Is The Internet A Great Tool For Activism, Or Just Noise?

internetWhen I first heard of the Internet, it seemed to offer great potential for the kind of international dialogue and collaborative writing and publishing that I had envisioned. So I quickly began learning everything I could about it.

The possibilities seemed endless–we could set up a collective space, hold “electronic conferences” to share strategies, create and disseminate working papers on our issues, develop urgent action networks, and on and on.

But my initial enthusiasm was soon dampened by several realities. First, at the time, nearly all the women with access to the Internet were academics. And within that group, very few women were committed to issues of global feminism.

Furthermore, access to the Internet did not always translate to use of the technology. I met many women’s studies professors with e-mail addresses but no idea how to access their accounts. Most knew even less about other information resources available to them online.

Why were so few women participating in this emerging communications revolution?

It’s clear that certain barriers were structural. Some women cannot afford to purchase computer equipment or pay for Internet services; others (particularly in less technology-driven parts of the world) do not have reliable access to telephones.

But what kept women from using the tools when the equipment was readily available? I heard lots of reasons (technophobia, inadequate staff time, information overload), but one factor surfaced as the primary obstacle to using the Internet: the lack of adequate, accessible training.

The need for training is certainly not a phenomenon unique to the Internet. I have found that in nearly every place I have worked–including several more-progressive organizations–little, if any, attention was paid to skills training as a way to broaden access and increase diversity. Where training opportunities exist, they often occur within the “informal” context of the old-boy network-that infamous male-bonding institution.

For example, I once worked at the New York City affiliate of a national community-radio network, where one might have expected to find a broad representation of the multicultural community However, 90 percent of the technical production staff were White men, and the few women “techies” were also White.

When I inquired about the procedure to gain access to the advanced production studios, I was told that one had to pass a test–yet there was no preparation course for the test, nor were there any scheduled times when the test was given.

When I pushed, I was told there were already more than enough engineers. In other words, White men remained the gatekeepers to the full potential of the technology, confident that no possibilities for its use could lie outside their expertise.

This scenario was reproduced almost identically by my politically progressive, “Internet for people, not for profit” online service provider. As an organization dedicated to public information access and democratic communication, I assumed that they would prioritize training for women and people of color as a political responsibility.

Wrong again. Typical responses to my concerns: “Training isn’t really a priority because most of our users don’t need it”; “We can hardly keep up with the growing number of users, we can’t prioritize training right now”; and, of course, “We don’t have the money to pay a training coordinator.”

To their credit, the organization eventually recruited volunteers to offer training. But most of the trainers were White men who, though they knew how to work the equipment, had little sensitivity as trainers and even less experience as political organizers around issues concerning women and people of color.

Just because someone knows everything there is to know about hardware and software does not mean they can teach in a way that is useful and empowering. There was a great need for trainers who could not only address the different ways people learn, but who could demonstrate the relevance of the medium to the struggles in which we are engaged for our very survival.

For the past several years, I have dedicated my time and energies to expanding the number of women and people of color who not only participate in the networks, but who train others to use the technology to advance social change. With assistance from the women-owned Foundation for a Compassionate Society, I began offering introductory trainings to individuals and organizations around the United States, and in other countries as well.

In June 1992, I worked in Rio de Janeiro at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) as a volunteer trainer in the “official” Internet training center. We were located far from where most of my target audience spent their time–so I just photocopied transparencies, strolled around the outdoor site, and gave my little introductory workshop to whoever would listen. I made some of my best contacts just walking around, talking to people about the possibilities as we stood in line for food, encouraging them to go to the training center and see for themselves.

After the conference, I spent time traveling and giving demonstrations to Afro-Brazilian groups, focusing on the potential of the Internet to increase their ability to develop and implement national strategies, and to promote the struggle against racism in Brazil to the global community online.

Since that time, I’ve traveled to many activist gatherings with my trusty-but-not-quite-state -of-the-art laptop (pre-286, no hard drive), where I’ve waxed poetic about the possibilities for women to create global communications networks, sharing information that would strengthen our movements at local, regional, and international levels.

Everywhere I’ve gone, the women have been enthusiastic and ready to sign up. Most had never considered that the Internet might be useful to them in their organizing. Furthermore, they had never seen a woman, let alone a Black woman, serving as trainer in the field of computers–or any other communications technology. They were amazed to hear that I was not a computer specialist–and that anyone could learn to use the Internet. It’s just a matter of demystifying the technical lingo and understanding how to use the tools.

Once you learn the basic skills, the questions are the same as those facing activists and organizers using any other form of communication: What do you want to accomplish? Who are you communicating with and why? And, as I have repeated many times in trainings, it is far easier and more productive to teach political organizers how to use technical tools than it is to try to teach technical people to think politically.

In 1993, a co-worker, Ana Sisnett, and I founded TechnoMama, a women-of-color-directed nonprofit specializing in Internet training for people dedicated to social change–prioritizing issues of economic justice, feminism, racial equality, human rights, and international solidarity. We’ve since traveled to several United Nations gatherings, and other international women’s conferences. We also work with groups in our local communities of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., seeking to develop a resource group of trainers to replace the old-boy network with the each-one-teach-one model.

Our trainers often work with people who have had little or negative experience with computers, including self-proclaimed “technophobes.” Workshops are tailored to the needs of the participants, including Spanish-language training in Latino communities. Where possible, we try to link our trainees with technical and training resources within their local communities, regions, or countries.

Many obstacles continue to restrict full Internet participation across race, class, and gender lines. Economically privileged populations still have a greater presence among the information elite, and those who are traditionally marginalized continue to trail behind.

But I believe the electronic apartheid that currently exists will gradually decline. The cost of computers is decreasing, and programs offering free access at public libraries, schools, and cybercafes are becoming increasingly prevalent.

In the meantime, we will continue to bridge the gap by providing relevant and accessible training as we move toward democratic access and fuller participation.