Winter-Spring 2002

The Space Between: An Interview with CTCNet Executive Director Karen Chandler
by Karen Zgoda

CTC VISTA Orientation

Gathering after the national CTC VISTA orientation session with CTCNet staff last November (l to r, back row): Michael Allwood (Bruce Wall Ministries PREP Computer Center, Boston); Peter Miller (CTC VISTA Project); Karen Zgoda (CTCNet and CTC VISTA Project); Monif Clarke (CTCNet); Kevin Loechner (Lowell Technology Consortium); Shirl Rogers (RTPNet, Raleigh, NC); Terence Kennedy (Lowell Technology Consortium); (middle) Gregory Fleischer (YMCA/Cyber Y, San Diego);Jacqueline Corliss (Bruce Wall Ministries, Boston); Ben Cain (CTCNet); Reebee Garofalo (UMass Boston); Marissa Martin (CTCNet), Nathan Kubiszewski (Friends of the Tyler School, Washington, DC); (front) Rob Hall (Fenway CDC, Boston); Matt Crichton (CTC VISTA Project); Karen Chandler (CTCNet); Liz Barnes (CTC VISTA Project), and Kourtney Hamilton (Lowell Technology Consortium). Photo by Terry McLarney.

At the beginning of the year, we asked Karen Chandler to give people an update on CTCNet and how CTCs and the organization contributed to community building. This interview by Karen Zgoda is a result of that inquiry.

Karen Zgoda: How has CTCNet changed recently and how do you see your current role?

Karen Chandler: The past two years have been ones of transition for CTCNet. The organization has moved from being a project of Education Development Center (EDC) to its own incorporated nonprofit governed by its affiliate members. Since CTCNet began, our network has grown to over 600 affiliate members. During this time, CTCNet's organizational structure has adapted and solidified. As an independent organization, CTCNet has a Managing Director and an Executive Director. As ED, my role has been to help steer the organization through its own growth and change, which has taken place in an ever-changing economic and philanthropic climate. My role will continue to be to position CTCNet as a leading voice in the field of community technology, to work with the board and staff to ensure that we are serving the expressed needs of our membership through our programs and services, and to assure that we are responsive to the priorities expressed by our affiliate body.

KZ: What are growing/evolving CTC needs? How is CTCNet evolving and growing in response to them?

KC: CTC needs are at once constant yet evolving. Funding is a good example. Funding for technology programs is a constant need and, while recognized in the past three-four years by the federal and local governments and global corporations, remains an ongoing struggle for most centers. Funder awareness has changed, to be sure, and a wide audience now understands that CTC needs must be addressed in order to ensure a viable workforce, to offer youth the opportunity to create and to grow in their self-confidence, and to assure equal access to information and services. Subsequently, funding opportunities have been created. Community technology has slowly become recognized as a catalyst for social change, with CTCs as a key and recognized vehicle for bridging the technology gap. Witness, for example, the Federal Department of Education's creation of a CTC Program. Yet while funding has increased substantially, it hasn't kept pace with the demand and the need.

Other primary challenges CTCs face—understaffing, maintaining technical equipment, and securing connectivity—have grown in proportion to the proliferation of technology centers. As the "digital divide" exploded into the public vernacular, so did the emergence of labs and centers within larger nonprofit agency associations. Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, libraries, Urban League chapters, housing developments, and private corporations like Intel, to name a few, responded to the need for computer training and access that their constituencies were voicing by creating computer programs. The emerging gaps in the field of community technology, such as staff training and regional development, are being addressed through the work of CTCNet, the America Connects Consortium, and these national networks of CTCs.

KZ: How do CTCs support community building and how does CTCNet contribute to these efforts?

