Beyond Diversity

I continue to work through issues of difference and diversity. A couple of years ago I posted on difference as a resource, and I still agree with that principle. But especially this past year as I read through books like Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s Braiding Sweetgrass and Thomas King‘s The Truth About Stories, and have conversations with people who bring to the table very different ways of knowing, I am increasingly struck with just how challenging working across difference can be, and how critical it is that we develop the necessary skills to do just that regardless the difficulty.

As a case in point, Thomas King describes how in Iroquoian language there is no word that distinguishes human from animal. Instead, when a noise indicates an approach, it is always someone who is approaching. When closer, that someone may be further identified by species.

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how while the English language is primarily noun-based, the Potawatomi language is primarily verb based.

Joey looks out towards Thunder Bay from Isle RoyaleA bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa–to be a bay–releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise–become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too (pg. 55).

In a conversation at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium in Edmonton, Canada, with Dale Saddleback, a Cree scholar, this past October, he spoke of the encouragement he’s receiving from elders to perform his scholarship in Cree instead of English specifically because language determines so much of how we think about, and what we know of, the world. As we considered the challenges of sharing research in such cases, he further pointed out that Cree is primarily an oral language, and that it cannot be fully understood without also understanding Cree ceremonies, at which point he kindly invited me to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, something I hope someday to take him up on.

These examples bring to light for me the deep importance of working across difference if we have any hope of coming to fully appreciate the interdependence of, and work in harmony with, our local biome, or naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat. Aldo Leopold, in the section on the land ethic in A Sand County Almanac, describes how ethics demands that our concept of community must expand to include the land or biome. And only in so doing will we be able to further appreciate how different biomes intersect and are interdependent.

English-based philosophy, theology, and science brings to the fore certain aspects of these biomes, while the philosophies, theologies, and ways of knowing of other cultures and languages bring to the fore other aspects.

Real progress isn’t fostered when we force everyone to speak in English and know through a western civilization philosophical, religious, and scientific lens. Such modern imperialism may speed along creation of more consumables to address a limited understanding of needs.  But just as someone who is near-sighted cannot appreciate the full world around them without additional lenses, so too will we remain limited in our knowing of the world. And so too will be our approaches to addressing the challenges and opportunities around us be limited.

Real progress will happen as we develop the skillsets needed to allow us to engage across difference in ways that preserve and prize the differences for their unique lenses–that is, pluralism. This is not a retreat into relativism, where there are no truths to be known. But instead an appreciation that we each chip away at the truths from our different ways of knowing.

Perhaps what is needed are boundary-spanners who are comfortable in multiple ways of knowing and being to serve as human bridges between. Perhaps we need to prioritize time to travel and dialogue across difference by learning different languages and ceremonies.

Whatever the approach, I think this is the real bleeding edge of innovation, the place where the greatest struggle and potential revolutionary change will come, and not in the technical realm. Personally, I hope I live to see the day when I, an English-speaking scholar, and Dale as a Cree-speaking scholar, and Judd, as a Māori-speaking scholar, and still many others come together to gain emergent insights because we communicate from our cultural frames without the colonization of forced English hegemony.

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Community Engagement Bibliography

This past year, the Ferguson Public Library provided a strong example of the value of a library, especially in times of community struggle. During the Q&A portion of his presentation as part of the Information City CU lecture series, Scott Bonner, library director, mentioned that his leadership choices in Ferguson arose from the philosophy of ethics explored as part of his graduate program.

The following bibliography has been developed in advance of my spring 2015 course Community Engagement (LIS418) (Syllabus) and seeks to continue leadership development bringing theory and practice into dialogue for a new generation of library and information science professionals. It especially highlights community engagement from the library and higher education perspectives with which I am most familiar. I do not pretend that this bibliography is exhaustive, but especially emphasizes resources I find most informative in the area.

I welcome further suggestions in advance of class, and invite others to join us weekly Tuesdays from 9-11:50am in room 341 of the Library and Information Science building, 501 E. Daniel St. Champaign, beginning January 20th, as we discuss these readings in light of our community engagement practices. An updated version of this bibliography will be posted in May based on feedback I get before and during the course of the semester.


Arnstein, S.R. (1969) A Ladder of Citizen Participation. JAIP, 35(4), 216-224. Downloaded from:

Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, New England Resource Center for Higher Education – College of Education and Human Development, University of Massachusetts Boston, Available online at:

The Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement is an elective classification of Universities seeking recognition of their community engagement efforts. It lasts 5 years. The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign received this classification in 2010 and has reapplied to be re-certified in 2015. Included on the webpage is a brief definition of community engagement for purposes of the classification.

Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Community’ in the encyclopedia of informal education,

Donna Jo McCloskey, Mary Anne McDonald,  Jennifer Cook, Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts, Stephen Updegrove, Dana Sampson, Sheila Gutter, Milton Eder (2011) Chapter 1: Community Engagement: Definitions and Organizing Concepts from the Literature, In: Principles of Community Engagement – Second Edition, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Downloaded from:

Keith, N.Z. (2005) Community Service Learning in the Face of Globalization: Rethinking Theory and Practice Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 5-24 Permalink:

Distinguishing Outreach From Engagement, National Alliance for Media Arts + Culture. Available for download from:

International Association for Public Participation core values and engagement spectrum often serve as a foundational reference for engagement and public participation in decision-making processes.

Ryan Messmore (2011) Individuals and Communities: No Man Is an Island. Available online at:

A fellow from The Heritage Foundation reflects on the need to recognize the social aspect of individuals.

Stoecker, R.. Is Community Informatics Good for Communities? Questions Confronting an Emerging Field. The Journal of Community Informatics, North America, 1, jun. 2005. Available at:

Stoecker, R. and Beckman, M. (2009) Making Higher Education Civic Engagement Matter in the Community, Campus Compact. Downloaded from:

Our Growing Understanding of Community Engagement by Tamarack, An Institute for Community Engagement. Downloaded from:

Public Engagement: A Primer for Public Agenda, 2008. Available online at:

Since its inception in 1975, Public Agenda has been working around the country to create the conditions for greater community engagement with public life and a more citizen-centered approach to politics. In this document we offer a brief summary of the essential elements of our evolving approach to this work. This summary is organized around the following themes:

  • Public Engagement: Creating Civic Capacity for Public Problem Solving
  • Ten Core Principles of Public Engagement
  • Examples of Key Practices and Strategies
  • The Power of “Citizen Choicework

Section 2. Understanding and Describing the Community, from The Community Toolbox, a service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas. Section downloaded from:

Blackshaw, Tony. (2010). Setting the Record Straight: What is Community? And What does it Mean Today? In: Key Concepts in Community Studies. Sage Publications.

