Bringing Rural Minorities into the Netroots Fold

( – promoted by navajo)

I live in rural Rio Arriba County in the mountains of northern New Mexico. While my community covers a geographic area the size of Massachusetts, there are only 40,000 residents. Seventy percent are Hispanics who arrived in New Mexico in the 17th century. Eighteen percent are Native Americans: two pueblos and an Apache Reservation.

It is important for rural minorities to be able to tell and control their own stories. The self-told story is a first step in healing the wounds of oppression. Mastery and control of the medium, be it printing press, teevee or web, is an important first step.

Rural minorities are badly underrepresented among the Netroots, and, for good reason. The tools of the trade (high speed internet access, connectivity, computers, servers, fiber optic, etc.) are often unavailable in the communities where they live.

Try owning an iPhone in Rio Arriba County! The phone might be cool but it doesn’t do you any good if it doesn’t connect to anything.

But besides the issue of not-so-handy gadgets, it is difficult to attract Native Americans and Hispanics in my community to the web because the tools, which might seem difficult to acquire initially, don’t appear to be immediately useful. Why bother to learn to surf the web when there is no dialogue on it about issues that are meaningful to you?

Why learn to use twitter if you don’t want to know what Madonna ate for lunch, which word Sarah Palin is going to misspell today, or who Snooki is doing ? A chat room allowing me to partner with my neighbor to buy and divide up a cow from a local rancher might have more application.

I am lucky. Several years ago, my bosses decided that my nocturnal internet habit is a useful way to educate policy makers and the public at large about issues that matter in Rio Arriba, and they have encouraged me to pursue my eccentric habit. For a few years, I have been sending links to a listserve of my New Mexico friends who otherwise wouldn’t follow blogs.

Recently, I’ve been trying a new tactic. Our Rio Arriba Community Health Council created a website with multiple functions that I hope will prove useful enough to prompt people to try them out. But just in case that doesn’t work, I am resorting to annoying tricks.

Barry Geller, who created the site, has included an online resource directory for our member organizations, a community calendar and a blog. So far, all the blog entries are my own. I have been showing people how to read and comment. Soon, the council will find a volunteer to post their own diary.

We live in a one newspaper town. Most of the non-profits and local residents complain that the newspaper won’t write about anything positive that they do. I see blogs as a way to change that.

I posted a photo-diary on the blog about a health council event and sent out links so people could see their photos. I walked into the office of our county commission chairman, showed him how to set up an account, and refused to leave until he posted a comment.

Now I am trying another strategy. Barry partnered with the Greater Espanola Valley Community Development Corporation (GEVCDC) to create a wonderful app, enabling council and CDC members to work on collaborative writing projects such as positions statements and funding proposals. If somebody wants to participate in a collaborative health council grant, they have to do it through the CDC forum (which is open only to council and CDC members).

I tried to use video-conferencing equipment to demonstrate use of the forum a few months ago at our health council meeting. That didn’t work out very well since we couldn’t get the equipment to function. I felt pretty dumb. I am hoping that my own ineptitude with some of our tools and equipment makes it less intimidating for others to try. But I don’t know. Maybe it just wastes their time.

Whatever. We tried it again the next month and it worked very well..

Initially, it was a migraine and a half to get anyone to use the forum! Some people had difficulty signing in. The staff member assigned to assist council members to use the CDC forum seemed to be devoting a great deal of energy to arguing with their IT guy over spreadsheets. After one especially heated argument involving multiple extensive fact-finding emails regarding the difficulties a particular member encountered while trying to sign in, it turned out that the member had used the password for some other account. Once project staff stopped bickering and we got the forum running and used it to write a proposal, it worked pretty well.

Now I’m trying a new and even more exciting project.  I would like to bring a group of Native Americans from local reservations to this year’s Netroots Nation.  I think I can help to subsidize their costs through my county budget, since they will be representing the county. But I may need additional help.

Anyone interested in talking about this?