Embedded in a neighborhood

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau features a depth of coverage of many communities and issues that isn’t always accessible. Over the summer I spoke with Gordon Walek and Patrick Barry about the site. Our conversation quickly shifted from online news to the way reporting can be used in service to communities and organizations working with communities and some of the challenges posed by this model.

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau looks like an elegant aggregation of news from local news organizations, neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations – which it is. But it’s just one face of the relationship between reporting and community development for neighborhoods throughout the city.

The idea for the site came from the overwhelming amount of information available on the web, said Patrick Barry, a contractor with Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, or LISC/Chicago, the organization that sponsors the site. The organization brings together financial and technical resources to support community-building groups to develop infrastructure, housing, employment and other assets in Chicago neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood News Bureau site aggregates news from organizations supported by LISC/Chicago, ones reporting on neighborhoods where LISC/Chicago sponsors programs, and news outlets covering issues related to community development. Barry said he had used aggregator sites that help collect and filter online news, but there were no such sites that focused on news for low-and-moderate-income communities.

Topics in Chicago's News Ecosystem
The need for aggregation. A recently released study of Chicago's local news ecosystem found that community development was the second most covered topic by local online news sites. However, many of these sites may be small, new or otherwise unknown to a broad audience.

“Our thrust is to identify interesting stories in the neighborhoods where we work,” Gordon Walek said.

Walek is the communications manager at LISC/Chicago and manages the neighborhood news aggregator. He said the kind of urban affairs coverage collected by the site has been largely abandoned by the city’s newspapers. Even in the heydey of daily newspapers, Walek said, many of the communities and issues covered in stories aggregated by the site lacked coverage.

Barry said the site’s audience was interested in the process or neighborhood development and issues affecting developing neighborhoods like affordable housing or violence and includes professors of community development and urban studies, reporters, developers and bankers. Former community residents can also use the site to stay informed about their old neighborhood, he said.

While the site continues to suck in news feeds from a range of Chicago sites, further development of the Neighborhood News Bureau site has been limited by a lack of funds, Barry said. But the news site is just one part of LISC/Chicago’s ongoing use of reporting in the community development process.

Walek said LISC/Chicago’s involvement in reporting came out of a need to make the development process transparent to the communities where development projects were happening. The development corporation hired journalists to report on community meetings about development projects. Rather than simply take minutes of the meetings, Walek said, the journalists were tasked with writing stories about the implementation of development plans and how the plans were received by community members.

“Straight journalism can be a very powerful tool to inform people about community development,” Barry said.

Reporters covering neighborhood development plans for LISC/Chicago are known as “scribes.” Barry, the organization’s first scribe, said the name implies a role as a servant to the community rather than being independent from the community. Barry said that while a traditional reporter might attend a community meeting about development plans in search of a good story, a scribe’s goal is to reflect the issues that were surfaced at the meetings in a way that is useful to community residents in understanding what was happening or planned to happen. Scribes were also tasked with contributing to quality of life reports that helped drive neighborhood development projects. Because the scribes listened closely to voices from the neighborhood, “writing as an insider using the voice of a neighborhood,” Barry said, neighborhood residents felt ownership of the development plans.

In order to write with the voice of the neighborhood, scribes, who mostly live outside of the neighborhoods they report on, had to rethink their impression of the neighborhoods and the language they used to write about those places, Barry said. While a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood may be of a “bombed-out ghetto,” Barry said, the reporter had to quickly learn that residents didn’t appreciate that description. More importantly, it wasn’t how they thought of their neighborhood. LISC/Chicago reporters, he said, have learned a lot from neighborhood residents about how to talk about places.

Barry said working to document development projects with LISC/Chicago has given many reporters a deeper perspective of neighborhood dynamics than when they covered neighborhood issues for traditional media. Traditional reporting only allows journalists to perceive a neighborhood through controlled interactions such as a public meeting or a scheduled interview with a key stakeholder, Barry said. Spending more time in the community allows journalists working for LISC/Chicago to see a more nuanced and often more difficult view of community decision making. Barry said being embedded in the community gives reporters access to the egos or duplicity of neighborhood figures, internal squabbling, friction over gentrification and ethnic tensions. Often, Walek said, scribes are able to see such aspects of the neighborhood in a way that managers of programs operating in the neighborhoods can’t.

While LISC/Chicago scribes have a long-term relationship with neighborhoods, sometimes spanning eight years, and get a comprehensive view of the communities, they must balance their access to unflattering aspects of the neighborhood with the needs of the community. Scribes may write about internal conflict in the neighborhood, Barry said, but only if it’s constructive.

Scribes must also balance covering problems facing the neighborhood while recognizing that crime reports dominate traditional media coverage in some areas such as Englewood or North Lawndale where LISC/Chicago supports programs. Walek said crime is an “800 pound gorilla” when reporting on these communities because it is present, but the organization wants to offer a more diverse view of the neighborhood. Walek said reporters for his organization might cover community events like street fairs, neighborhood sports programs or programs that integrate teen health and education needs.

A video slideshow about the “B-Ball on the Block” sports program shows how LISC/Chicago’s reports acknowledge problems like violence and segregation, but ultimately focus on community-based responses. Walek said reports forefront “innovative solutions to what seems like an insurmountable problem.”

“There’s a lot of human capacity in these neighborhoods,” Barry said.

While stories tend to have a positive focus and highlight LISC/Chicago-supported programs or partners, they also give considerable space and agency to neighborhood residents or neighborhood dynamics that aren’t usually addressed in the media, such as conflict between Latino and African-American communities in Humboldt Park, the subject of a recent story. The focus on supported programs is in part to offer program funders a way to evaluate programs in a way that is more engaging than a traditional report, Walek said. Stories, photographs and multimedia can sometimes better record the impact of a program’s work and how it was received by the community.