This chapter looks at the transformation of the use and understanding of community as a concept, from the pre-modern community through modern society to today’s use as weak ontologies.

Gawande, A. (2013) Slow Ideas, The New Yorker. Downloaded from:

Hiram E. Fitzgerald, Karen Bruns, Steven T. Sonka, Andrew Furco, and Louis Swanson (2012) The Centrality of Engagement in Higher Education.  Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, Volume 16, Number 3. Available online at:

The centrality of engagement is critical to the success of higher education in the future. Engagement is essential to most effectively achieving the overall purpose of the university, which is focused on the knowledge enterprise. Today’s engagement is scholarly, is an aspect of learning and discovery, and enhances society and higher education. Undergirding today’s approach to community engagement is the understanding that not all knowledge and expertise resides in the academy, and that both expertise and great learning opportunities in teaching and scholarship also reside in non-academic settings. By recommitting to their societal contract, public and land-grant universities can fulfill their promise as institutions that produce knowledge that benefits society and prepares students for productive citizenship in a democratic society. This new engagement also posits a new framework for scholarship that moves away from emphasizing products to emphasizing impact.

Aldo Leopold (1949) The Land Ethic. In A Sand County Almanac. Chapter available online at:

In this concluding chapter of his classic A Sand County Almanac, Leopold proposes that a concept of community that includes a land ethic:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a
community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in
that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that
there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters,
plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

Randy Stoecker (2004) The Mystery of the Missing Social Capital and the Ghost of Social Structure: Why Community Development Can’t Win. In Silverman, Robert Mark (ed.) Community-Based Organizations: The Intersection of Social Capital and Local Context in Contemporary Urban Society. Preprint available online at:

Problematizes social capital as an exchange-value form of community and instead champions use-value communities of resistance to address oppressive social structures.

Chaskin, R.J. (2013). Theories of Community. In: Weil, M., Reisch, M., and Ohmer, M.L. (eds) The Handbook of Community Practice, 2nd Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.

Building from a community practice perspective (which I posit is one way of thinking about the LIS profession), this chapter explores different conceptualizations of community (the social basis of community: interaction, identity, and function; community as space and place; community as political unit) and the continuity and change of community and community practice in the 21st century.

Mitchell, T.D. (2008) Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2), p 50-65. Permalink:

University public engagement: 20 tips, The Guardian, June, 2013. Available online at:

Experts from a #HElivechat share best practice and advice on better engaging the public in university research

Stoecker, R. (2014) What If? AISHE-J 6(1) Downloaded from:

What if, instead, we consider an entirely different starting point for higher education civic engagement? Rather than using community members to provide an ill-fitting experiential education for our students to learn a perhaps inaccurately theorized form of civic engagement, we use higher education to support and enhance the civic engagement of community members?

Association of College Unions International, What is Community? Downloaded from:

Brown, P. Who Is The Community?/What Is The Community? Downloaded from:


Séverine Deneulin and Lila Shahani (eds.) An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency.

Selections from Key Points of Chapters 1-3: “Value judgements lie at the heart of development analysis and policy. However, these value judgements are often not acknowledged. Public policy aims to create and sustain improvements. Different ideas about what should be improved lead to different policies (e.g. poverty reduction policies vary depending on how poverty is defined). In contrast with approaches that seek to improve the national economy, or people’s resources, or their utility, human development argues that people’s well-being should improve. Different policies ensue. The capability approach contains three central concepts: functioning, capability and agency. A functioning is being or doing what people value and have reason to value. A  capability is a person’s freedom to enjoy various functionings — to be or do things that contribute to their well-being. Agency is a person’s ability to pursue and realize goals she values and has reason to value. The human development and capability approach is multi-dimensional, because several things matter at the same time. Well-being cannot be reduced to income, or happiness or any single thing. The human development and capability approach combines a focus on outcomes with a focus on processes. Four key principles are: equity, efficiency, participation, and sustainability. Both human development and neolibralism endorse the idea of freedom, but the former sees freedom as positive freedom, while the latter only sees it in negative terms.”

Donna Jo McCloskey, Mary Anne McDonald, Jennifer Cook, Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts, Stephen Updegrove, Dana Sampson, Sheila Gutter, Milton Eder (2011) Chapter 1: Community Engagement: Definitions and Organizing Concepts from the Literature, In: Principles of Community Engagement – Second Edition, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Downloaded from:

Randy Stoecker (2012) Community-based Research and the Two Forms of Social Change, Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 27(2),

As community-based research (CBR) takes hold in academic settings, where there is vast expertise in producing research but a dearth of experience in producing practical outcomes, there is a risk that CBR will produce little of consequence. This paper begins by arguing that part of the problem is the result of CBR practitioners assuming that research is, in itself, causal. Yet it is only when research is embedded in an effective overall social change strategy that it matters. The present paper develops a model specifying the role of research in both local and broader social change strategies. The overall model focuses on a community change cycle, based in community organizing, that begins with a participatory effort to diagnose some community condition, then develops a prescription for that condition, followed by an implementation of the prescription and an evaluation of the outcomes. Research can play a role at each stage of the process, but only as part of a broader strategy linking knowledge, action, and power. The paper concludes by showing the kinds of training and community relationships that academics will need to make CBR matter.

Langdon Winner. 1997. Cyberlibertarian myths and the prospects for community. SIGCAS Comput. Soc. 27, 3 (September 1997), 14-19.

“In sum, my suggestion is not that we need a cybercommunitarian philosophy to counter the excesses of today’s cyberlibertarian obsessions. Instead is a recommendation to take complex communitarian concerns into account when faced with personal choices and social policies about technological innovation. Superficially appealing uses of new technology become much more problematic when regarded as seeds of evolving, long term practices. Such practices, we know, eventually become parts of consequential social relationships. Those relationships eventually solidify as lasting institutions. And, of course, such institutions are what provide much of the actual framework for how we live together. That suggests that even the most seemingly inconsequential applications and uses of innovations in networked computing be scrutinized and judged in the light of what could be important moral and political consequences. In the broadest spectrum of awareness about these matters we need to ask: Are the practices, relationships and institutions affected by people’s involvement with networked computing ones we wish foster? Or are they ones we must try to modify or even oppose?”

David Golumbia (2013) Cyberlibertarians’ Digital Deletion of the Left, Jacobin Magazine

“At bottom, cyberlibertarianism holds that society’s problems can be solved by simply construing them as engineering and software problems. Not only is this false, but in many ways, it can make the problems worse.”

