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May 9, 2010

creating informed communities (part 1)

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities has issued a report entitled Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age. This report makes 15 recommendations, including the following that are related to my work:

I have been asked to recommend ways that we can meet these objectives. This week, I plan to write five consecutive blog posts about strategies. As always, critical feedback is welcome.

Strategy 1: A Civic Information Corps: Using the nation’s "service" infrastructure to generate knowledge

Community service and the combination of service with academic study ("service-learning") have rapidly grown. Since the 1980s, civilian service has been institutionalized with funded programs, paid professionals, and rewards. In response to effective advocacy, the Federal Government founded the Points of Light Foundation in 1990, passed the National and Community Service Act of 1990, and launched AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National Service (later, the Corporation for National and Community Service) in 1993.

There is no single "corps" in AmeriCorps; instead, the Corporation funds intermediaries that include national nonprofits with diverse models and constituencies--City Year and Public Allies are two well-known examples--plus schools, universities, Native American nations, and local nonprofits. YouthBuild, the Peace Corps, and the Corps Network (a coalition of 143 Service and Conservation Corps) are additional components of the national service movement that happen not to receive AmeriCorps funds. Meanwhile, some large school districts and universities and one whole state (Maryland) have enacted service requirements for all their students. Several states and major cities also have official service commissions. Colleges and universities now look for prospective students with service experience.

Probably as a result of these incentives, opportunities, and requirements, three quarters of high school seniors reported volunteering at least "sometimes" by the year 2003, and 80 percent of incoming college freshmen reported having volunteered in high school. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that about 8 million young adults (age 16-24) volunteered in 2008. These trends received an extra boost in 2009, when Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which authorizes a tripling of AmeriCorps to 250,000 annual slots.

All these volunteers represent an important base for civic activity in the United States, at least potentially. "Service" activities range widely, and some have little connection to knowledge or information. It is not uncommon for young people involved in service to be bused to a park or an urban street and simply asked to pick up bottles or paint walls. AmeriCorps as a whole does not specify learning outcomes or require intellectually challenging opportunities for youth. Much emphasis is placed on the work performed, e.g., the number of homes weatherized. On the other hand, certain service projects generate public knowledge to an extraordinary extent. For example:

Although independent evaluations are scarce, these programs (and many like them) are probably strong on two dimensions: they provide valuable community service in the form of knowledge, and they educate their participants by developing advanced skills.

The Knight Foundation report calls for a "Geek Corps for Local Democracy," consisting of college graduates who would "help local government officials, librarians, police, teachers, and other community leaders leverage networked technology." Corps members would educate local partners and also form a national learning network.

That sounds like a good idea, but I would relax two implied limitations. First, I would broaden eligibility well beyond college graduates. Just over half of adults between the ages of 20 and 29 have any college experience at all, and a majority of those do not hold four-year college degrees. A Greek Corps need not be limited to the quartile that is most successful (or privileged) in conventional ways. There are lots of talented individuals who have fallen off the college track, who would benefit from service, and who might contribute more than college graduates in terms of local knowledge and cultural savvy.

Second, I wouldn't limit their role to merely providing technical support for the nonprofit IT infrastructure. I would involve them in creating knowledge and culture. The best format might be a new "corps" (although I wouldn't call it a "Geek Corps," because there would be an emphasis on creativity and cultural diversity that we don't normally associate with geeks). Alternatively, the federal government might provide incentives for all kinds of service groups and organizations to focus on community knowledge. These groups would not have to focus narrowly in information or communications. If knowledge was an important byproduct of their work, they could join the national learning network, which would be separately funded and staffed.

In practical terms, if you organized after-school service activities for teenagers in, say, Chicago, and you emphasized community-based research, reporting, photo documentation, mapping, archiving local records online, or IT support for nonprofits, you could qualify as a "community knowledge producer." You would then be able to send a designee to meetings, apply for training opportunities, log onto a virtual learning network, and apply for specialized grants.

May 9, 2010 4:35 PM | category: none



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