ellohay! West Michigan

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 Catherine Ettinger

Usually when I get to tell someone new about this project, initially there is skepticism. Then I explain the structure and the elements built in for sustainability, there is optimism.

My conversation with Catherine, president of Foxbright (here in Grand Rapids) was a little different. She wasn’t pessimistic per se, but she wasn’t exactly beaming. I contacted her after listening to her podcasts “Inside Grand Rapids”, and read her About page that expressed great interest in learning about new and existing projects making a difference in the city.

Her studio develops websites for schools, nonprofits, social organizations and regular profit businesses too. Hospice, Goodwill, Phoenix Society among other are some of her company’s clients.

So, we met and talked downtown on Friday during lunch.

Some condensed, paraphrased, versions of her statements, questions, comments:
• Internet access is essential to this programs’ success, the wiMax program will be important
• Relying on a third party to provide internet access (which is integral to the program) is not a great thing
• Education is going to be difficult, people don’t like learning past a certain age, it’s going to be a challenge to get people to be receptive
• You can solve data loss issues with thumb drives, people use those all the time
• You won’t be able to give 24 hour support, staffing that is going to be nearly impossible
• Laptops, not desktop computers. Portable, small, strong tech devices
• Getting technology will be no problem at all
• The pilot program sounds good, kids in the same neighborhood is an optimal situation
• Eventually you’re going to need storefronts or workshops all over the city, coverage similar to the public library and their branches
• People will need to be able to walk to your locations as transportation is a major issue
• You could probably use those rooms at the public for some of the classes
• Security is going to be a big issue for people, build in a strong base in the program, because in this day and age…
In short, it was great to talk with her, she had some fantastic feedback, and comments about logistics, practices.

It was also good to hear about her perspective as a parent, she has two young boys at home who she personally wants to educate about the internet and technology herself. It sounded like she wouldn’t need the program for her kids.

She acknowledged that while she and her children have the resources and skills to harness the power of those tools, that not everyone in our community has the same advantages.

If I understood her correctly, over-all she thinks this program is a good idea and it could really work.

She expressed that she’d like to stay in the conversation as well.

Catherine, you bring a unique perspective to the table, you’re a mom, a small business owner, and a strong, intelligent voice in the community.

Thank you for the conversation, and we hope to hear from you soon (and yes, once we get this pilot program off the ground, I’d like very much to be a guest on your podcast, thank you for the invitation).

For everyone reading here, please poke holes, and keep those comments coming. Thanks and cheers.

A Conversation with John Helmholdt

Posted in clients, conversations, education, meetings, organization, partners, pilot, players, programs by forgr on March 16, 2008

About a week and a half ago, I had a phone conversation with John Helmholdt, Communications Director for Grand Rapids Public Schools. I left a voicemail a day earlier for him, and he called back less than 24 hours later.

Lee Weber from Dyer-Ives suggested I call him a week prior. She said he might be interested in this project.

So, he called me, wanting to know more, and was interested in how something like this might impact students, teachers, parents, the board etc. We talked about the potential structure, the benefits, the pilot program. I mentioned several times that we were just starting out, still int he discovery stage of this project.

And still.. the conversation after that went something like this, not quotes, just the jest (except for the part in quotes, that’s real):

John: So this would cost money right? And the machines would be leased or machines on loan?

Me: “Nope, once we get going, the laptops would be free and belong to the students’

John: Ah, interesting. What’s the catch? What would you want from us?

Me: ‘You would be our test audience, so you’d need to bear with us, and we would like feedback, that’s it’

John: Huh

Me: ‘Seriously, that’s it’

John: “Well, it’s a no brainer.” Marie-Claire, we should find a classroom, the one with the greatest need, and test it out’

Me: ‘Really?’

John: Yeah, let me talk to the right people and get back to you.

Me: ‘Okay then, great’

John: You’ll have to be patient with us, there’s a lot of people to get through before we’d be able to get back to you with a yes or a no.

Me: That’s good, because we have a lot more work to do on our end, you’ll need to be patient with us as well.

John: Okay, this is great, thank you so much for calling me.

So, what does that conversation mean? We may have a local audience, one that potentially lives in the same neighborhood together. They are potentially a complicated group, with special needs, and English may not be their first language. They are under served in the community in more ways than one.

What else does it mean? The pilot program organization is a little higher on our list of to-dos.

