As I mentioned in part II, I found the circuit rider network to be absolutely invaluable to getting access to the right expertise in order to do my job. The environment for this was the circuit rider network, and it was during the second Minneapolis Round-up I attended that I first heard the tenet that would both shape how I worked with colleagues and would provide the guidance to continued and nourish my work. It was Richard Zorza, who stood up during the closing plenary of the Minneapolis Round-up and said “We must all act with non-territoriality, and actively share and pool our collective knowledge. If we act as competitors, we won’t get anywhere.” Probably the most inspiring statement I’ve ever heard and one that I immediately took to heart. This was before I knew of the existence of concepts like open source and creative commons.
Sharing of knowledge, methods and tools had always been part of the culture of the circuit rider network. And many people within the network actively practiced ‘non-territoriality’ without thinking about it. People like Denise Joines, Holly Ross, Jon Stahl, Gavin Claubaugh, Cliff Graves, Sean O’Brien, Amy Lucky, Darryl Anderson, Ami Dar, Jamie Mclelland, Rachel Daniell, Tim Mills-Groninger, David Geilhufe, Jillaine Smith, Sheldon Mains, Frank Ordway, Carnet Williams, Cheryl Hanback, Tom Battin, Michelle Murrain, Beth Kanter, John Kenyon, Deb Finn, Michael Ward, Matthew Latterell, Rebecca Bond, Mathew Eisenberg, Alice Aguilar, Justin Maxson, just to name a few. Most of us were working with resource-strapped organisations, many of whom saw our presence as more of a luxury. We had to prove our worth and really bring value to every interaction we had with the groups we served.
But it was through the individuals involved in the circuit rider network that I learned the basics: conducting tech assessments, creating a tech strategy, and applying methodologies to training. I had an enormous desire to give back for all that I had gained, and so I did my best to help nurture and sustain the network. The round-ups were central to this, getting face to face and side by side time with colleagues. I joined organising committees and helped develop agendas. When the first Day of Service (a day added to the round-ups to serve local non-profits and give circuit riders an opportunity to work side by side) was implemented in Kansas City in 2000, I helped Frank Ordway and Cheryl Hanback organise it.
Kansas City was also a turning point for me in the Circuit Rider network. The network had grown exponentially, and by then the round-up drew over 150 participants. Tech Rocks (formerly Rockefeller Technology Project) was feeling the strain of being the sole maintainer and fundraiser for the network. During a plenary session to lay out some future plans for the direction of the network, I gave an impassioned plea to the participants to commit to supporting the network (it went something like “I need every mind in this room if I’m to succeed”). It might have been a tad over the top, but it definitely had an impact. That evening awards were given out to thank everyone who helped organise and contribute to the Roundup, and Frank Ordway and Carnet Williams presented me with a little “Oscar” statuette for “best performance by a circuit rider.” They called it the Dirk Award. Subsequently, the Dirk Award became a tradition of the round-ups, being given to a rider that had contributed to the growth and knowledge of the network. Every year at the Round-ups a committee convened to choose the recipient. We honored the hard work and contributions to the network of people like Teresa Crawford, Bill Lester and Art McGee.
Unfortunately, all this enthusiasm wasn’t enough to sustain the network. At the 2001 roundup in Denver, it was time to make a tough decision. Tech Rocks, the network coordinator, was being pulled in too many directions as they were now also developing and maintaining ebase, a free database for non-profits built on the FileMaker platform. NTEN, an emerging network of non-profit technology assistance providers, which had been created by a group of funders and some of the better-resourced technology assistance groups, offered to absorb the network and take on the round-ups. It was up to our network to decide if we wanted to stay an independent network or to accept NTEN’s offer. I was dead set against the idea of NTEN: the culture was very different, and I thought that by joining NTEN the riders network would quickly loose it’s identity. At that Denver roundup, we presented the options to the network and took a vote. Sadly the majority wanted to go with NTEN.
NTEN ran a couple of round-ups, but it was clear that it had a different priorities. One of which (and I could hardly blame them for this) was sustainability, tech vendors started appearing at round-ups for the first time. When NTEN brought the round-up to Philadelphia in 2004, it changed the name to the Non-Profit Technology Conference (NTC). The NTC agenda was focused on the technology staff of larger Non-Profits and giving space to vendors to sell their wares. And so with the birth of the NTC my beloved Round-up was long gone. But Philadelphia also brought a ray of sunshine. A side event, run by Aspiration called Penguin Day, focusing on integrating open source software, had more rider presence and also included members of a new network of international circuit riders, called eRiders. It was from here that I saw some hope for a network where the tenents of “non-territoriality and an open exchange of knowledge” could exist. And for a few more years that did exist. In the next part I will write about leaving the LINC project behind and the rise and fall of the international eRider network. Also see:
- In 1998 someone handed me a description for a job called a Circuit Rider, which was essentially a roving technology consultant. But with a big difference: instead of being centred around a particular technology, they were focused on an issue. A Circuit Rider's goal is to help an organisation achieve…
- Fabriders is a consultancy that I'm building as a result of the experience and the unique knowledge I've gained over the last 20 years, working with social justice campaigners on helping them integrate technology tactics into their campaign strategies. The key to using technologies and handling information effectively in a campaign…
- FabRiders was founded in 2012 by Dirk Slater, building on his experience supporting social justice movements. Dirk has spent the last two decades working with activists and advocates in over 30 countries. He ran one of the first circuit rider initiatives, the Low-Income Networking and Communication (LINC) Project, for the…