Physical spaces as catalysts for greater digital citizen participation

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, August 8, 2012 to Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining Rising Voices, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) and the New Tactics online community for an online dialogue on Physical spaces as catalysts for greater digital citizen participation from August 8 to 14, 2012.  Across the globe, new physical spaces are emerging that are acting as catalysts for greater citizen participation using digital technologies. Community libraries are rethinking their traditional role, and many are now offering internet access to their users in order to provide opportunities to gather around local issues where they can produce, not simply consume information. Telecenters are going beyond providing computer access to communities, to providing workshops to train citizens on how to use digital technology effectively to promote change. Hacklabs offer a physical space where activists and technologists can come together to find innovative solutions to local problems. These are just a few examples of the innovative use of physical space to encourage and empower greater digital citizen participation.

Although the internet has provided new ways for people to work together virtually, people are finding complementary energy from working face-to-face. Mobilizers and mentors for users of these spaces have a commitment to see their local communities become more active through the use of digital tools.

This dialogue was an opportunity to exchange innovative examples of how these physical spaces are being used as catalysts for greater citizen participation. Participants explored ways in which these spaces, and the people behind these spaces, are finding ways to gather to solve local issues, and give local residents a greater voice online.

Tactic shared:

What does your space look like?  

Participants shared the various spaces in which their community organization centers thrive. Some spaces are located in office buildings shared with other NGOs, some are independent rural libraries, and others are studios, temporary outdoor camps, or conference centers. Several participants described how they reclaimed abandoned or empty buildings, or neglected public spaces and transformed them into hospitable centers for community gatherings and cultural activities that promote positive change. Peoples Housing in Chicago transformed a 75-year old movie theater into a space for community arts productions. Estación Tomada refurbished a train station in Peru to provide a space for community organizing and participation.

Many participants shared links to their own web pages, YouTube videos, or online databases that showcase designs of their community center facilities, resources, and creative works. Some participants described their facilities as having rooms for trainings and workshops for local people that are catered to the specific situational needs and interests of the community members for whom they are providing services. Generally, community spaces that promote social change and awareness of local issues offer an open and welcoming atmosphere for all community members. As one participant cited, if community members have a sense of ownership and pride in the space, it will become a place they care for and want to work to maintain.

Within these spaces, many organizations host spaces for computer labs with internet access. One participant explained that his organization received the majority of its hardware from donations and reusable or recycled materials. Community organizers prove they are creative and resourceful with what little space and/or materials available to them. Spaces with internet access enable community members to use social networking to promote awareness of local issues and strategies for change, and also to connect with other activists and community organizers. Public internet and media libraries also allow people to do research, apply for jobs and social services, and participate in classes and training workshops. Common computer softwares used in such settings are Windows, Mozilla Firefox, GIMP, Audacity, Ubuntu 12.4, VLC player, Sugar on Fedora, and Logic Modeling.

How are these spaces used as catalysts for citizen participation?

Participants use their spaces primarily for community collaboration and empowerment to address local issues and move towards social change. Spaces discussed include public libraries and community centers, online communities, and documentary film festivals. Many participants stressed the importance of the public library -- because it not only provides free access to information, but also a space for local citizens to connect, collaborate, and organize. Many community spaces have adapted to the lifestyles and specific needs of their community members, whether they are farmers or school children, to best facilitate an atmosphere that promotes education and positive changes in their society.  In Serbia, AgroLib houses books, lectures, and technological tools that spread knowledge and awareness of agricultural practices for local farmers.

Organizations also use their spaces to provide trainings for computer and internet use, neighborhood forums where members can voice concerns about their community, lectures related to community business or agricultural practices, and film screenings that shed light on human rights abuses.  In the United States, e-Democracy uses social networking to form an online “town hall” to discuss local issues and appeal to local elected officials. Programs evaluate their effectiveness based on the consistency or inconsistency of community participation, specific feedback from participants, and the success stories (or lack thereof) of participants.

Obstacles to the effective use of such physical spaces include consistently providing high-speed internet access, involving local institutions and maintaining their commitment to projects, and specializing programs to each local population. Participants in the dialogue also cited the difficulty in securing funds for community organizations. Some organizations overcame obstacles by creating petitions and appealing directly to local elected officials. For organizations with multiple locations, it is important to recognize the differences among community populations, such as differences in religion, work schedules, cultural events, and lifestyles. Organizations should consider these factors when deciding dates and times for hours of operation and events because they can directly determine whether or not community members become involved in the projects.

