others readily available to ask the right people, for example:

Who’s in charge of this project?
What went wrong with Sprint?
What’s going on now?
How close are we actually achieving our goal?
Have the people in charge done their homework in picking a vendor or do we have consultants?
Do we have an appropriate vendor selected now?
If it launches soon, what is the plan to roll it out?
Do schools, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, citizens know that it’s coming?
What can citizens do to help?
What can I do to help?
Did you including schools, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, citizens in the planning process?
What about the people who don’t have computers?
What about the people who can’t afford computers and really shold have access to this?
Are there any technological/digital inclusion plans in place?
Will it cost money to gain access or will it be free? Yes, I’m still wondering about that one…
What are the restrictions?
Is there a plan set up for abuse problems?
Are there any training program plans in place?
Are we advertising this in our tourism department?
Is there a budget defined?
Have we blown that budget already?
Are we using other cities’ boards, benchmarking them, paying attention to case studies as resources?
CAN citizens actually do anything to speed it along or smooth it out?
Do schools, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, citizens think it’s a good thing too?
Do schools, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, citizens have plans in place to utilize this great gift?
Have we been able to definitely rule out getting wifi for free?
How far will the wifi reach?
Who will have access?
Who else feels as inquisitive as me?
Are we doing this right?
What will this do to or for our city?
WIll it bring us closer or brake us apart?

I know that’s a lot of questions. I know, I know. And I know things take long, but dang, you can’t dangle that carrot, watch other cities whizz right past you (technologically) and not start to wonder… what’s taking so long?

So I started writing all these questions down in my little notebook, partly because I have a terrible memory, but mostly because I need all these questions answered in one way or another. Yes, need. So, that one page expanded to three, then five, then then and I knew it was seriously stuck in my proverbial “craw”.

I talked with my husband, wrote even more, talked casually to co-workers, wrote even more, talked with my neighbors, my family, the nonprofits around me and wrote tons more.

And then ran into Scott during a lull at work, and sure enough he was thinking at the same time about the same subject. Right. So this is bigger than my little obsessive corner of the world. At least two people are (relatively) on the same page.

He emails me an essay of sorts that a close friend of his wrote about the Municipal wifi initiative in Grand Rapids. I read it, I get pumped. Three people are on the same page. Go.

You should also know that everything in heart says Yes, municipal wifi IS a good thing. And Yes, there is a digital divide in, at least, my community.

So that week I talk more with Scott, we go to lunch, and we know pretty quickly that this is bigger than both our little “craws” can manage to hold. I tell him about one particular instance in the cumulative countless directly related instances in the last five years. I talk about how the Red Cross could cut their costs and processing time for clients in HALF if the city had stable Wifi and the proper devices to use. He literally jumps up and down. I shit you not. He wants to start a wiki, he wants to start a blog about technology and wifi. He wants me to tell my Red Cross story and encourage others to do the same too.

I get really excited, I write more. I write down a list of projects that could be started here with Scott. I start researching other cities, other people who work Municipal wireless plans out for a living, I accumulate a lot of case studies, contacts, benchmarks, get more questions, draw diagrams, learn about how people are using the wifi, collect more links. I’m listing, sketching. I gain momentum here.

It’s important that you know that I wrote down a separate list of projects too, in addition to Scott’s and my list. This list was spawned after my husband and I helped our 12 year old Mexican neighbor get a really good slightly-used laptop from Craig’s List. I thought “Man wouldn’t it be great if we could do this on a large scale?”

Magically, somehow he and I will start this incredible workshop that provides great computers in exchange for like, 10 hours of volunteer time from the client, it would be simply for people who need computers. It’s a great dream.

There would be support, classes, everything is in three languages, we have passionate and dedicated volunteers, a web portal, free wifi, everyone could learn how to build and be able to fix their own computers, there would be a workshop with spare parts, all the machines would run Ubuntu and open office, everyone would get gmail accounts. We’d get national recognition for how awesome we were. We would get grants and have microloan programs set up for families to get printers and digital cameras.

I wrote drafts of a mission statement, (I later posted them here). I made floor plans for the physical presence of this now MAIN project in my head. I got carried away with the exhilarating process of its realization. But I’m beaming with optimism even as I write. I checked out books from the library on starting a nonprofit organization. I read for hours, make cute diagrams of the storefront and workshop, I talked with my brother about his friend in Oregon who does almost the same thing, successfully even.

Then I get an email from Scott that I knew was coming. He says that getting involved in any sort of project would be a distraction for him. I sink. I get angry, I get over it, all in 15 minutes. I’ll explain:

The thing with Scott is that he’s an inspirer. He (lovingly, I know) gets people excited, then seems to drop them into the water by themselves. I think of him now as a cheerleader, it’s an endearing quality, but saddening if you have low self-esteem and are looking for a real comrade in a project. I’m used to this from knowing him for close to five years. So I move on, I can start this by myself, he’s right Again. He’s got a life, I can handle collection of thoughts by myself at his stage. It’s okay. It’s okay.

I write back to him telling him about all of my doubts, thoughts and next steps on our wifi involvement thinking. I tell him about my new project focus.

He writes back expressing his desire to see me succeed in whatever I do, he suggests some next steps. I write talking about what I think I’ll do next, and how I want to talk to the woman in charge of the wifi project here in GR. I think I should talk with more people about more things.

I don’t get this excited about most things. I have, what I have to relearn everyday, are unrealistic expectations about most things. I get dropped hard and often. I want to trust people, but I get let down a lot.

Moments after I write to Scott, I contact and make an appointment to meet up with the person who is running the Municipal Wifi program in Grand Rapids. (I meet with her tomorrow actually. I’m terrified. I usually expect that I’m going to fail so I don’t prepare for things like this. I really should prepare this time. In school I used to over-prepare, but I’d make myself so nervous, that I’d actually do worse. I’m convinced I’ll blow it either way in my head.)

Another lull at work on a bright morning brings one new person into the experimental conversation. I talked myself into speaking to a group of others about this half baked idea.

I got emotional during this conversation, but others listened to me anyways. I talked about my close neighbors from Mexico, my hope for a better Grand Rapids, and involved I.T. guys everywhere, the need for a One Laptop per Child Local Edition, and I learned more about the history of the Grand Rapids Sprint debacle too, I get more perspectives. I was so relieved to hear discussion about this subject outside my own skull. Having more people is always good, so good.

Everyone likes the idea of the laptop workshop, they even like my floor-plan and ID tag sketch… I feel like a pretty big nerd, but I’m in good company.

We were interrupted and needed to go back to work. But now seven people are relatively on the same page. I then started a blog, this blog, while eating my lunch and invited three new people to contribute.

I posted my collections of notes here, I wrote about other cities, other programs. I made some categories, and tagged my posts. I hope that others will feel free to write here, it’s pretty informal really. I hope to be able to format each post a little better, not just link stuff up.

So there it is. That’s the introduction to what you’re reading. Please subscribe to this and comment when you can. I could use the feedback. Is thinking about wifi a good thing? Is starting a digital inclusion workshop a viable and interesting project that you think people here would be interested in participating in?

I’ll keep posting my notes, I have so many pages still to scan in, type up. I already need a volunteer or an intern to help my keep track of the stuff pouring out of my head.

Thanks for tuning and agreeing to taking part in the conversation. Wish me luck on my meeting tomorrow? I’m actually planning on preparing this time…

(I think I’d like to record the audio in some way… I might pick up a tape recorder tomorrow morning before work and ask her if I can capture the meeting.)