Reflections on diversity and internet connections

This past weekend Transition Los Angeles (TLA) participated in a street fair in South Los Angeles.  As I stated in my "Diversity" article, we have plenty of work to do on our TLA team to bring ethnic and racial diversity on board.  The South LA fair was our first major attempt to begin bridging that gap.

(Video from the South LA EarthFest is online here.)

The geography

Within the greater L.A. area, Transition coverage thus far (our first year-and-a-half of being a Transition Initiative) has been decidedly coastal.  Realize that the greater L.A. area is about 460+ square miles and 10 million people.  Our initial forray at outreach penetrated the green activist circles.  That means that when you plot our activities on a map of the area, you get a stripe down the coast.  Our TLA leadership and our active T.I.s are currently mostly white, well-educated, upper middle class, moderately computer-saavy, and located on the western or coastal edge of the geography. 

We consider this past year-and-a-half to have been a time of "getting our feet on the ground" and building a team to begin the outreach we know we need to do.  If we hadn't done that team-building, we never would have been able to handle this Earth Day season, which has brought over 17 invitiations to events or internally-hosted events within a two week timeframe.  We needed a sizeable team (albeit a team of currently all-white faces) to handle that outreach effort.

The context

The South LA area is the "next neighborhood over" from our Westchester starting place (the place Transition started in the greater LA area).  South LA isn't impoverished.  But it isn't affluent.  And it is predominantly African-American.

At the South LA Earth Day fair, perhaps 85% of the people I spoke with were African-American.  Some were intellectual, professional, well-spoken.  Others were more of the man-of-the-street.  The event was in the parking lot of the Sears department store, so fair attendees I spoke with included the Sears automotive repairman on his break, and the family of a woman who worked in the mall, as well as the staff persons of local politicians. 

We had few Spanish-speaking visitors, but that was ok since our TLA team isn't geared up yet to bridge the language divide.  We did have one handout available for them, and their extreme outpouring of gratitude was heart-wrenching.  I wished I had had more for them.

The Lessons

There were several things that surprised me in South LA.  Firstly, that out of all the people I spoke with that day, only two people expressed any surprise at the concept of peak oil.  In fact, several cheerily commented to the effect of "Ah, I knew it was coming sometime!"  Peak oil wasn't even news to the Sears automotive repairman!  I believe it is my own personal prejudice showing when I thought that this would be new news to this population.  They know, and they are very eager to learn what to do about it.

The second surprise was how many people are already (a) beginning to grow food, (b) seriously looking for land or for ways to grow food, (c) had a family or personal history of growing food in the past, or (d) were actively seeking info on how to start community gardens.

But the big surprise -- or maybe a shocking reminder -- was that perhaps 40% of the people I spoke with DIDN'T HAVE EMAIL.  That means that they are not regular, daily (or perhaps even weekly) users of the web.

Now, Transition Los Angeles has established itself fairly well with a complete website, and each of our local pods have websites.  We focus on building our mailing lists, but these are all electronic mailing lists.  We follow the guidelines in The Transition Handbook to "harvest" email addresses at events, and certainly it is free and effective to distribute meeting notices that way.  We truly do take email for granted.  For us it is so very basic.  But suddenly we are faced with large numbers of people who don't function that way. 

We found we don't have a tool with which to reach them.  

I have been a campaigner, within Transition U.S. and within our Los Angeles area, for T.I.s to use only lower-tech computer tools.  When we get heavily into ning and gorgeous moving graphics, it demands higher tech equipment.  I have encountered many people with older computer equipment for whom these sites wouldn't function.  It really is only the youngest, most affluent, most tech-saavy sliver of the population who has access to the cutting edge, most recently updated hardware who are able to access these kind of functionalities, so by using the latest high-tech we are cutting out vast numbers of people.  Thus I have always pressed T.I.s to make lower-tech choices so that more info is available to more people.

But the "no email" one has stumped me. 

A flier handed out at a street fair is only good for the next month's worth of dates.  Yes, we do have an extensive online calendar that is constantly updated.  But it's obvious that "check our calendar online" won't work for these people.

Up to now, Transiton Los Angeles has run with no funding.  Physical mailings will cost money that we don't have.  Building a snail-mail mailing list isn't particularly attractive.  But leaving no-email people out of the info loop isn't an option either.

The information divide

As I reflected on this issue with my husband (a computer programmer) he commented that in this "information age," one of the aspects of poverty is not having access to information, not knowing how to access information, and not being able to use information.  I recall something I read a while back that said that poverty in our U.S. society didn't necessarily look like having no shoes or having no food on the table.  It looked like having the wrong kinds of food on the table (i.e. those parts of our cities where people don't have any access to fresh produce within walking distance), and having no access to social and cultural information such as museum knowledge, library knowledge, and computers.

If we are to succeed with getting the Transition message into non-white, non-affluent, non-upper-middle-class areas of our country, we must transcend the information divide.  We're going to have to figure out how to get Transition information into areas which don't have good access to information in general.  Areas where even the mainstream societal messages have failed to penetrate.

Transition came to Los Angeles because of the web.  If I hadn't been reading Rob Hopkins' blog our Westchester group wouldn't have gotten started.  Many people here probably still wouldn't know about it.  Transition has spread through the U.S. because of the web.  I'll bet Transition US runs pretty much entirely on the web.  We circulate our newsletters via the web.  We wouldn't know a sliver of what other Transition Initiatives were doing if it weren't for the web. 

I said before that South LA is not a place you'd label as "impoverished."  But the staggering number of people there without email means that, in order for us to bridge into even this first level of non-white populations, we are going to have to leave behind our hitherto predominantly web-based methods of communication.  We are being challenged to reinvent ourselves.

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