Digital Justice Coalition Principles. Downloaded from

Core principles for digital justice that have informed the work in Detroit, MI.

The Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI), Pluralizing the Archival Curriculum Group (PACG) (2011) Educating for the Archival Multiverse. The American Archivist, 74(1), 69-101.

Ethical principles to guide education of future archival engagement practitioners and researchers from a perspective of pluralism to achieve greater diversity and cultural sensitivity.

Mark C. J. Stoddart (2007) Ideology, Hegemony, Discourse: A Critical Review of Theories of Knowledge and Power, Social Thought & Research, Vol. 28, Social “Movements” Article Stable URL:

For over a century, social theorists have attempted to explain why those who lack economic power consent to hierarchies of social and political power. They have used ideology, hegemony and discourse as key concepts to explain the intersections between the social production of knowledge and the perpetuation of power relations. The Marxist concept of ideology describes how the dominant ideas within a given society reflect the interests of a ruling economic class. In this paper, I trace the movement from this concept of ideology to models of hegemony and discourse. I then trace a second set of ruptures in theories of ideology, hegemony and discourse. Marx and others link ideology to a vision of society dominated by economic class as a field of social power. However, theorists of gender and “race” have questioned the place of class as the locus of power. I conclude by arguing that key theorists of gender and “race”—Hall, Smith, hooks and Haraway—offer a more complex understanding of how our consent to networks of power is produced within contemporary capitalist societies. This argument has important implications for theory and practice directed at destabilizing our consent to power.

Maria Lugones (2003) Introduction. In Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) Learning the Grammar of Animacy. In Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. 

Many good sources champion a need to embrace epistemological pluralism. I have found Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing extraordinarily helpful in thinking through what this means in practice as she explores the need for a synapse-firing experience as our whole world is turned upside down through something as seemingly simple as learning a different language.

Maria Lugones (2003) On the Logic of Pluralist Feminism. In Pilgrimages: Theorizing Coalition against Multiple Oppressions.

Bharat Mehra, Kevin S. Rioux, and Kendra S. Albright (2010) Social Justice in Library and Information Science, Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Third Edition.

This entry presents an overview of social justice vocabularies, conceptualizations, and philosophies as they are represented in the history of library and information science (LIS) practice and research. Emphasis is placed on theoretical descriptions of both justice and social justice, and how these constructs are historically related to past and emerging trends in the LIS professions, with a main focus on social justice in regard to public library philosophy and practice in the United States. The entry also includes a discussion of information science research as it relates to the needs of disadvantaged populations.

Reisch, M., Ife, J., and Weil, M. (2013). Social Justice, Human Rights, Values, and Community Practice In: Weil, M., Reisch, M., and Ohmer, M.L. (eds) The Handbook of Community Practice, 2nd Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.

Martin Wolske (2014) Technology Education and Social Justice,

Yingqin Zheng and Bernd Carsten Stahl (2011) Technology, capabilities and critical perspectives: what can critical theory contribute to Sen’s capability approach? Ethics and Information Technology, 13(2)

Abstract: This paper explores what insights can be drawn from critical theory to enrich and strengthen Sen’s capability approach in relation to technology and human development. The two theories share some important commonalities: both are concerned with the pursuit of ‘‘a good life’’; both are normative theories rooted in ethics and meant to make a difference, and both are interested in democracy. The paper provides a brief overview of both schools of thought and their applications to technology and human development. Three areas are identified where critical theory can make a contribution to the capability approach: conceptually, by providing a critical account of individual agency and enriching the concept of technology beyond the simplistic notion of commodities; methodologically, by sensitising towards reification and hegemony of scientific tools, and, finally, by emphasising reflexivity of researchers.

Dorothea Kleine (2011) The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development, Ethics and Information Technology, 13(2).

Abstract: Amartya Sen’s capability approach has become increasingly popular in development studies. This paper identifies controllability and operationalisability as two key stumbling blocks which prevent the capability approach from being used even more widely in development practice. It discusses the origins and application of the Choice Framework, a conceptual tool designed to help operationa- lise the approach. The framework can be used to deconstruct embedded ideologies and analyse the appropriateness of development goals, to map development as a systemic process, and to plan interventions which can result in increased freedom of choice for people. Three examples of the application of the Choice Framework in the field of information and communication for development (ICT4D) are given. The three technologies which are examined, telecentres (Infocentros), Chilecompra and Fair Tracing, can be placed at different places of a determinism continuum, some reducing the spectrum of choices a user has. The paper argues that while frameworks such as the Choice Framework can be developed further to increase the operationalisability of the capability approach, it is up to development funders to accept the fact that people’s choices are never fully pre- dictable and thus Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ will inevitably be a dynamic and open-ended process.

The Common Good, Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer, Downloaded from:

Bindé, Jérôme (2005) Towards knowledge societies, UNESCO world report. Available online at:

“Knowledge societies are about capabilities to identify, produce, process, transform, disseminate and use information to build and apply knowledge for human development. They require an empowering social vision that encompasses plurality, inclusion, solidarity, and participation. (pg. 27)”

Honma, Todd (2005) Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies, InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2)

Gerhard Fischer (2011) Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation. Interactions, 18(3). Available online at:

“The major role for new media and new technologies from a culture-of-participation perspective is not to deliver predigested information and non-changeable artifacts and tools to individuals, but rather to provide the opportunity and resources for engaging them in authentic activities, for participating in social debates and discussions, for creating shared understanding among diverse stakeholders, and for framing and solving personally meaningful problems.”

Stoecker, R. (2014) What If? AISHE-J 6(1) Downloaded from:

What if, instead, we consider an entirely different starting point for higher education civic engagement? Rather than using community members to provide an ill-fitting experiential education for our students to learn a perhaps inaccurately theorized form of civic engagement, we use higher education to support and enhance the civic engagement of community members?


Anne Bishop (2002) Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People, 2nd Edition.

NOTE: a third edition is coming out in 2015 but unlikely will be available before we cover the book in class. However, the most revised part is a new chapter 9, Educating Allies, which has been made available online at:

From the back cover: “This book is my attempt to answer some of the big questions of my life: Where does oppression come from? Has it always been with us, just “human naute”? What can we do to change it? What does individual ehaling have to do with struggles for social justice? What does social justice have to do with individual healing? Why do members of oppressed groups fight each other? Why do some who experience oppression develop a life-long commitment to fighting oppression, while others turn aournd and oppress others? This book will help answer these and other relevant questions.”