How do you build community in and around this space?

Many participants agree that from the very beginning, as many community members as possible should be involved in the planning and implementation of community organizations for social change. Organizers should be cognizant of the various identities, cultural values, and specific needs of the people that the facilities will be servicing, as to provide spaces and projects most conducive to collaboration and empowerment. Many participants agree that a community organizing space must maintain respect, openness, and trust in the ideas and situations of community members -- to promote an environment of equality that can more effectively pursue its community goals. Transparency of organization activities is also encouraged. Riecken Community Libraries dedicates part of their community space for a “transparency corner” where participants can inform themselves and evaluate the space on their own terms.

One participant suggested that people involved in a space are encouraged to invite at least five trusted family members and friends to join them in the projects. Librarians, too, are representatives of the institutions and can increase community involvement by getting to know and working to engage local people in the projects. Sometimes organizations collaborate with government agencies to provide additional opportunities for community members. Libraries in Romania partnered with the Payment and Intervention Agency in Agriculture (APIA) to provide an online agriculture subsidy application system to ultimately help farmers maintain financial stability. 

Another participant stressed the value in promoting local heritage and culture through library projects that involve multiple generations, languages, and ethnic groups; these projects can spread knowledge and strengthen solidarity with such groups around the globe. Organizations also open their services to many different populations within the community to be inclusive of otherwise marginalized community members. The Lebanese women’s coop Nasawiya hosts Girl Geek Camps and other events to familiarize young girls with the power of social media and bridge gaps within diverse environments. For more extensive outreach, public libraries can attend conferences where they can network with other libraries from the region to share and spread effective tactics and experiences. Finally, one participant explained the effectiveness in appealing to people face-to-face who many not have access to online resources. This connects people to the resources available to them while promoting the inclusivity and collaboration of the community organization space.

What are your approaches to sustainability?

Most participants agree that in order to maintain the sustainability and effectiveness of their physical space, community organizations must secure involvement and support from local government institutions, corporate sponsorship, and community members as volunteers. Some government officials and ministries that become familiarized with the work of the local organizations provide the physical spaces themselves, salaries for leaders of these organizations, and basic resources to sustain and expand the project. Corporate partners and government officials that are interested in the work and participants of the organization and have the funds to sustain the community work often fund projects or provide spaces as well. Some community spaces received grants that funded specific projects or refurbishment of the space. Local community members and volunteers propel many organizations’ promotion of the needs and initiatives of constituents who use and are affected by the organization.  

Because many groups are small and not very far-reaching, community organizers often have to take actions to attract attention and secure support from governments, corporate institutions, and community members. Social media has served as a sustainable mode of advocacy and expansion because it only requires an internet connection and knowledge of how to use social media sites. Participants cited the effectiveness of using sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and websites for their spaces to promote events, projects, and basic knowledge about community spaces. Libraries, librarians and library users of Spanish-speaking countries are collectively using the hashtag #biblioteca to promote libraries. The strength of social media lies in the ability to build the community of the space, attract future members, and involve supportive bodies that can provide additional support of the organization’s projects.

Some community spaces mentioned in the dialogue ask that members pay a monthly fee in return for membership benefits. Such fees may contribute to the costs of rent for the space, provided services, technology, and other resources to promote the space’s maintenance and objectives. However, it is important to balance costs of fees with affordability for community members.

Regardless of who funds the projects, many participants acknowledge the need and effectiveness of involving those providing funds to promote a long-lasting, sustainable relationship with the group that ultimately promotes the needs and motives of community members using the space.

Resources shared in this dialogue

Conversation Leaders

jessdheere's picture
Jessica Dheere
Social Media Exchange
TomTee's picture
Tom Tresser
The CivicLab
risingvoices's picture
Eddie Avila
Rising Voices
AltCity's picture
AltCity Beirut
halamakarem's picture
Hala Makarem
n community creativity
Enzo Abbagliati's picture
Enzo Abbagliati
kikomayorga's picture
Enrique Mayorga
romeo's picture
Romeo Rodríguez
The Riecken Community Libraries
mtotowajirani's picture
Simeon Oriko
jelenar's picture
Jelena Rajic
Public Library Radislav Nikcevic
matt.vanderwerff's picture
Matt Vanderwerff
Beyond Access