Spring 2003

Rodney Williams – Agent of Change and Content Producer
by Randal Pinkett

This article is part two of a three-part series that shares case studies from the Creating Community Connections 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 have worked with residents to establish a technological infrastructure by offering every family a new computer, software, and high-speed Internet connection, along with comprehensive course and a web-based community building system. The project combines these elements in an effort to achieve a social and cultural resonance that integrates both community technology and community building by leveraging indigenous assets.

The first article in this series, "Edna Jackson, Technology and Community Building: From Staunchest Opponent to Greatest Proponent." a senior citizen and survivor of emphysema, and demonstrated the positive influence a community can exert on its members. This second installment portrays the experiences of the resident project leader Rodney Williams, a college student, and his evolution throughout the initiative, his involvement as an active agent of change, the social and cultural shift to becoming an active producer of information and content, and the benefits that are accrued.

Rodney Williams joined the Creating Community Connections project team along with two residents (a brother-sister pair) and his younger cousin, whom he personally recruited to join the team. The remaining team members included representatives from the Tenants' Association and the Housing Finance Agency and researchers from MIT. Given his longstanding ties in the neighborhood and his prior experience with community-based projects (he successfully raised money to organize a local lacrosse program for urban youth), the team easily reached consensus that Rodney should be assigned the role of project leader.

Under Rodney's leadership, the project team was involved in a variety of activities throughout the summer of 2000. The team's primary responsibilities were to design and administer a preliminary assessment survey, organize an awareness campaign to solicit resident participation in the project, coordinate an asset-mapping initiative of local community resources (e.g., organizations, institutions such as libraries, schools, churches, businesses, etc.), and determine the user interface and functionality for the housing development website. To manage these tasks, team meetings were held once a week (at minimum) on-site at the development or on campus at MIT. A typical meeting included written and oral reports from each team member, project updates, strategy sessions, and weekly reading assignments and discussion.

Indubitably, the active participation of residents in each of these assignments was integral to the project's successful launch. For Rodney, the interviews provided a natural mechanism to converse with neighbors and simultaneously learn about community issues.

Being involved in the interviews was very important to me because it gave me a chance to get up close and personal with the residents and talk to them on a more initiate basis more so than just the casual conversation that I normally have with some of them. I feel like I learned just as much from the survey and the survey results as I did from the off-the-record conversations that I had with the residents.

The asset-mapping initiative also generated numerous benefits. First, residents were able to identify local resources of potential benefit to themselves and their neighbors. This included child care facilities, youth-serving organizations, nearby businesses, etc., that would later be available on the housing development's website. Second, the information that was gathered provided an environmental scan of organizations with whom future partnerships could be forged, pending the results of the preliminary assessment. Third, and finally, the process itself heightened residents' appreciation of the assets located in their community.

I think it was important for [residents] to go out and find that information ourselves because that, in itself, was an exercise in community building. We are the ones that live here and this is going to benefit us and these are things that we should know It was really empowering to see all of the things that were in the community.

Rodney's participation, as well as the participation of the other resident team members, appears to have had a positive impact on the project and each of them personally. Above all, their participation deepened their own levels of engagements as well as that of their neighbors.

A Social and Cultural Shift

Playground at Camfield Estates

Playground at Camfield Estates

As the fall was ushered in, the project moved from planning to implementation as Rodney and the other team members began to witness the fruits of their labor. The first cohort of families involved with the project (Round I) were interviewed in August 2000 and began taking courses at the community technology center (CTC) on the premises one month later. Rodney would periodically check-in on their progress as the team waived his participation in the courses because of his prior experience with computers and his contributions to the project to-date. The Round I participants would receive their computers and Internet connections just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday (the process of interviews and courses ramped up again in January 2001 for a second cohort of families during Round II).

In December 2000, the housing development's website went "live" as residents who completed the program were able to access the system online. For nine months after the system's launch, Rodney was noticeably absent as a contributor to the site he helped to design and implement. This was partly due to his busy schedule. However, there were other reasons to explain why his online participation lagged behind offline leadership. He was hesitant to contribute until others contributed, while others were reluctant to do so for exactly the same reason.

I thought, OK now we have this site up and initially I was thinking, "Why aren't people really communicating on there?" and "Why aren't people using it as much as they should?" but I don't know if I necessarily saw myself as one of those people. And then I thought to myself, "Well why aren't you contributing?" For some reason there was a disconnect.

Interestingly, one factor that accelerated Rodney's transition in this regard was his fundamental belief in the value of producing information and content in the digital age. Although his initial conceptualization of such activities was centered on global, rather than local contributions, the project has shaped and molded his thinking.

To really leave your mark and make your contribution you have to be able to produce and create something using that tool whether that is creating a website or contributing a line [or] a message on a chat room or a message board or whatever it is.

On a personal note, that's the only way I can feel validated. I have to feel like I use something as a means to get me to another point where I can produce something from it. I'm at a point where I want to make my contribution, and I've got a lot of different ideas that I'm working on now.

From Passive to Active

Presently, Rodney is spearheading a number of initiatives that are heavily informed by the results of the preliminary assessment, which identified issues such as a lack of activities for youth, and the need for improved community information and communication, safety/security measures, and employment opportunities for residents.

The shift that has taken place within Rodney is one that has involved varying degrees of "active-ness" at varying times along varying dimensions. Since the project's inception, he has been integrally involved in the process of building community at the development. On one hand, his ongoing participation in the interviews, recruiting, asset-mapping, website design, and other activities, have been key to the project's success. Furthermore, his participation and contributions to the virtual space at the development are now beginning to come to fruition.

Some of the online and offline activities he is involved with include a discussion forum for "Tenants Association Notices and Announcements" on the housing development's website; a forum created by the President of the Tenants' Association, after a meeting with Rodney; a partnership with the Boston Empowerment Zone to conduct job training and placement for residents that may be partially mediated online; and the return of the housing development's newsletter that was regularly distributed prior to renovation. Rodney will help design the newsletter in a paper-based and electronic format by working with the President of the Tenants' Association, the Director of Community Relations, and others.

Lastly, Rodney believes the project has benefited him as much personally as it has benefited the community. He feels he has a repertoire of positive, memorable experiences when his hard work and dedication have truly paid off.

I feel like participating in the project has made me a lot more connected with the community. A lot of that has to do with me having such a hands-on role in a lot of the interviews, the data gathering, the recruiting participants and so forth. It's made me more visible in the community. People are pretty willing to talk to me and have a conversation with them. I feel like just being in the project has definitely brought me a lot closer to people here and the community. I feel like I'm a trusted and respected figure.

Clearly, as a result of his active role in the project, Rodney feels more connected to the community than ever before.

Dr. Randal D. Pinkett is the President and CEO of Building Community Technology (BCT) Partners, a technology services and consulting company. BCT provides technology assessment, technology planning, web design, database design, networking, and systems integration services to support change strategies and improve organizational effectiveness. Randal is a graduate of the MIT Media Laboratory where his doctoral dissertation focused on the role of technology in building community in low- to moderate-income communities. For additional references, see the end of the first profile.

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