Bishop, A., Bruce, B.C., and Jeong, S. (2012) Beyond Service Learning: Toward Community Schools and Reflective Community Learners. In: Loriene Roy, Kelly Jensen, & Alex Hershey Meyers (eds.), Service learning: Linking library education and practice (pp. 16-31). Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.

Cricket Keating (2005) Building Coalitional Consciousness. NWSA Journal, 17(2), 86-103. Stable URL:

In this essay, I argue for the practice of “coalitional consciousness-building,” a method of self and collective education toward coalition. The approach itself is based on the radical democratic practice of femi- nist consciousness-raising, yet reconfigures the method in several ways in light of critiques by women-of-color feminists. In particular, I draw upon the insights of Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Maria Lugones, and Bernice Johnson Reagon as well as upon examples of approaches used by consciousness-raising groups that had success in engendering solidarity across multiple lines of difference to suggest a process of coalitional consciousness-building. The process includes the following three steps: (1) sharing experiences related to a theme in a way that pays close atten- tion to the national, racial, and class and other relevant contexts and histories in which the experiences being articulated are being played out; (2) examining the experiences with an eye for the multiple relations of oppression and resistance at play; (3) exploring the barriers to, and possibilities for, coalitional action with regardto the experiences. Such a practice, I argue, could help contribute to the development of a feminist movement culture that is oriented toward the work of building and sustaining coalition.

Donna Jo McCloskey, Mary Anne McDonald, Jennifer Cook, Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts, Stephen Updegrove, Dana Sampson, Sheila Gutter, Milton Eder (2011) Chapter 1: Community Engagement: Definitions and Organizing Concepts from the Literature, In: Principles of Community Engagement – Second Edition, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Downloaded from:

Matt Leighninger (2010) Creating Spaces for Change: Working Towards a ‘Story of Now’ in Civic Engagement.

“In 2008 the foundation launched a “learning year,” featuring a dialogue among 40 organizations from across the country, all committed to civic engagement, albeit using a variety of approaches, with a variety of objectives. The outcome was a rich, often challenging, always enlightening conversation about civic engagement means, goals and terminology, among practitioners too often siloed by their field or their network.

Commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and written by Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, this paper reviews that conversation and extends an invitation to both deliberative democracy and dialogue practitioners and to community organizers to continue it. In doing so, it invites civic engagement practitioners from diverse schools of thought to raise and tackle tough, important questions; to deepen their mutual understanding of other practices and approaches, and of the values underlying and unifying their work; and to propose ideas for working together more effectively, and with greater impact.”

Sorensen, J. and Lawson, L. (2011) Evolution in Partnership: Lessons from the East St. Louis Action Research Project. Action Research, 10(2), 150-169. Downloaded from:

John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight (1993) Introduction to Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets

The ABCD approach developed by Kretzmann and McKnight has informed much community development work since its introduction in 1993.

Libraries Transforming Communities Toolkit

From the website:

The tools below are designed to help libraries strengthen their roles as community leaders and bring about positive change in their communities.

“Turning outward” is a step-by-step process developed by The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. It entails taking steps to better understand communities; changing processes and thinking to make conversations more community-focused; being proactive to community issues; and putting community aspirations first.

Taken together, these resources provide a 90-day plan to help your library “turn outward.”

-Outcome-based Evaluation
Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Outcome-based Evaluation

Paulo Freire (2011) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition

First published in Portuguese in 1968, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated and published in English in 1970. The methodology of the late Paulo Freire has helped to empower countless impoverished and illiterate people throughout the world. Freire’s work has taken on especial urgency in the United States and Western Europe, where the creation of a permanent underclass among the underprivileged and minorities in cities and urban centers is increasingly accepted as the norm.

Bertram C. Bruce and Naomi Bloch (2013) Pragmatism and Community Inquiry: A Case Study of Community-Based Learning. Education and Culture, 29(1) 27-45. Available online at:

ABSTRACT This paper develops a philosophical basis for the concept of community inquiry. Community inquiry derives from pragmatist theory as articulated by Dewey, Peirce, Addams, and others. Following Brendel, we discuss pragmatism in terms of its emphasis on the practical dimensions of inquiry, the pluralistic nature of the tools that are used to study phenomena, the participatory role of individuals with different perspectives, and the provisional nature of inquiry. We then apply this framework in a case study of community inquiry in an urban agriculture project. The example shows how learning occurs both within and beyond the school, and how education can be more connected to community life.

Kelvin L. White and Anne J. Gilliland (2010) Promoting Reflexivity and Inclusivity in Archival Education, Research, and Practice. The Library Quarterly, 80(3). Stable URL: .

“The area of archival studies today transcends the professional field of archival science. It encompasses an ever-broadening array of disciplinary discussions and methodological approaches that are identifying, critiquing, and addressing the shifting social, cultural, philosophical, and political, as well as the technological, imperatives of record keeping and remembering in the twenty-first century. Reporting on two recent research projects and three ongoing educational initiatives, this article suggests ways in which research and education in archival studies can play a central role in promoting more reflexive and inclusive ideas, practices, and research, not only within the archival profession, but also within the various library and information science (LIS) and iSchool settings in which archival education and research might be situated.”

Richard Milner IV (2007) Race, Culture, and Researcher Positionality: Working through Dangers Seen, Unseen, and Unforeseen. Educational Researcher, 36(7) Stable URL:

Abstract: This author introduces a framework to guide researchers into a process of racial and cultural awareness, consciousness, and positionality as they conduct education research. The premise of the argument is that dangers seen, unseen, and unforeseen can emerge for researchers when they do not pay careful attention to their own and others’ racialized and cultural systems of coming to know, knowing, and experiencing the world. Education research is used as an analytic site for discussion throughout this article, but the framework may be transferable to other academic disciplines. After a review of literature on race and culture in education and an outline of central tenets of critical race theory, a nonlinear framework is introduced that focuses on several interrelated qualities: researching the self, researching the self in relation to others, engaged reflection and representation, and shifting from the self to system.

Katherine Rose Adams (2014) The Exploration of Community Boundary Spanners in University–Community Partnerships. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 18(3).

Boundary-spanning is a role that has been recently explored with regard to University-community partnerships, but primarily from the perspective of the University. This article further explores the concept but from the perspective of community organizations. After reviewing this article, I think it would be interesting to further explore the role of boundary-spanning from the perspective of library-community engagement.

