My History of Circuit Riding (Part 2)

In my previous post, I told you how I came to work for the Low-Income Networking and Communication’s (LINC) Project; and of meeting some amazing people at the second ‘Riders Roundup’, ‘Riders’ being roving tech consultants with a particular mandate to assist NGOs in specific issue areas. Following that meeting, I came back to New York full of enthusiasm and some great ideas about how the Circuit Rider concept could facilitate the work of LINC.

Winning Converts

The LINC project got off to a running start. I started travelling across the US to learn about the challenges of community organising in Low-Income Communities. I also started fulfilling a key role of a Circuit Rider, which was to evangelise the role of technology in organising. And, in one of those strange instances of synchronicity, I learned from my grandmother that I wasn’t the first Circuit Rider in my family: my great-grandfather had been a Methodist circuit rider, serving a group of congregations in Indiana.

On my own circuit, I often found myself having to make presentations about utilising the Internet and technology to groups who were quite skeptical. In the first place, this was the late 1990s. While computers were hardly new to the offices of advocacy groups, it was a far cry from today’s always-connected, linked-up, Twitterised, Facebooked world of ubiquitous tech. ‘Mobile’ devices consisted of six-pound laptops, and cell phones were the province of financiers in The City or Wall Street. So tech, while offering many advantages to such groups, was still not an easy thing to integrate into the lives of activists.

The more important lesson for me about working with a marginalised community was that they are by nature mistrustful of any outsiders coming in to tell them what to do. I learned this during one of my first presentations, which was to a gathering of women on welfare who were organising themselves into a regional network across the pacific northwest. They were called the western regional welfare activist network (WRWAN) and are based in Portland, Oregon.

There must have been about 80 activists gathered, and a woman ahead of me was presenting about a research project on welfare reform, done by some academic institution. The audience was anything but accommodating, and during some points of the presentation they were booing, challenging nearly everything the poor woman said.

I was petrified. Certain these women were going to eat me alive as I was a) the only man in the room, and b) I was about to get up and start talking about how they needed to use the internet. The woman ahead of me decided to cut her loses and made a hasty retreat offstage. As I walked up onto the stage I was met by stares and icy silence. I thought it was best to start by stating the obvious: that I was the only man, I was about to start talking about tech, and I was already wildly uncomfortable. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had better figure out what I had in common with everyone in the room.

‘I don’t want to start out talking about technology, instead let me tell you about my mom.’ My mom had hit a rough time economically when I was growing up and she needed to go on Food Stamps. At that time we had just moved to California and the job market was pretty tough. Mom had found a part-time job and, with the help of food stamps to supplement her income, she had gone back to school to get another degree. I ended by saying how, because of my mom, I respected every woman on welfare because I knew that they were doing their best to both support themselves and their children. Thankfully, they all applauded after that. ’Please don’t applaud for me,” I said. ‘Oh, we’re not sweetheart,’ said a woman in the front row, ‘We’re applauding for your mom’. ‘Great’ I replied, ‘Now lets talk about how you can use the Internet to kick some ass’ and got on with my presentation. That was the start of a long collaboration with WRWAN, and LINC was always invited to their steering committee meetings.

The lesson I learned was that to win their trust it was important that I was seen as being part of the same community, being completely behind their goals and strategies. You can read about the listserv we develop for WRAN here.

Overcoming the Tech Challenges

So how did the Circuit Rider network continue to help the LINC Project? Through the help of generous Riders, I developed expertise around networking computers and sharing internet connections (this was the time of dial-up and modems, and sharing an internet connection in a small office was practically unheard of). But as my work with LINC developed, it became apparent that there were two technology-related sticking points around community organising and about which the Circuit Riders provided invaluable support to LINC: databases, and using Open Source software.

Tracking Relationships

As LINC traveled the US helping welfare organising groups connect to the Internet, we learned more and more about the needs of community organisers. One thing that was obvious was that any organisation whose strategy was based on engagement of its members and on developing leadership needed a database that could track the relationships the organisation created. Soon the emphasis on developing a communications network gave way to helping organising groups utilise databases. A database meant to keep track of membership was already in development within the Circuit Rider network, and it was called ‘eBase’. It had been developed in FileMaker Pro largely for use with environmental organisations. We soon began customising it and created a special version for welfare organising groups. ‘eBase’ eventually would evolve into CiviCRM and has wide use to this day among non-profits that need to do any engagement of membership.

Free and Open Source Software Emerges

By this time the Circuit Rider network was starting to become identified as having influence in helping non-profits make decisions about software choices. The use of FileMaker Pro allowed stand-alone, one-user versions of eBase, to be distributed for free. Microsoft was taking notice and started donating it’s software to charitable organisations. But we soon realized that a critical issue we were facing with small resource-strapped organisations was around maintenance – keeping Windows virus- and corruption-free was beyond the capacity of many of the groups we worked with. We started getting numerous requests to find alternatives to Windows; and as simply moving to Macs was beyond the financial ability of most groups, we soon focused on Linux, which could be installed on their existing hardware.

It wasn’t long before we had an organisation in Missouri, Grass Roots Organising (GRO), who decided to go completely Open Source. We, in turn, decided to help them, using the opportunity to write a case study which would help other Circuit Riders understand the potentials and pitfalls for using Open Source with their own organisations.

In my next post, I will talk about how Circuit Riding evolved into eRiding and how the network ebbed, flowed and then came to an end.