DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA, March 14, 2009 – More than 120 people from across North Carolina convened last Saturday here for a “town hall”-style meeting, by InternetforEveryone.org, seeking to raise the profile about the importance of broadband in the lives of everyday citizens.
The take-home message of the March 7 meeting came from the keynote presentation by Rev. William Barber, a practicing pastor and president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP: “If we are not logged-in then we are locked-out.”
Barber put the town hall theme in context, offering a unique perspective that recalled 200 years of U.S. communication regulatory policy – or 100 more years than are commonly cited by policy analysts.
His message also applies to other community in America that are unserved or underserved by high-speed internet access.
The Durham meeting was the second in a series of such events across the country organized by InternetforEveryone.org, a non-profit coalition led by the advocacy organization Free Press. The first event was in Los Angeles in December.
InternetforEveryone.org, which is also supported by the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, Facebook, Google, Intuit, and a series of non-profit groups, seeks to inject the principles of “access,” “choice,” “openness” and “innovation” in the broadband policy debate.
Tim Karr, campaign director of Free Press, said that the next town hall meeting would be on May 14 in Washington, D.C. Karr said that events will continue in both urban and rural areas across the county afterwards – and that states interested in hosting such events should contact Internet for Everyone.
Free Press and InternetforEveryone used the North Carolina event to highlight the digital divide between connected and disconnected individuals. A February 2009 article by IndyWeek reporter Fiona Morgan, “Chatham’s information highway is made of dirt,” characterized broadband in a rural North Carolina county by analogizing the internet infrastructure to the nation’s system of highways, byways and minor roads. For Chatham, it was a case of “life in the slow lane.”
Highlights of the Durham Town Hall Meeting
Genuine public education. The initiative applied multi-media to facilitate social learning, including focus-group style polling, real-time feedback projected on the conference room wall, meaningful discussion of “uptake” and the economics of subscriber ship in rural areas; and about the utility and nature of universal service fund agreements.
The town hall meeting was inclusive. Citizens from many walks of life participated. This correspondent spoke with engineers, health care professionals, small business owners, retirees, homemakers, and professional event coordinators. People from urban as well as central and western rural communities participated.
Conference leaders “walked a mile” in the shoes of North Carolinians living on the “digital dirt road.” Active participants included the e-NC Authority leaders, faith-based and nationally organized civil rights leadership, all levels of government, including members of the North Carolina state legislature, the state Commission of Indian Affairs, a tribal housing representative, the Chatham County Commission, and the Durham City Council.
How the Town Hall Format Works
A wide range of community and government leaders actively engaged in the round-table format. Multi-stakeholder participation was crucial, as is effective community and grass-roots organizing, to making the forum work in each local setting.
- Internetforeveyone.org coordinates the pre-event groundwork, engaging organizations in a state/region prepared to support the initiative.
- Volunteer facilitators receive orientation before the event.
- Groups of 10 participants gather around circular tables. The setting promotes diverse opinion and sufficient intimacy for meaningful exchange.
- A cheery emcee/lead facilitator works the floor via wireless microphone. The role keeps the group on schedule and helps the tables coordinate process.
- A “Theme Team”, part of the logistics supplied, operates the real-time polling and multi-media projection system while “rolling-up” written comments for further group inputs.
- A well-equipped audio/video crew records the event for on demand web cast, local news coverage, and future presentations.
- Participants can opt-out of audio/video recording.
- The well scripted/published agenda alternates between speakers, video presentations, short readings, group discussion and summary notes, polling, and public review of real-time results.
- A Town Hall Meeting Guide and other written media, provided to each participant, introduced relevant topics in accessible language with relevant graphs traceable to 2007 data from the U.S. Census Bureau and from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
- Videotaped interviews of citizens in North Carolina parallel a written report “Five Miles on the Digital Dirt Road.” http://www.internetforeveryone.org/americaoffline/nc Together, they offer a combination of emotional appeals and topical orientation.
- Commercially sourced keypads and software for polling/feedback add to the “fun.” Responses remain anonymous.
- A process for collating written notes supplements wireless polling data. Results from the Los Angeles forum were not available, although Karr said that results from each session would be posted in the near future.