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton and Cynthia C. Phillips (2013) The Logic Model Guidebook, 2nd Edition. Sage Publishing

The Logic Model Guidebook offers clear, step-by-step support for creating logic models and the modeling process in a range of contexts. Lisa Wyatt Knowlton and Cynthia C. Phillips describe the structures, processes, and language of logic models as a robust tool to improve the design, development, and implementation of program and organization change efforts. The text is enhanced by numerous visual learning guides (sample models, checklists, exercises, worksheets) and many new case examples. The authors provide students, practitioners, and beginning researchers with practical support to develop and improve models that reflect knowledge, practice, and beliefs. The Guidebook offers a range of new applied examples. The text includes logic models for evaluation, discusses archetypes, and explores display and meaning. In an important contribution to programs and organizations, it emphasizes quality by raising issues like plausibility, feasibility, and strategic choices in model creation.

Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic and Mary Anne Kennan (2013) The Methodological Landscape: Information Systems and Knowledge Management. In Research Methods: Information, Systems and Contexts.

While especially directed at researchers, this chapter importantly clarifies the different meta-theoretical assumptions that underly research paradigms. It further considers how these often unconscious metaphysics influence how we see and research the world. I would argue that many of our arguments today about whether or not there is evidence for events boil down to different unconsidered meta-theoretical assumptions informing our understanding of the world around us.

Gerhard Fischer (2011) Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation. Interactions, 18(3). Available online at:

“The major role for new media and new technologies from a culture-of-participation perspective is not to deliver predigested information and non-changeable artifacts and tools to individuals, but rather to provide the opportunity and resources for engaging them in authentic activities, for participating in social debates and discussions, for creating shared understanding among diverse stakeholders, and for framing and solving personally meaningful problems.”

Andrea Smith (2013) Unsettling the Privilege of Self-Reflexivity. In france winddance twine and bradley gardener (eds.) Geographies of Privilege.

Unconsidered, self-reflexivity can become self-help political projects rather than a truly transformative exercise with the goal of ending whiteness as a social structure and as an identity in which white anti-racists organize their work.


Community-Led Libraries Toolkit! Available online at:

“We are pleased to announce the publication of the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, which shares the experiences and lessons learned by the Working Together Project over the past four years. The library should be an expression of its community’s vision and creativity; this can only happen if we involve them actively in decision-making and planning”

Roger E. Levien (2011) Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st-Century Public Library. ALA Policy Brief #4. Available online at:

From the summary: “The changes confronting public libraries over the next 30 years will be profound, just as those of the past 30 years have been. That libraries have responded so effectively thus far is encouraging, yet it appears that they will have to face even more difficult challenges in the future. The choices described in this policy brief respond to the possible outcomes of the economic, social, and technological forces and trends that will affect libraries. Yet they all assume that public libraries will continue to exist. Unfortunately, it is not impossible to imagine a future without libraries. If that is to be avoided so that libraries can continue to fulfill their role as guarantors of free and unbiased access to information, they must play an active role in shaping their future.”

Kranich, Nancy (2012) Libraries and Civic Engagement. Information Today.

“Description: Libraries have long played an important role in the civic life of their communities and organizations. Today, they are more involved than ever convening community conversations, building civic literacy, educating a new generation of citizens, and engaging constituents in issues of common concern. This article provides an overview of the role of libraries in civic engagement, the state of public participation in American life, an historical survey of library involvement, and current opportunities for all types of libraries to partner and participate in civic life.”

Libraries Transforming Communities is an initiative of the American Library Association and the Harwood Institute funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. More about the initiative and resources for libraries can be found at:

IMLS (2009) Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills. Available online at:

“This project underscores the critical role of our nation’s museums and libraries in helping citizens build such 21st century skills as information, communications and technology literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, civic literacy, and global awareness.”

Dudley, Michael. Public Libraries and Resilient Cities. 2012. American Library Association Editions. ISBN-10: 0838911366; ISBN-13: 978-0838911365 (Chapter 1 attached)

“In the midst of an economic and technological “perfect storm,” the public library is increasingly being seen as a keystone institution in addressing a number of significant and pressing urban and environmental sustainability issues. Libraries are evolving sustainable urban design practices, ecologically sensitive procurement processes, contributing to local economic development, and adapting to rapidly changing conditions, all while maintaining a strong commitment to social equity… This book…situates the public library in terms of urban planning concepts as well as current thinking on sustainability issues, and shares success stories in resiliency from library and planning practitioners.”

Edwards, Julie Biando, Robinson, Melissa S. , and Unger, Kelley Rae. Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library. 2013. Scarecrow Press. ISBN-10: 0810891816; ISBN-13: 978-0810891814.

From the jacket cover: “Edwards, Robinson, and Unger characterize the benefits of collaboration as helping to build human and social capital. They note that resilient community-centered librarians often find themselves in a position to create partnerships that extend their sphere of influence, recognizing that all are assets — individuals and partner agencies from city planners to union members. This book is a rich and thoughtful compilation of past achievements, contemporary successes, and future pathways that lodge the public library as a societal anchor and key to the engagement of people in the life of their communities.

Transforming libraries, building Communities argues that focusing on innovative and responsive services and programming is the best way for the public library to reposition itself as an active center for a vibrant community. Although accessing information will always be at the heart of what library patrons do, the role of librarians has evolved. Libraries create community and also mini-communities–everything from book groups to writing circles to new citizen groups to linguistic and ethnic communities. These mini-communities provide fellowship and foster relationships among group members while helping the larger community recognize and learn how the mini-communities enrich the larger.

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Love: The Heart of Dialogue and Engagement

“To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire lays out an educational model, popular education, that challenges the teacher-student contradiction, but instead proposes that all people are incomplete humans. As we become aware of our incompleteness and also our ability and the necessity of working to be more fully human, we enter into a new form of education that is built upon dialogue. As we encounter situations that limit us, we can choose to respond to such challenges with action, transforming and creating reality in the process. The word, which is both action and reflection, is used not only for dialogue but also to bring about a new reality. And with the new reality, the word is no longer reflective of reality and so dialogue must continue, always leading towards new realities that allow each of us to become more fully human.

Freire lists five essential components of dialogue:

  1. Profound love for the world and for people
  2. Humility that I am not self-sufficient, but must partner with others to name the world — that there are no sages, but only people attempting together to learn more than what we know now.
  3. Intense faith in humankind and their power to create and re-create reality together, the a priori existence of which is a necessity if we are to enter into dialogue
  4. Mutual trust, that which is established as we engage together in action/reflection dialogue
  5. Hope, that which leads us to move out in constant search in communion with others.

Freire’s description of dialogue came to mind today as I read the quote Jean Vanier.

During the holidays, it’s common for us to turn our thoughts to those who we identify as in need and to provide charity to them to bring them out of their wretchedness — “and in the process crush them”. Instead, may we daily remember the importance of love, humility, faith, trust, and hope as the foundations of community dialogue, that is, of action and reflection working to create and re-create a reality in which we all are transformed so as to be more fully human.

