In early October 2013, while the U.S. government’s shutdown and Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy filing were making international headlines, a delegation of four Detroiters shared their innovations in neighborhood-based communications infrastructure at the International Summit for Community Wireless in Berlin.
Through the Digital Stewards program, neighborhood leaders gain the skills they need to build and maintain community wireless "mesh" networks, which can be used to distribute Internet access and host local applications. The vision for the program grows out of the Detroit Digital Justice principles of access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities, and the belief that communication is a fundamental human right.
Three of the four members of the delegation – Theresa Landrum, from Detroit’s 48217 neighborhood; Monique Tate from the MorningSide Mesh Network; and Diana Nucera from Allied Media Projects – share reflections from the trip in the interview below.
What inspiring examples of community wireless projects from other parts of the world did you encounter at the Summit? And what did you learn from them?
TL: We saw the commonalities between people of different cultures from all over the world in the lower economic realms that are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to Internet access. I know this from experiences in my own community, 48217 Detroit. Mesh networks provide opportunities for our communities to create our own systems instead of waiting for someone to create them for us. Now that’s a powerful thought in itself. At the Summit, I learned that communities in Nepal, with a mesh network, are helping create a medical center with just an Internet connection, a computer built from parts that people have donated and someone to navigate the web. Nepal also showed us that mesh networks have the ability to strengthen human bonds as well as bonds to our natural environment because they are using their mesh network to monitor the mountains protecting the Tigers and Rhinos from poachers.
DN: In the session that MorningSide stewards took part in, called "Networks in Conversation: Mexico, Congo, and the US," we learned from a group called Rhizomatic in Mexico that mesh technology can support community wireless cell phone infrastructure. They figured out how use VOIP on the mesh to create phone service for villages in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was incredible to find out that that was a possibility on the mesh, but then hearing how they facilitated the self-governance of the phone service was the cherry on top. Villagers were setting their own cost, maintenance and governance systems. Some of our networks in Detroit are almost at the stage of needing to think through similar questions of governance, finances and maintenance so it was invaluable to build connections with folks who have lessons to share.
MT: There were many amazing and important things to explore at the Summit. I believe Red Hook Wireless is a stellar example of an effective network in the US as it grows their neighborhood's camaraderie and economic development by having local business engagement; it provides education and potentially career opportunities for the young adults who lead and manage the network. The Wireless For Communities (W4C) project in India was an amazing example of what can be done if we persist and spread the training so a small amount of people can create a big ripple effect. Their projects demonstrate the success of two concepts, first that wireless Internet access is a proven way to achieve connectivity for remote and underserved areas; and second that the "train the trainer" approach is extremely effective in promoting and sustaining wireless networks.
What lessons from Detroit were you able to share with this international audience?
TL: The importance and role of community organizing in building a mesh network was very apparent to me. I saw that while others are looking for engineering solutions to the problem of how neighbors can share Internet connections, in Detroit we’re looking at best practices for establishing trust, and building relationships. We saw groups in India, Nepal, and on the Indian reservations in the U.S. also using grassroots organizing strategies which made me realize those using the mesh as an organizing tool were those that had the most disadvantages or challenges to address.
DN: I had a lot of really great conversations with people about Detroit’s mesh approach. Because we’ve built networks as a community organizing tool – first understanding the root of the problem, then building the network as an infrastructure to foster solutions – each network serves a unique purpose. This opens up new possibilities of what mesh networks can do beyond providing Internet access. I think the presence of Digital Stewards at the Summit also shifted some peoples’ perspectives on what the role of a technologist is, from simply being a provider of technical solutions, to being more of a facilitator of community problem-solving through technology.
MT: We highlighted aspects of the "business case" and need for community owned and managed networks by sharing concrete, U.S. census based facts on poverty, education, technology knowledge, and equipment ownership disparities in Detroit communities. We also shared our learning about calculating an appropriate amount of equipment for areas where seasonal and foliage changes may cause signal interference.
How were people thinking about the connection between community wireless and issues of privacy and surveillance at the Summit?
