Winter-Spring 2004

Making VISTA Work in Community Technology in Austin

Zafar Shah and computer lab user

My year of service at Austin Free-Net (AFN) has proved an exceptional work experience. From day one, the staff has given me virtually free reign over my work plan, encouraging me to blend my personal vision with that of the organization. Though we are new to the mission and inexperienced in the trials of building the organization, my fellow VISTA, Rob Adams, and I have worked with the staff's support to gamble on new projects and to reexamine concerns that may have fallen by the wayside. A collaborative spirit pervades the organization—from the Board to the Executive Director to the VISTA Supervisor to the VISTAs themselves. Feeling and being integrated into the AFN's whole process has enabled us to work "on the ground" and have a demonstrated programmatic impact.

An early example: by arranging our work hours around our patrons' need for weekend access, we successfully added Saturday lab time at AFN's main site, the DeWitty Center. This was a simple, effective task. We saw a need; we addressed the need. And down the line, because we had Saturdays available to us, we were able to implement a new intermediate training program for Spanish-speakers and thereby tackle a longstanding objective of the organization: to improve the multilingual components of our programs.

In a certain light, our most invigorating work has been spawned by bringing together our sense of AFN's mission and that of the AmeriCorps*VISTA program. As VISTA members, we had made a yearlong commitment to fighting poverty by creating and managing sustainable programs aimed at the poor. As Free-Netters, we were working to make computer technology accessible to all people in the greater Austin community. Growing accustomed to the ins and outs of our jobs, Rob and I soon began to wonder whether access to technology—as opposed to literacy, job skills development, healthcare, or other more direct services—could put a serious dent into systemic poverty. In our daily goings-on, we wanted to see whether an infrastructure of computers and related technology could "eradicate poverty" in tangible terms.

We sought a clear and fresh understanding of the local resident population's needs, situated in an economically depressed area of the city, Do these residents really have a need for computer technology? Do they need the kind of access we provide at our labs? If they need access, what tools and resources are they particularly interested in? We designed a survey to disseminate among neighborhood associations to find out what residents have and what they want. The project took off with excitement on all sides—rejuvenating our organization's commitment to surrounding neighborhoods, turning residents on to our services, and sparking potential new collaborations. In July, we presented out work to a summit of neighborhood groups at the Austin Revitalization Authority's summer meeting. Currently, we are working with local cable provider Grande Communications to provide neighborhood associations free web space and to teach residents how to maintain their sites.

Our initial survey data showed that—while home computer ownership is fairly common in the vicinity of our CTC, substantially higher than we would have expected based on the well-established correlation between income and computer usage—the demand for computer training is high. This trend confirmed another well-established notion—that many who sign up for AFN's free classes are interested in becoming more qualified for jobs. With these findings, Rob and I designed a Fall Quarter of classes to meet residents' demand for Microsoft applications such as Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. And in keeping with the organization's goal of pushing community technology forward, we also promoted open-source alternatives (Linux/Red Hat, OpenOffice, GIMP). To add further to AFN's repertoire, Rob used his tough lessons learned as a software developer to develop a class on ergonomics and repetitive strain injury prevention.

In the same vein as the survey, we have made substantial progress in publicizing our services to both nearby residents and local media. Picking up on CTCNet's national education and lobbying effort on June 26, 2003 —in a manner appropriate for AmeriCorps*VISTA involvement, given the political restrictions we serve under—we arranged a media event called "Community Technology Awareness Day" for the sole purpose of getting our name and issues out from our heads and into those of potential patrons, partners, and donors. This effort resulted in an article in Austin's most widely circulated paper, The Daily Texan. We also met with elementary school administrators and distributed fliers to parents. We created new publicity materials in Spanish and put ourselves back on the radar of local organizers in the Latino community. Even our failed efforts were good ones: our Letter to the Editor regarding the digital divide in the Latino community never got published, but the effort of writing the letter pushed us to consider our own role in that community. A month later, we implemented the aforementioned training program for Spanish-speakers. Rob and I have also worked, respectively, to revamp Austin Free-Net's web site and to redesign the quarterly newsletter.

Zafar Shah

The creative atmosphere at AFN has also served as an incubator for my interests in technology and social justice. As soon as I demonstrated an affinity for social software like weblogs and wikis, the staff encouraged me to put that interest to work as a component of our work with neighborhood associations. With the hope that weblogs could foster community building and grassroots knowledge sharing, I developed a curriculum for teaching weblogs. To make the work sustainable, I documented the process of teaching the class and recruited volunteers to teach it again this fall. I am currently collaborating with another community technology organization to implement a similar project on a larger scale.

Where the Austin Free-Net staff could have conserved its energy and time, it opted instead to establish a genuine commitment to its VISTAs. With the staff's trust and camaraderie, Rob and I have achieved in ways fulfilling for both the organization and ourselves. It is to Austin Free-Net's credit that it has succeeded as an organization by pushing VISTAs to envision success on their own terms.

Zafar Shah completes his year of service as a VISTA in February 2004. A recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has worked previously in community radio and community organizing. He hopes to continue community technology work in Guatemala before returning to Austin to facilitate a summer workshop for South Asian American youth activists and begin a study of law and policy in the fall.


This good feedback. I would like to congratulate Zafar Shah, Rob Adams and the team for this venture.

I teach PowerPoint 101 at the Little-Walnut creek library. I love to teach. While looking for a job, I decided to volunteer. I have been teaching for the past 6 months. I recently started putting a Powerpoint presentation together to be used when I teach. I plan to start my business of teaching powerpoint. The style I use is to create a presentation of selling a product namely "Myself". I am looking forward to this major career change as a positive change. I also have another project I am going to start working on. There is a lot of competition , only if you can find and service a niche market, you would be able to come ahead.

Good Job.

Posted by: Dhimant "Dan" Dholakia at February 18, 2004 12:22 PM

AFN has done an outstanding job for the community. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Toni Williams at February 19, 2004 01:05 PM

...not to mention, CTCNet, and fanstastic partners like the Austin Public Library staff and volunteers, City of Austin, and groups like our long-time buddies, Austin Learning Academy. Thanks to all of you for being such great friends to everyone at Austin Free-Net and to the communities that choose our services.

We miss Zafar and Rob very much but, happily, we are continuing their work with the help of UT Austin intern, Adria Jesse, and community volunteer Norman S., who works almost 24/7 at the DeWitty.

During our current transition, we're relying on the "klog" ("knowledge log") created by Rob and Zafar on Easyjournal just before their departure. <a href="">afnklog</a> now serves as an archive for the volunteer coordination and equipment checkout procedures.

I'm now hoping we can use blogs and blog-inspired tools to re-vamp our website and internal communications.

All of this is now possible thanks to the creativity and commitment of the 2003 VISTAs who closed out our 3rd and final year of the project.

Peter Miller knows that I didn't think I'd ever say this given some of the challenges of the program but, like many others said to me in the past, "it's all worth it!"

To everyone at ComTech Review, all praises for your fine work on this issue.

Ana Sisnett on behalf of everyone at Austin Free-Net

Posted by: Ana Sisnett at February 20, 2004 01:02 PM
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