Posted in Community Engagement, Education, Liberation | Leave a comment

Despairing Christmas, Hoping for Advent

I’ve been reflecting for several weeks on a growing emotion within me, not quite depression, not quite anger. Today I’m settling on the word despair, the loss of hope. In past years I would look forward in anticipation to the Christmas season — not the shopping, never the shopping — but the moments with family, the familiar music, the events at church. Not this year. I don’t know which weighs heavier: 1) the growing awareness of how our economic structures are inconsistent with true community; or 2) the ongoing awareness of how unwillingness to repent of our racist history and enter into a process of reconciliation continues to result in a life of exploitation, marginalization, oppression, and even death for a large segment of U.S. citizens and the world. Indeed, I’m pretty convinced these are two sides of the same coin. This year, I can not separate the Christmas season, which now is an act of crass commercialism that destroys community, with the words and acts of the man the season is meant to celebrate. Despair, the complete loss of hope, seems the perfect description of the emotion I am feeling, and Christmas is the object of that emotion.

I can honestly say I walked from the car to church on Sunday more out of habit and a desire to see friends than to participate in the worship service that would be the first of the 2014 advent season. Allen Wakabayashi was speaking on Isaiah 11:1-9 (the sermon is available online). I appreciate Allen’s sermons generally because they do not shy away from themes of social justice, but Sunday’s sermon went so far beyond. It was not just instructional, it was a salve for my despair. Not a salve that lulls me into continued complacency, but a salve that heals so as to continue the work to which we are called. Allen highlighted the two aspects of advent captured within the scripture — not just the remembrance of the coming of Jesus in the past, but the coming still ahead. And this coming isn’t to shepherd the select few into an escape pod to a perfect world, but it is to bring the completion of the restoration of this world which has already begun with the first advent. Equally important, he highlighted our ongoing responsibility to daily be a part of that restoration which is centered first and foremost on bringing justice to the poor. Today, that includes dealing with our structures of racism that are bringing about the deaths of Michael Brown and too many others. The service concluded with a communal prayer adapted specifically for the Ferguson context, but could have easily been applied to Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, and the many other black men who have died this year at the hands of white police far more for being black men than for the immediate actions that led to their deaths.

I have no hope for Christmas, and even — I believe righteous — anger towards it. Chris Rock recently reminded us through truthful humor of the reason for the season — to bring commerce into profitability. Allen’s message helped me to recenter on our hope in advent, and in our responsibility to work each day where we are at to be a part of restoring the world through justice for the poor. Indeed, it is our sole responsibility.

Thank you Allen, and thank you TCBC for being a place that supports such conversations even against those who protest such topics are out of place in the church.

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My Spring 2015 Courses

I’m excited to be teaching three courses this spring. Below are the short descriptions and links to the syllabus for each course. It would be great to have each class max out on enrollment!

Community Informatics Studio, LIS 490ST: (Syllabus)
Studio learning brings together the collective knowledge of the class to work on and implement a design solution in community on a real world informatics problem. The design problem for spring 2015: how do we use popular and progressive education principles to design digital literacy programming to focus first on community-defined outcome goals rather than simply on technical skills so as to build local knowledge power and achieve broader transformative action?

Community Engagement, LIS418: (Syllabus)
Achieving impact goals in answer to ALA-presidential calls for community-led library services, library-led community engagement, and a civically engaged library is difficult unless we have a clear understanding of community, of engagement, and how various engagement techniques lead towards very different community engagement priorities. Rather than a settled issue, though, these are contested concepts and practices that we’ll explore, debate, and practice together.

Introduction to Networked Systems, LIS451: (Syllabus)
Designed for the student with little working knowledge of the nuts and bolts of computer hardware, software, and networks, we will demystify technology by building our very own “cloud” from the ground up. At the same time, we will critically explore the relationship between the social and technical to consider the ways the social, economic, political and cultural become reified through our technologies, often privileging some over others — and how we can be a part of championing more just systems.

Posted in Community Engagement, Community Informatics, Teaching, Technology and Society | Leave a comment

Engagement and Two Forms of Social Change

Engagement, especially when qualified with words like community, public, or civic, shows up in a lot of contexts. I recently wrote a post about librarians as engagement leaders, and in this post I want to follow up a bit further regarding my current thinking about the purpose of engagement. In a 2012 paper about community-based research, Randy Stoecker describes two forms of social change that I think apply more broadly than just the academic setting. First, there is the need for action to address specific issues — a group’s need or opportunity. But when done using a fully-participatory process, a second form of social change is achieved that transforms the social relations of knowledge production. A liberative form of community engagement is done in ways that both address a specific issue and also increase the capacity of those with whom we are engaging to become knowledge producers so that their own knowledge can inform group action and build group power.

LiberativeCommunityEngagementThe diagram on the left is my visualization of these two forms of social change. At the center, the central goal of liberative community engagement is to bring about social change. The outer circle represents the community inquiry and inquiry-based learning as described by Chip Bruce — “inquiry conducted of, for, and by communities as living social organisms.” The outer circle could as easily have been comprised of the community-based research steps of diagnosis, prescription, implementation, and evaluation as described by Stoecker. Indeed, there are a number of useful models for participatory action leading towards addressing a specific issue. The two mentioned are also examples of methods whose underlying objective is the inner circle of social change, that of building community power by fostering community’s increasing role in information gathering, knowledge creation, transformative action, and ultimately community power.

It is right to recognize that sometimes any aspect of these cycles may require a significantly specialized expertise. Engagement may thus include our providing services to the community in support of their social change projects to meet these specialized needs. But an ally approach to engagement requires that we are very careful to first critically consider such a step in light of the differences in power and privilege that exist. Anne Bishop notes

Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns.

Who is driving the decision to provide a service to the process instead of working to transform the nature of knowledge production by working with people to advance their own ability to accomplish the service? “Expediency” and “efficiency” can as easily be buzzwords for maintaining the status quo of power differences.

Engagement as I am increasingly thinking of it is a process of deep, critical, difficult dialog. A presentation at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium recently by Emerge Solutions, Inc. introduced me to the concept of the groan zone. As with normal brainstorming, ideas are brought to the table to expand our consideration of how to proceed. But unlike brainstorming that is working to achieve a certain goal, the divergent phase doesn’t pretend to know what the end point is or what it means. The divergent phase is instead about simply about idea generation. Along the way, the conversations may and often do become uncomfortable. The process may be terminated too soon to really work through these discomforts. But by continuing the process through the groan zone and to the divergent phase, new, often truly important, ideas come because of the difficult conversations.

