Romelia Salinas

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Building Virtual Communities: Latino Organizations in an Urban Setting

History shows how the evolution of technology has played a vital role in shaping society. A closer inspection of this history reveals a repeated unevenness in the application of technology. Transformational technologies such as the radio, television, telephone, even electricity have a history of inconsistent application. Electricity was made available to urban communities while those in rural areas were not given the same level of service. Why did this occur? Initially electricity, similarly to those technologies that followed it, came to be considered a commodity not a necessity. Profit was the driving force and in the process some communities were by passed. We are seeing the same phenomena repeated in terms of the telecommunications revolution. Certain communities, usually low- income and ethnic minorities, are not finding on-ramps to the information superhighway. We are seeing sections of society quickly becoming marginalized. What ramifications will this bring to these communities as this technology becomes an even greater force in society agendum? It will create a caste of people who will be uninformed, computer illiterate, lacking the skills to compete in the global economy, etc.

We have already begun to see the effects of telecommunications on the dissemination of information. It is now a crucial time for these marginalized communities to begin to take a role in the direction that this information infrastructure will head. In this paper I will like to share our experience in working with the Latino community towards ensuring an onramp to and a presence on the information superhighway. I will share our strategies on forming successful partnerships with community institutions such as non-profit organizations, community associations, libraries and high-schools, focusing on our efforts at providing relevant information systems and educational outreach. Lastly, I will provide examples of end products resulting from our partnerships.

CLNet: A Relevant Information System
It is logical to assume that it is easier for one to take interest in something that they see as inviting. Something that embraces their issues, culture, language or history. Prior to 1992 the presence of Latino issues on the Internet was minimal. Out of this lack of representation came the Chicano/Latino Electronic Network (CLEN), a project at the University of California which proposed to create a comprehensive data base and electronic services for those interested in Latino issues and research through the relatively free use of the Internet. The major goal of CLEN are to develop Internet access, services, and training which facilitates and promotes Latino and linguistic minority research beyond the University of California. CLNet (Chicano/LatinoNet), housed at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, is one of two participants in the CLEN project. With over three years in existence CLNet has made great strides in bring information on the Latino community onto the Internet still much work lies ahead. However, it should be noted that CLNet along with other latino-focused Internet sites that have recently been established have provided a foundation that facilitates and invites the Latino community to come aboard.

Building Community Partnerships
The fact still remains the Latino community is not involving itself with this new technology at the same rate the dominant society is embracing it. With this reality in mind CLNet has committed itself to increasing it's role in encouraging the Latino community to partake of the resources the Internet has to offer. The Latino community in an urban setting such as Los Angeles posed a substantial number of challenges. Los Angeles is home for one of the largest and diverse Latino populations in the world. Community organizations in this area are mainly service oriented and usually under-funded. Realizing that the task at hand was immense we sought out community institutions to partner with and collaborate on working towards our goal of bring a segment of the Latino community onto the Internet. The Latino community, similarly to all other marginalized groups, need to increase participation not only in terms or use and information providing but also in the politics of community networking.

Although the strategies described below casts a broad net we specifically targeted community institutions such as libraries, schools, and service organizations. Initial contact of the various community organizations was made via diverse methods.

Our approach of incorporating alternative mediums of disseminating information was crucial because using just one tactic would not have been as effective. Each strategy had it 92s drawbacks but together it proved to be an effective method of reaching the community. Disadvantages included high turnover of mail outs. In a community as large and as dynamic as Los Angeles community organizations change physical locations, change names, or even dissolve quite often. Another examples is the limitations of doing radio interviews when working with a visual technology like the world wide web. Creative alternatives of discribing the web over a audio medium had to be developed.

Once initial contact had been accomplished we offered to conduct a presentation. Presentations allotted us an opportunity to do two types of educating. Educating about the technology itself including:

(1) Basic Internet Literacy
This category includes navigation of Internet tools such as the world wide web and other technical skills like subscribing to a listserv. Discussion on vocabulary is also included. We have found that this type of training is most efficient when it includes a hands-on component and the examples used in workshops reflect the area of service or interest by participants. We attempt to tailor each workshop to achieve this goal. Incorporation of different technologies such as computer-base slide presentation (Microsoft Power Point) is a good strategy for maintaining attention.

(2) Gaining access to the Internet
This component includes a discussion on the difference between online services such as American Online and basic Internet service providers such as local area Internet providers. Advantages and disadvantages are presented and clarifications are made. Included in this discussion is the presentation of hardware and software requirements. For organizations that do not have the necessary equipment information about public access points is provided.

(3) How to become an information provider
An important part of this component is our discussion on how their organizations can become information providers. This can be done either through our server or we can point them in the right direction depending on their needs. In this effort we stress the value of extending existing services electronically as well as reimaging the type of services they can offer.

