Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Edna Jackson, Technology And Community Building: From Staunchest Opponent to Greatest Proponent
by Randal Pinkett

Randal Pinkett

This article shares the case study of one individual in her efforts to achieve social and cultural resonance with technology. She is a participant in the Creating Community Connections (C3) Project,* an ongoing effort at Camfield Estates, a predominantly African-American, low- to moderate-income housing development in Roxbury, MA, since 1999. As part of this project, MIT researchers worked with residents to establish a technological infrastructure by offering every family a new computer, software, and high-speed Internet connection, along with comprehensive training and a web-based community building system.

The Case Study of Edna Jackson

Edna and James Jackson (both pseudonyms) arrived at the housing development in 1990. For the next seven years leading up to the eventual demolition of the property in 1997, their attachment to the neighborhood grew stronger as the development became their home. In 1999, after renovation was completed, the Jacksons enthusiastically decided to return to the development given their longstanding ties to the community. However, their return to the development was somewhat bittersweet as Edna was now battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a combination of emphysema (over-inflation of the structures in the lungs leading to decreased respiratory function) and chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the tubes connecting the windpipe and the lungs that obstructs airflow), a disease that claims the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans each year.

Having been diagnosed with COPD three years earlier, Edna's days at the new development would largely be confined to her residence. Now at age 57, she relies on an oxygen machine to provide constant respiratory assistance and uses a walker on the rare occasions when she leaves the house (usually to go to the hospital).

Reluctance, Recruitment and Resonance

From the onset, Edna was the project's staunchest opponent. When the President of the tenants association first spoke with Edna, she flatly refused the offer for the computer, Internet access, and home-based training. Subsequent efforts by the President, a representative from the financier of the property, and other residents at the development also fell upon deaf ears. Meanwhile, the new computer intended for Edna sat in a corner of the community center gathering dust. Eventually, Edna was convinced to allow someone to set up the computer and Internet connection in her home, but only on a trial basis.

When we moved back and this building was done and I heard that we were going to get computers, I didn't care why. I didn't want one. And I told [them] I didn't want one. I was really disgusted with it all.

Rather quickly, the instructor was able to engage her. He did this not by showing her how to use the mouse or the keyboard per se, but by clearly demonstrating relevance. Initially this meant showing her how to connect with family and friends, which struck a definite chord.

I got my first session and I was amazed! I couldn't believe it! It was so fascinating! I get my second session and I'm getting e-mail, which was totally blowing my mind. And I'm saying, "Oh my God, this is incredible."

C3 Project at Camfield EstatesWith each passing day, Edna became increasingly more comfortable with the computer. However, the majority of her tasks still involved pointing and clicking. Her first jaunt beyond e-mail, web sites, and games was participating in a chat room on cancer (she is also a survivor of breast cancer). Given her positive experiences thus far, she far she didn't hesitate entering the chat room and "watching" the conversation take place among the participants. In fact, her early experiences with chat rooms were characterized by watching the conversations of others as she was reluctant to contribute to the dialog. And then one day everything changed. A question was posted in the chat room for which she knew the answer, and, slowly but surely, she found the courage to post a response.

So now I type it in. It looked OK. And I sent it. I had the nerve. It's like I was covering over my eyes. I was so afraid that someone would say, "What's this jerk? Who's this jerk? What's she talking about?" So now the person said, "Thanks Edna you cleared that up." I was so happy I didn't know what to do! I got up and I actually did a dance! You know when the football players do a...when they get a touchdown? I got up and did a dance just like those football players! When you are sick there is not much to celebrate.

Edna soon found herself in various chat rooms on a regular basis. She spent as many as nine hours per day on the computer and says, "I remember one time our lights went out and the only thing I was interested in...I didn't care about the food in the refrigerator, I wanted to be on the computer." She began to see herself as an advisor, confidant, and sounding board for others. She shared her thoughts about cancer, about COPD, and about life. On making this transition from passive bystander to active contributor she remarks, "It's so rewarding. And to be able to give...I'm not only getting, I am giving because I can tell them my experiences."

A Social and Cultural Shift
Camfield Estates
Camfield Estates

A cultural shift has taken place in the Jackson's household. Attitudes have changed. Habits have changed. Ways of perceiving the world have changed.

I would have never wanted a computer. I didn't see anything in it. Now I wouldn't know what to do without it. I believe I am better physically and mentally because of the computer.

A social shift has also taken place. An environment that was once closed-off to the outside world in certain ways has now been reopened. Connections are being made that previously didn't exist and, in fact, weren't possible.

After completing approximately ten sessions with her instructors, Edna had to temporarily postpone their visits for health-related reasons. However, that has not prevented her from continuing to explore new arenas.

There are three competencies Edna has developed in her still embryonic exposure to digital technologies. First, she has developed a sense of empowerment as evidenced by her frequent references to having greater control of her life. Second, she has developed a renewed faith in her capacity to learn. Third, she has experienced a shift and transformation in her thinking with respect to computers and the Internet. Whereas in the past she saw no relationship between herself and these technologies due to unfamiliarity and consternation, she is able to reflect on that experience and realize that, now, the connection is very clear.

Community Technology and Community Building

Community technology, and in particular community building, are fundamentally local, shared social and cultural processes. Edna Jackson's story is certainly one that incorporates notions of community, but in a more distant sense as well. Her interactions have largely been centered on a "community of interest" (i.e., cancer survivors) as opposed to a "community of practice" (i.e., the housing development), and her online activity has established global as well as neighborhood ties (excluding family). Is the community better off as a result of her experience? I reply with a resounding, "Yes."

On one hand, Edna has reached out to others in the community to the best of her ability. On the other hand, the more important lesson is that the community reached out to her. As a result of that outreach, Edna's and her husband's quality-of-life have improved, and for that reason alone, the community has improved, too. Her story demonstrates how technology can serve as a tool to break down walls, open doors, and reinvigorate life. More importantly, her story illustrates how the collective efforts of a community can open up new possibilities for one of its longstanding members. Thanks to the consolidated efforts of neighbors and caring staff at the development, one of the project's staunchest opponents is now, quite possibly, its greatest proponent.

Dr. Randal D. Pinkett is a recent graduate of the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Laboratory. Dr. Pinkett holds five degrees and is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Building Community Technology (BCT) Partners, Inc., a IT consulting and services company.

*See O'Bryant, R. (2001), "Establishing Neighborhood Technology Centers in Low-Income Communities: A Crossroads for Social Science and Computer Information Technology," in Townsend, A. Projections: The MIT Student Journal of Planning-Making Places through Information Technology (2) 2 (112-127). See Pinkett, R. D., "The Camfield Estates-MIT Creating Community Connections Project: High-Technology in a Low- to Moderate-Income Community," in Lazar, J. (Ed.). Managing IT/Community Partnerships in the 21st Century (pp. 222-247), Hershey, PA: Idea Publishing Group (2002).

Note the wide selection of related papers and presentations at the Pinkett MIT media web site

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