Maria deBruijn of Emerge Solutions suggested in their presentation at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium that too often consultants work to minimize the discomfort and to “facilitate” the process by putting the groan zone into a black box because it is such difficult work. But in keeping this work hidden, consultants ultimately limit or eliminate the opportunity for deeper community building. Digital technologies further hide the difficult work in many cases, which is why Emerge Solutions carefully consider if, when, and which digital technologies to incorporate into the dialog processes on which they are consulting.

I think this is a great example of liberative community engagement! From their website, deBruijn writes about her experiences leading to the formation of Emerge Solutions:

Over the years, she noticed that clarity (a strong vision), cohesion (relationships) and resilient communities (the ability to adapt together) emerge when people invoke leadership and actively engage others to plan and make decisions.

She also noticed that leadership and engagement can come from any place in a community and organization, and that it stands up even in the face of complexity, polarities, and the chaotic conditions that tend to plague progress and sustainable courses of development.

A number of interesting articles are surfacing with regard to the role of public libraries in community in response to the radical hospitality the Ferguson Public Library demonstrated following the shooting of Michael Brown and again after the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. A 2012 blog post by R. David Lankes was revisited in the midst of the conversation. In that post, Lankes clarifies:

You see a good library sees the collection as a service and therefore monitors and plans for its use. A great library sees the collection as only a tool to push a community forward, and more than that, they see the library itself as a platform for the community to produce as well as consume. The library member co-owns the collection and all the other services offered by the librarians. The library services are part of a larger knowledge “eco-system” where members are consuming information yes (a user), but also producing, working, dreaming, and playing. That is the focus of a great library. They understand that the materials a library houses and acquires is not the true collection of a library – the community is.

Engagement isn’t simply providing services. When a library develops a strong collection of books, this often is a valuable service to the community, especially when done strategically. But such a community service is not engagement. When a school makes available classes to the broader community at no cost, this is potentially a valuable outreach service to the community. But outreach isn’t engagement, either. Doug Borwick’s does clarify that such outreach could be thought of as audience engagement, where the goal is increasing the “number of butts-in-seats/eyes-on-walls”. But this remains a service to rather engagement with. Hildy Gottlieb compares this to the “‘Tell and Hope’ method of communications: I tell you my story, and I hope you will do what I want you to do.” Generalizing from the Tufts distinction of outreach vs. engagement for the university, outreach expands the reach of programs, services, activities, or expertise, but it is one-way, with the organization providing contact or a service to the non-traditional audience for the contact or service.

Real engagement is difficult. Real engagement expects conflict and embraces it as important in coming to understand the other side of the story. Steve Sullivan, who runs a network of counseling and crisis centers called Provident in the St. Louis area, was recently interviewed on the National Public Radio program morning edition following the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case. In the interview, Sullivan stresses the importance of working to understand each other. But in being open to conversation, we need to embrace “being uncomfortable in your conversation. You know, going somewhere to sit down and talk to people that you would have never thought about before.”

Returning to the diagram, then, when we ask questions, we need to ask in ways that also help us to address critical questions about privilege and ways to change the system, not just the superficial questions regarding a symptom of the problem. This is radical in the original sense of forming the root. When we investigate, we need to be expansive in those investigations to seek the emergent understandings, not just the easily accessible information. Later, our discussions need to include people we would never have thought about before so that we can understand the many different sides of view of the investigation and action/creation. This is a very different kind of knowledge creation and transformative action that supports creation of knowledge power. And it leads to new cycles of information gathering, knowledge creation, and transformative action.

Engagement has often been described as mutually beneficial as opposed to services that are designed to flow from the giver to the receiver. But mutually beneficial is a complicated concept, especially when we recognize engagement is often performed between groups with different intersections of privilege and power. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Perhaps a more helpful way to understand mutually beneficial, then, is to recognize that social change that transforms the social relations of knowledge production by changing society’s patterns of injustice. And when it does, we all benefit because of the more just society. This isn’t a product, it’s a process. This form of social change isn’t delivery of a thing, it’s the liberative dialog between people. And it changes everyone and everything.

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EVERYONE is a Technology Expert

I appreciate Virginia Eubanks’ expansion of information technology expertise outlined in her 2011 book Digital Dead End. This is not to say that everyone has the same expertise, by any means. But it is to challenge the primacy of those whose expertise is in the physical or software domains. A recent post touched on the concept of critical sociotechnical systems approach to digital literacy. This post builds upon this concept, expanding upon some ideas my colleague Colin Rhinesmith and I presented at the 2014 Community Informatics Research Network Conference. I’d like to put forward four ways in which I think we need to better hear/liberate people’s expert knowledge regarding information technology:

  1. Sociotechnical Framework = physical + software + human + social;
  2. Co-creation of technology — innovation is never static but always being co-created by users to fit the context;
  3. Real-world, everyday technologies — not just the high-tech innovation, and not just the artifact but also the practice;
  4. Given the technical artifact is socially shaped, the dominant narratives and social practices within society become embedded within the artifacts and their use practices, potentially reifying unjust social systems. Some especially experience and are thereby experts in the oppressive nature of technologies.

Let’s explore each of these in turn a little further.

Sociotechnical Framework: a holistic understanding of the technical (physical and software) and social (human and societal) layers of digital technology. We need a more nuanced, complex understanding of the social influences that shape the design, production, distribution, use-policies, co-creation, and end-of-life decisions of a technical artifact. And we need a more nuanced, complex understanding of the emergent properties that result when the social and technical come together, and how those emergent properties shape our social systems.

Brian Whitworth, in his 2009 chapter “A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems“, highlights how technical artifacts improved in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s as engineers working on the physical layer and computer scientists working on the software layer began collaborating more closely. Then, beginning in the 90’s another leap forward was made when behavioral scientists joined the group, bringing in the human layer as part of Human Computer Interaction and Computer Supported Collaborative Work research, and later Human-centered Design approaches.

But still missing all too often is expertise at the societal layer, or what Whitworth calls the sociotechnical gap. As a result, the technical artifact is developed in ways that are inconsistent with the social values and goals of those working to achieve transformative action and social change. As Fisher and Herrmann point out in their 2014 chapter “Meta-Design: Transforming and Enriching the Design and Use of Socio-Technical Systems”, user-centered design doesn’t go far enough in incorporating everyone’s expertise in design, explored further in the next section.

The need for equal or even priority valuing of the social expertise that each person contributes to a sociotechnical artifact brings us to the second point.

