Putting the Community in your Community Wireless Network

I moderated a discussion on community organizing at the National Summit for Community Wireless Networks last weekend. The session was called “Putting the Community in your Community Wireless Network” and was scheduled for first thing Saturday morning. The point was to present some basic points on building community involvement to the geeks and wonks (like me) who build and discuss these wireless networks. There was excellent documentation of the conference that should be available on the website, but I just wanted to share some of the key points that came up in the discussion.

With the assistance of Nazeer Holmes of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, Sue Beckwith of St. Louis Wiz Kids, and Dharma Dailey and Kate Blofson of Prometheus Radio Project, we raised some of the following points:

  • need to define the community or audience
  • need to be sensitive to the full range of issues in the community
  • helpful to engage in other people’s projects and learn what they’re doing if you want people to care about what you’re doing
  • most importantly, build trust

Other points were framed as tensions or distinctions:

  • connecting community-based organizations <-> getting new individuals organized
  • organize people to support your project <-> providing support for other organizing efforts
  • need useful content or messages to attract involvement <-> need involvement to produce useful content or messages
  • community involvement <-> community accountability

These all relate to an important question you need to ask yourself with every project: who is this for? If it’s for you, then you should not assume everyone will want to be involved, but you should seek input from your audience to make improvements. If it’s for a community, the project should be accountable to that community and you should plan from the beginning to transfer ownership from yourself to the community. If you are not working to give up ownership, you should ask yourself again who you are working for.

We also pointed out the need for these conversations to be integrated throughout the conference, not just held once in a separate space. One person observed how that mimics so many organizations who sit in a meeting wondering why no one from the community is at the meeting. But as it turned out, it was a topic on many minds.

Some of the tech geeks didn’t seem to care, though the open house area was pretty friendly. The policy wonks were concerned with getting the message out. How do we get people interested in preserving net neutrality? How do we get their help in promoting municipal access to broadband construction? But the ideas that people were tossing around were about a “don’t kill the internet” message, getting the tech bloggers talking about this, and forming regional councils.

Honestly, “don’t kill the internet” sounds a little tree-hugger-ish. And “getting the tech bloggers talking about this” would mostly help get the people at the summit excited. Or would it influence some decisionmakers somewhere? The regional councils idea would be helpful to push strategic thinking away from DC and towards communities. It could also help tease out regional distinctions. These show up as different perspectives on municipal capacity (where municipal power companies have existed) and corporate responsibility (where AT&T bypassed with the first phone lines or Comcast does anything today).

We need a message that emphasizes our ownership of the media. That’s what community wireless needs to be about. That’s what all media reform needs to be about. The media is ours. The press is free. Anyone making a profit off of it is doing so on our behalf and needs to be accountable to the general public ahead of shareholders or even customers. This is non-negotiable.

For this reason, the movements to reform the media need to be accountable themselves. The most concerning thing about the conference was its summit-ness. There was a sense that the people in the room there were the force to build an independent global communications infrastructure that would hasten a revolution of the species. For the summit participants to be truly effective, they are going to need to work with a lot of people who weren’t there.

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