We also educated about the policy issues revolving the information superhighway and why it is of importance to the Latino community to beginning taking a much more active role in this technological revolution. Issues such as those brought out in "Latinos and Information Technology" a study by the Tomas Rivera Center (TRC) at Claremont, California (1996). According the TRC, Latinos will be heavily negatively impacted if they do not gain computer skills. Computer literacy is becoming mandatory in an economy that is displacing labor-intensive, industrial-age work. Latino children might not be able to compete for success in a technology-dependent society. Information and services are quickly becoming electronic based, if Latinos are left out we will become an information poor community. For reasons such as these it is important for Latinos to beginning addressing barriers such as cost, availability, and literary and to develop structures that motivate infrastructure investment in Latino dominate neighborhoods on the part of industry.

Examples of End Products Resulting from Partnerships
In our efforts we have been successful in establishing partnerships with a various types of community oriented organizations. One of our oldest partnerships has been with a library service association For over a year we have been working with a local chapter of REFORMA, The National Association for Promoting Library Services to the Spanish-Speaking. We have trained librarians and other library staff on Internet basics so they may in turn go back to their libraries and use their newly gained skills in answering reference questions, conducting training workshops, implementing community programs, etc.. A large portion of these individuals work in public libraries that serve predominantly Latino populations thus through this partnership we have indirectly reached a vast amount of people. This partnership coupled with the Info People Project has been very effective. The Info-people, a California State funded project, offers at least one computer with Internet access to be places in public libraries across the Los Angeles area. This project offers the access and the library personnel we work with have developed the skills and knowledge about relevant resources to the Latino community.

As an organization REFORMA has also become a strong information provider. Some of the members have become proficient in HTML and now maintain and develop the web page CLNet had initially established. Their web page includes a list of members, announcements, a link to the upcoming national conference, library related resources and much more. Reform 92s web page is a great resource to be used not only by it's members but by other librarians who work with large Spanish-speaking populations. This partnership has been very successful and we hope to expand this relationship in the near future.

A number of our outreach strategies, such as the mail outs, have been specifically targeted at non-profit organizations that service the Latino community. Recently we have begun working with Intercambios, a coalition of Latino service-oriented organizations. The health services, educational, and job skill development are some of the areas that are represented in this coalition. This is a great situation because we are able to reach many organizations at one time rather than attempting to reach each one individually. In this particular situation we came to them at a time when they were initiating their interest in Internet services.

They knew they wanted to get involved with this new technology that everyone had been talking about however, they knew very little about what it really was about and how they could use it. Our first presentation was at a business meeting. We provided a general overview of what the Internet is, how to gain access to it, and also provided some examples of how it is already being used by other Latino entities. Although still in its early stages Intercambios 92 vision is to increase and improve their services by collaborating with other community organizations. The plan to share technical expertise resources, training materials, as well as exchanging computer parts to help those organizations that do not have the need equipment. They also have plans to use the Internet as a mode of improving communications among themselves and hopefully to train clients to be able to help themselves.

Our relationship with TELACU, a Latino community organization, is one full of ambitious prospectives, TELACU 92s situation is an exception in urban Latino Los Angeles. TELACU responded to a mail out that we had done inviting local community organizations to become information providers. TELACU is a multifaceted organization that works towards providing economic and social revitalization to the residents of East Los Angeles, who were devastated by plant closures, lost jobs and a dying belief in their ability to achieve the American Dream. TELACU's Educational Foundation provides mentoring, scholarships, college counseling, job opportunities, and other types of services to the Latino community in East Los Angeles. We worked with them by training staff members on navigating the Internet as well as providing material that had relevant examples that would be used in Internet workshops to be conducted by their organization for the community. These Internet workshops are held in their computer lab that has an ISDN line linking about 10 computers to the Internet. The community will be able to use the lab at no charge for a set amount of time after they have complete the training workshop. TELACU plans on securing funds to expand their lab and their Internet services for the community.

We also feel it is important to work with schools considering that the majority of Latino children first exposure to computers and the Internet will be at their school. For over a year we have been working with Bell High School in the City of Bell in the Los Angeles area. Bell High is a predominately Latino school and it had been brought to our attention by one of their teachers that students there were beginning to take an interest in the web and were teaching themselves HTML. We contacted the computer science teachers and offer to work with them. We were quickly invited to visit their school where a few students proudly demonstrated the beginnings of their personal home pages on local computers. In talking to the students it was agreed that we would work with them in putting up a web page on Banda music, a type of music that was quite popular at that time with the Latino youth. We visited them a number of times providing advise on organization and design as well as answering technical questions via email. Their success was so great that they, with the help of the instructors, ended up acquiring a server for the school and put together a web page for their school, including picture of the Chicano murals found across their campus. Their efforts were well received recently on Net Day March 8, 1996 when they held a reception to showcase their web pages and their newly establish network linking surrounding schools to the Internet.

CLNet did not start off with the intention of getting itself involved in these community networks. However, as we become more involved with the technology the demand for us to address the whole community not just the needs of those in higher education became evident. Though a challenging and many times frustrating effort the importance of forming partnerships can not be overstated. Success can only be achieved if the various sectors of the community take a role.