Co-Creation of Technology: Fisher and Herrman go on to argue that we need a new approach to the initial design of the technical artifact. Starting with a user-centered design approach that incorporates user representatives into the initial design process, the technical artifacts are intentionally under-designed. This is not to suggest it is a half-finished product in an inferior sort of way. Rather, it is designed with an understanding that each user will further co-create the artifact. Back in 2004, Ron Eglash described a normal process of appropriation that happens with technology, in which people take the stuff they have and use it in ways and to achieve goals not conceived of by the designers/producers. I now start many of my computer/digital literacy classes with an icebreaker question asking to describe one such way they’ve used the stuff they have in a way it wasn’t intended to address an immediate need. Without fail, everyone has a story. Bruce, Rubens, and An (2009) proposed we call the technical artifacts “innovations-in-use” as people continuously co-create the technologies.

Observe the setup and use of two smartphones, or compare the setup and use of same smartphone in two different contexts. Indeed, note just how infrequently it actually is used as a traditional voice communication device. Users configure their smartphones to serve as a tool for a variety of different activities, depending on the context. My personal smartphone, then, can only be described at the time of this writing as the November 24, 2014, 3pm, in-wait-mode smartphone. At 7pm when I attend my next meeting, it may become a note-taking, live-tweeting smartphone. Later this evening it might become the who’s-that-actor-research smartphone, or the I-want-to-learn-more smartphone as I move towards a more active TV watcher.

An innovation-in-use framework also pushes us towards new, situated evaluation approaches for evaluating a sociotechnical system (Bruce, Ruben, and An, 2009, page 687). Instead of asking “What can an innovation do?”, we ask “What do people do as they use the innovation?”. Instead of “To what extent are the innovation’s goals achieved”, we ask “How do social practices change, in whatever direction?”. Instead of asking “How should people or the context of use change in order to use the innovation most effectively?”, we ask “How should the innovation be changed and how can people interact differently with it in order to achieve community goals?”. Instead of asking “How does the innovation change the people using it?”, we ask “How does the community fit the innovation into its ongoing history?”.

These questions generally, and the last question in particular, begin to touch on the third point.

Real-world, everyday technologies: It can be argued that human history is the story of tool design and implementation. We build tools to manipulate our environment, creating a new environment. This new environment shapes us and leads towards new tools. For instance, in their presentation to the 2014 Engagement Scholarship Consortium, Maria deBruijn and Lisa Grotkowski of Emerge Solutions, Inc. noted that in our early history we learned to intentionally create fire. We then began gathering in a circle around the fire. This contributed eventually to inner and outer circles and began to further shape our social order, which required new systems to be developed. Their presentation went on to helpfully describe the need to demystify the community development process and better engage between the rings of the circle — what they refer to as the groan zone — and to also be much more flexible in our selection of tools to support such development and engagement work so as to better build community.

Given this history of humans and tools, why is it that today technology experts are only defined within a very narrow window, primarily of things currently or recently developed by engineers and scientists. Before asking people at the beginning of a digital literacy workshop to describe a way they’ve used stuff they have in a way it wasn’t intended to be used, I ask them to first draw a picture of an innovator innovating. Almost universally, while everyone describes a way they’ve reinvented something they have, they draw and describe a white male innovator working alone on an innovation.

Judy Wacjman, in her 2009 overview “Feminist Theories of Technology” traces the history of how technologies came to be defined as those things engineers and computer scientists do. By challenging this viewpoint, we move from seeing attendees of computer/digital literacy classes as non-technology people to people who have expertise in different technologies. Not only does this give us a starting point for transferring skills from one sphere of technology expertise to another, but it also opens up opportunities to consider what’s gained and lost by choosing to use one technology over another.

Learning to identify what’s gained and lost by choosing to use one technology of another is a very difficult process, especially when the gains and losses are not universally shared. It is to this point that I believe Virginia Eubanks was especially referring in her book Digital Dead End.

Experience and expertise in the oppressive nature of technologies: Virginia Eubanks describes the example of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; previously referred to as food stamps) recipient whose pattern of use of their electronic debit card to buy food is called into question by a social worker. The SNAP recipient may never have used a keyboard and mouse, or a word-processor, but they are very familiar with the intrusive and judging aspects of technology in a way that those of us in a more privileged class can’t even imagine. It’s easy to dismiss or explain away such “judging” as holding accountable a government support recipient. But corporate and government corruption, misuse of funds, and other large dollar mismanagement of government support programs are far more costly than the smaller misuse of funds to programs like SNAP by the recipient — if it really even is misuse. It may have been the very best use given the context within the recipient is forced to live. But we do not put the same onerous, intrusive, judging systems on a CEO. In a culture where wealth is correlated with initiative, sound judgement, and trustworthiness our sociotechnical artifacts and practices have embedded within them a trust of the CEO and distrust the SNAP recipient. Only by listening to the expert in the oppressive nature of technologies will we learn to champion, design, and co-create more just sociotechnical artifacts and practices.

Too often when referring to new technologies we hear arguments regarding how we need to get onboard or get left behind. We hear about those who have been left behind. When we become frustrated because we find the technology using our time or taking us places inconsistent with our values and goals, we’re told that there’s no going back. This is the myth of technological determinism, and it pervades the very core of our culture. Further, it’s combined with technocentrism — the deep abiding belief that technological solutions will fix our environmental and social problems. This, too, pervades the very core of our culture.

Colin Rhinesmith has explored the ways in which external stakeholder demands and internal organizational needs sometimes come into conflict when social service computing systems are implemented by an organization to meet funder demands. Design inspirations based on limited awareness of a local context, on false assumptions, and on funding agency demands may expose hidden work done by a social service agency to meet their responsibilities to service recipients. Consistent with technological determinism and technocentrism, external stakeholders may believe outcomes-based reporting software will make funded agencies more efficient. But embedded within such a consideration are beliefs about efficiency and scalability that may at best be inconsistent with the local context and at worst may be based on unconsidered and oppressive ways of thinking perpetuated through systemic injustice. Rhinesmith’s work helps us further see how not just the aid recipient but also the social service worker can bring expertise to the table regarding the oppressive nature of sociotechnical artifacts and practices. And we also begin to appreciate how software and computer systems can be designed, or under-designed using the terminology introduced by Fisher and Hermann, in ways that allow innovation-in-use to contextualize and hopefully challenge the oppressive nature of these systems.

Ultimately, these four different types of expertise are mutually supporting. When effective dialog brings all experts to the table, software and computer systems have the potential to better address societal values and goals based on inclusion and social justice for all.

Posted in Community Informatics, Social Justice, Technology and Society | Leave a comment