Winter-Spring 2002

Small Points of Connection
by Rhonda Allison

Two women at a terminal

At the heart of any community there exist many small connecting points: a conversation at the bus stop, a nod in the grocery store, a shared smile over youthful antics. Through fostering these seemingly insignificant beginnings communities are made. The Community Technology Center where I work, the Rainier Vista Technology and Job Resource Center, is centrally located in a public housing community. The people using our center vary widely in educational background, areas of interest, and level of support needed in their interactions with technology. Some of them come in groups, most come singly. Some of those who walk through the door for the first time are isolated in their own communities, having lived in the same place for ten years, yet not knowing their neighbors. They never attend community events. Their lives revolve around work and family. Their community lives elsewhere.

When people come in for the first time, they find a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere with artwork, photographs and signs up from different language groups and cultures. When I first put up a world map, no one looked at it until I printed out photographs from the various countries and put them on the map; now that's one of the first places people look.

In the orientation and assessment phase we talk a bit to find out what a person's interests are. I introduce new comers around the room telling people not just their name, but what they are interested in learning. We do this each time they come in for a while: "You remember Ayalew, he was here last week. Would you walk him through opening up the typing program?" A couple of week ago, an older Vietnamese gentleman was having trouble controlling his mouse. An eleven-year-old from Ethiopia working on an adjacent computer piped up. "Oh, I remember how I used to do that! Here let me show you. It's really easy once you understand how." It is from such moments that a community begins to come together.

Vietnamese WomenI liketo think of it as a subtext for everything that we do, the foundation for continued learning and dispelling the myths about technology, because for me, technology is really about connecting people, connecting people to resources, new ideas, and each other. I believe that through technology we are able to explore the larger concepts of communities that live in a wider arena than may be contained in physical space.

But I also believe that the process must be conscious, not necessarily engineered but fostered. A few ground rules for interaction are helpful. The first rule is that we are a neighborhood place and we greet our neighbors when they come in the center. If I am not in the room when a newer participant comes in, I ask if anyone greeted them. Then I may introduce them around again. A few times like this and people get the idea. The way learners demonstrate competency in a task or technique is to teach that technique to someone else. I try to suggest as much cross-cultural interaction as possible. If a student has a homework question, I may ask if someone in the room has any information about the topic or suggestions about research avenues. Or if a learner has made a break through, I will announce it to the room for others to offer congratulations. Learners take ownership in such an environment. They include others. They learn to work together and share their experiences. And what is community, after all, than sharing our lives?

Rhonda Allison is a Community Technology Center Development Consultant based in Seattle, WA with a focus on culturally inclusive multilingual curriculum. She is an active member of the Citizens Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board for the City of Seattle.

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