DN: Privacy and surveillance were recurring conversations at the Summit. There was a lot of discussion around how U.S. surveillance programs impact the whole globe, because of the way the Internet is built, with all information flowing through the U.S. American surveillance of other countries has the potential to create global tensions that lead other countries to segment-off their networks, isolating their information, which is what we learned Brazil is doing. Isolation of information will turn the world wide web into country wide web, limiting users access to content.
TL: People fear the safety systems like police or camera surveillance which are often posed as existing for our protection because those same safety systems have been used to profile and attack marginalized communities. At the Summit, we took part in conversations about the potential for mesh networks to support security systems that are controlled by local communities.
MT: Many people shared and have very strong opinions about privacy, and protecting it, and surveillance, and stopping it. It is also commonly the top question from anyone we ask to participate in the community network. While I may be in an unpopular minority where I don't expect complete privacy in a system that was created by the government, I am vehemently opposed to public release of anyone's information unless it's exposed as proof of illegal activity. I do believe it's extremely important to teach users about safety, security, and data and identity protection when using a computer and the internet.
Why do you think the International Community Wireless Summit is important? Why was it important for Detroit community organizers to be there?
TL: The gender and race balance wasn't the best (more men than women, more Caucasians than people of color), but it felt more comfortable than other technology spaces I’ve attended. The women at OTI are awesome! They changed the game for me in how I think about women in the Techworld. It made me feel comfortable, able, and inspired to continue doing this work at home. There was a genuine exchange between community organizers and techies. You rarely see that, I think it was because folks understand the importance of both the technology and community organizing when it comes to digital justice.
DN: It was amazing to see Detroit’s grassroots organizing practices create such an impact in the community wireless movement. "Community," "community owned," and "community organizing" are all common words we shared, but there was not a lot of shared knowledge or practices that gave these words substance. The Detroit Digital Stewards and Red Hook Digital Stewards played a major role in the Summit by bringing grassroots organizing tactics, challenging who technologists are and what their role in communities is. There are not a lot of spaces where you can genuinely exchange between these two groups. Of course, the Allied Media Conference is another space where you see this exchange occur. We were honored and excited to see the International Summit for Community Wireless apply parts of the AMC model to their organizing process.
MT: The summit provides an opportunity to demonstrate and benefit from diversity and inclusion at it's best! I'm always pleased when barriers are eliminated, stereotypes are broken, and we all gain greater respect through learning from and understanding each other. I believe Detroit and Red Hook community organizers/digital stewards presence was important to both add to the diversity (more women and people of color) and to show the effectiveness of engaging users and training us to be technologist. It's an added value for us to be cross functional and it shows that the equipment and creation of an infrastructure is not too complex for novices to use.
How will you be taking what you learned at the Summit and putting it to work in Detroit?
MT: Observing what others are doing with their network gives me an idea of what is possible with our network. I learned about Tidepools and other local applications that could be customized to run on our network in MorningSide. I also learned about legislation that encourages separate channels being made/kept available for free wireless connectivity, which we will need to actively promote if we want to ensure the long-term sustainability of our networks.
TL: We are excited and energized to continue building out our network. Its a lot of work and it is not easy. I’m thinking about who from my neighborhood can be a part of the next Digital Stewards program to help build our capacity. We hope we can attend next year's Summit with new stewards, so they get an opportunity to speak and listen to this global community.
DN: In February of 2014 we will be launching the second round of Detroit’s Digital Stewards Program! Like the first round, Digital Stewards round two will prepare teams of community organizers, people with construction skills, and techies to design and deploy communications infrastructure with a commitment to the Detroit Digital Justice Principles. But this time, stewards from round one will be helping to teach the class, and we will be partnering with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and the Riverside East Congregational Initiative to build a mesh network in the lower East Side neighborhood of Detroit.
We will be drawing on all of the conversations we had in Berlin about governance, policy, security, and community ownership, and applying what we learned to the upcoming round of Digital Stewards.
The Digital Stewards' participation in the Summit was made possible through support from the Media Democracy Fund of the Proteus Fund and the Open Technology Institute.
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