A Conversation with Lynell Shooks

Posted in conversations, donations, hardware resources, meetings, partners, planning, players by forgr on March 9, 2008

So, last week I talked with Lynell Shooks from Comprenew Environmental in Grand Rapids, MI. Comprenew is the leading recycling and upcycling entity in the region. They’re mission is much different than ours, but still involves computers and assistance to the community.

“Last year, Comprenew Environmental kept approximately 1.5 million pounds of electronics out of landfills.”

“The mission of Comprenew Environmental is to inspire the local community to live and work in a sustainable manner. This mission is accomplished through the mentoring of community partners and inner-city youth who, along with committed staff and volunteers, provide corporations and the community with electronics recycling services that represent the best possible practice.”

I left a message but didn’t get a call back for about two weeks, I called back this week to see if I could catch her at a different time of day. Got her on the phone…

I took cruddy notes while talking with her:

General Information:
Offer discounted electronics at the store
Laptops for $380-400
Offer support
Two week warranty, No long term warranty provided
Geared towards regular users, but work with lower income
Build computers
Non-profits get discounts
(Gave Degagé Ministries monitors for $10 each)
(Sold to Schools for labs all over the county)
Machine comes with software and an OS, keep the OS with the machine
They make recommendations to their clients for upgrading their OS

Comprenew Academy:
Teaching sustainability practices
Offers agencies and non-profit sustainability education as well
Hope Network, retaining, and financial, taking apart computers, factory work
AARP, job retraining factory
Internships and volunteers at the center constantly

Computers 101?
Community, not really involved yet

Repair services, cheaper than Best Buy
Support offered at the facility

I asked if Comprenew would be interested in contributing to the conversation, Lynell was interested in contributing AND partnering in some way. She mentioned that we could call her anytime and that this sort of initiative is much needed in the community. I gave her my email, phone number, and the blog url too.

Check out the Comprenew website here.

recycle@comprenew.org
616.451.4400
629 Ionia Avenue SW
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503
U.S.A.

Grand Rapids (poverty, illiteracy)

Posted in discovery stages, education, links for community, potential problems by forgr on March 4, 2008

Grand Rapids makes national news, for our high illiteracy rates:

“Grand Rapids, a city of 184,000, one out of every five residents has difficulty reading or cannot read at all.”

“Grand Rapids’ adult illiteracy rate of 21 percent is just slightly above the state average of 18 percent…” More.

And yesterday, this headline from the Grand Rapids Press:

“One in 3 public school students lives in poverty”

“Today, at least one in three students — 51,500 children — at traditional public schools in Kent and Ottawa counties are poor. In Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville schools, four of every five live in poverty, according to federal statistics on students who get free or reduced-price school lunches.”

“Grand Rapids Public Schools, historically a high-poverty district, has gone from 66 percent to 81 percent poor students in the past seven years, forcing schools to become “full-service, one-stop social service agencies,” Superintendent Bernard Taylor said. “We’re not just dealing with education.”

“The state is in a recession, and the people who get hurt the most are the children who need the most. It’s a travesty,” said Susan Neuman, a University of Michigan professor and former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under President Bush.”

“Some funding comes through grants for at-risk students and the federal Title I program. Grand Rapids, for example, received millions in 1999 to limit most elementary classrooms to 19 students. Those grants expired in 2003.

But many elementary schools waste Title I dollars on classroom aides or computer labs, Neuman said.

‘Better to get a highly qualified teacher,’ she said. ‘That would make a difference. And do we really need that computer lab? If kids can’t read, they can’t use a computer effectively. Get rid of it and get more books.’

Grand Rapids has not ditched the computer labs, but it has obtained more books. The Student Advancement Foundation, its fund-raising arm, updated all 47 school libraries since 2004 with $1.6 million in donations.” More.

From AccessKent’s website:

“The per capita income for the County was $21,629. Of the population for whom poverty status is determined, 12.1% is below the poverty level. Out of the total people living in poverty, 38.4% are under the age of 18 and 4.80% are 65 or older. ” Read more employment statistics here.

So…

My mom mentioned that she saw that story linked above on illiteracy on the news the other night, and brought up a good point, How can we include literacy programs into our program? We could get some serious backing (financial…) if we were to incorporate elements into this program as well.

If people can’t read, how can they use computers? And, no we can’t save the world with computers… but we can work to ‘bridge the gap’ by ‘raising the bar’… can’t we? If we at least provide resources to our clients for literacy programs, we’re helping there, right?

What else can we do? Should we focus on just technology, education, resources and support for functioning online? Is this the venue for universally boosting the under-served?

What about the environment? There’s also a lot of money being poured into our community to promote and support environmental causes too, what is our focus?