KC: CTCs have a vital role in any community, one that is a keystone in community building. Since CTCs come in all shapes and sizes, they provide immediate access points to different parts of a population (youth, adults, seniors). CTCs are well-poised to serve as technical assistance providers to other nonprofits. They are logical venues for citizens to become civicly engaged and to exercise their individual voices in the democratic process. CTCs are necessary components for any organization that provides job training, counseling, or placement. They can also fill a crucial role in advocating for themselves and technology education in local and state policy. CTCs have the potential to be the locus for activity such as calling representatives, letter-writing campaigns, and general civic education.

Any CTC is better served by knowing what its neighbor is doing in order to create and determine effective partnerships, to offer a range of needed programs or classes, and to share costs where it makes sense, and CTCNet helps connect programs, locally, regionally, and nationally.

As part of our America Connects work last year, CTCNet profiled three regional consortia-building efforts--a key step in community building. While every local region has its own model of organizing, the common denominator is the impact of organizations working together collaboratively. This collaboration is not necessarily only amongst CTCs but also with other agencies in a given community.

Such activity bolsters the position of CTCNet in all arenas and allows us to more strongly represent the valuable CTC work that is going on around the country. It is the work of our collective membership that places CTCNet in a central community-building role in the national arena where we play a vital role in building a community of organizationsthat have complementary missions. The US Department of Education-funded America Connects Consortium offers a good example of this "macro-community," featuring numerous partners and friends who share the responsibility for providing services to Department of Education grantees and CTCs more generally. With EDC, CTCNet, the Alliance for Technology Access, HUD Neighborhood Networks (through ICF Consulting), and CompuMentor, to name a few, each of us provides specialty resources in serving the growing array of centers.

KZ: What do you see as emerging trends and challenges in the field?

KC: As is the case in most avenues of working toward social justice, the cause of creating digital opportunity and providing access and technology education to all people has many prongs. CTCNet serves an essential—and otherwise unfilled—role in linking the diverse network of CTCs to each other, in supporting regional efforts organizing CTCs and cross-sector entities, in providing face-to-face training opportunities, and in advocating for CTC interests on a national level.

In the past few years, more CTCs have incorporated classes and trainings into their services, either in addition to, or in place of, free-form public access hours. While many centers are placing greater emphasis on training and workforce development, there have also been expanding opportunities for CTC users to become content-creators. Some centers have shifted their focus (and sometimes their titles) to reflect "community production" rather than the more passive "community technology." For populations whose interests, languages, and cultures are underrepresented on the Internet, there is a growing effort to produce culturally relevant content.

There is another trend, slowly emerging, of CTCs serving as nonprofit technical assistance providers. The corresponding challenge here is that many CTCs do not have the staff capacity to take on such an endeavor. We know of examples where graduates from a CTC technical training program then provide their skills at below-market cost to surrounding nonprofits. The corresponding challenge here is finding job placements for people once they have upgraded their technical skills.

We've also seen an increase in programs like the City of Boston's Technology Goes Home program, where participants take a course in using a computer and upon graduation, take a PC home with them. This program represents an important element in our strategies to achieve digital equity; in order to truly integrate technology into people's lives, they must have access at home. One challenge here is in providing ongoing support once a PC is in the home as well as affordable connectivity.

CTCNet continues to try to meet the needs of its member centers in the realms of policy, funding, and partnerships. One of these needs, based on direction from our affiliate Board of Directors, is to stay abreast of policy developments in Washington, D.C., to communicate them to our members, and to involve ourselves in their development more proactively. We will also continue to provide and supplement the services that have been validated over the years: our email lists, our national conference and our Leadership Development Institutes (with support from AT&T and ACC), our Start-Up Manual (with support from the Surdna Foundation), our CTC Support Project (with support from the State Street Corporation), our role in the CTC VISTA Project (with support from the Corporation for National Service), and more yet to be determined as we continue to build this vibrant and growing ensemble of individuals and organizations, working toward expanding technology access and education for all.

Karen Zgoda is a Project Coordinator with CTCNet and VISTA Support Specialist with the CTC VISTA Project.

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