Photographs are also important for giving readers outside of profiled communities a more nuanced idea of the neighborhoods that emphasizes similarities between diverse communities, Barry said. He cited how photos of well-maintained houses in Little Village might challenge outside perceptions of the neighborhood.

Over time, Walek said, LISC/Chicago reporting has created an unintentional record of how some neighborhoods have evolved. However, like many new models for reporting, LISC/Chicago is dependent on foundations to pay journalists, Walek said, and he’s not sure how reporting will get funded after foundation money runs out.

Organizing in schools for the census

Community organizers in the northeast of Chicago are partnering with school communities to make sure that their neighborhoods are accurately counted in the 2010 census.

When census forms are sent out at the beginning of March, the returned forms may not record everyone living in communities in northeast neighborhoods of Chicago, which may impact funding for those communities.

Hina Mahmood, a community organizer with Organization of the Northeast, an organization of congregations, schools, nonprofits, and businesses, that engages people in issues affecting residents in northeast Chicago  neighborhoods, said the 2000 census return rate for Rogers Park was only 53 percent.

A 2001 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, commissioned by the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, showed that 2000 census undercounts resulted in lost federal funds for communities.  The report, which looked at the effects of census undercounts on funding from eight major programs from 2002 to 2012, estimated that Cook County would lose over $192 million in funding.

Housing instability is one factor that contributes to undercounting in northeast Chicago, Mahmood said.  She said people living in homeless shelters may not be counted in the census or count themselves in another neighborhood, such as the one where they grew up.

Mahmood also explained that as affordable housing disappears, some families double or triple up in a housing situation.  Fearing eviction for over-occupancy, the residents may only fill out the census form for one family, Mahmood said.

Mahmood said there is a “fear factor” for many people that keeps them from participating in the census.  Undocumented immigrants are particularly reluctant to provide census information.  Mahmood said undocumented immigrants may think, “’If I report myself, ICE or Homeland Security will come out to get me.”  But she stressed that there were safeguards in place that restrict the census bureau from sharing information with other government institutions.

Funding for public schools, libraries, transit, health care, and job development programs were all tied to census numbers, Mahmood said, adding that under-counting a community meant “missing out on really important and necessary resources.”

Organization of the Northeast facilitators such as Mahmood are trying to work with parents in a number of local schools, including Gale, Boone, and Clinton, to encourage participation in the census.  Mahmood said that organizers arrange presentations to parents by census workers to describe the census process and explain what happens when a community isn’t accurately counted.

Mahmood also saw engaging the community in the census as an opportunity to open up dialog and build leadership around other community issues.  “Who knows what other conversations will come up,” Mahmood said.

Digital Barn Raising

I was recently asked to advise on the 2009 Allied Media Conference’s How-To Track (you can check the 2008 track out here) and I’m trying to think how to approach it.  Watching teachers recently and thinking about the community organizing that’s happening here in Bloomington, a lot of the skills I want to know how-to do aren’t neccessarily technical.  Still, my goal for this year’s AMC is to help create a track that not only builds and strengthens community and coalitions around consuming and discussing media but in it’s actual production – from editing videos, to making beats, to loading Linux on a server, to hacking together a Drupal module.  These technical tasks are often done in solitude by a few individuals who have been delegated the task or who hold onto the skills and projects too tightly for more folks to be involved.  I’ve always felt excited and empowered by technology, not just in what it can do, but in using and manipulating it.

Comment here if you have anything you’d like to see in a session at the conference or if you know of folks doing awesome stuff with technology and media to further social justice goals.

Liveblogging from Linuxfest

Linuxfest 2008 web page.

In the first talk the presenter said that he felt the greatest contribution of Linux was that it was the great equalizer and that it was responsible for the generation of skilled IT workers in India, China, and other parts of the world that are emerging as producing a lot of technology and technology workers.

Building Community and Taking Linux to the Masses

Zonker talked about Linux and Community and offered this definition of community, saying that FOSS communities have a lot to learn from communities in general:

“Community is when a group of people come together for common cause, work together, and become something greater than the sum of the individuals.”

He pointed out that community building in FOSS is taking software and not just making it free of cost but letting people drive the creation of the technology.

Despite his employment with Novell, he said that people using Linux, even if it’s not OpenSUSE, is a win for him and he’s happy to point out other FOSS communities that are doing things right.

FOSS communities getting it right: Fedora, Mozilla.

FOSS communities getting it wrong: KDE (releasing beta release as 4.0, dropping support for KDE 3.5), OpenOffice (great product, not growing or good community, lots of head butting with Sun)

Community building

When do you start building a community? As soon as you start a project!  Do you want people to contribute to your code, or are you just pushing it to the world?

OpenSUSE is responsive to calls from Japan for more translations.  He feels like Europe has accepted English as a lingua franca for Linux distros, but Japan hasn’t.  Zonker pointed out that this is totally legitimate and noted the challenges of western Europeans/Americans trying to navigate signs in a non-latin alphabet.  He said signs leading to people being invovled in your community need to be clear to lots of different people.

Community building is in the long term (years ! months).  With FOSS projects it’s important to realize that the projects have to be responsible to the community and not just managers or developers.  From the Ubuntu community manager his job is “Making sure the community is getting screwed by Canonical and making sure that Canonical isn’t getting screwed by the community.”

How do you manage community?  Build up trust so that people (developers) want to contribute.

How do you meet the goals of both the community and managers?  E.g. different milestones for Novell and OpenSUSE community.

A community manager’s job is finding and connecting the body parts, but the community itself provides the spark to bring the project to life.

One of the challenges at Novell was to take people who had worked forever answering to managers and they had to learn how to also be responsive to people who weren’t their managers and didn’t even work for the company.

openSUSE build system allows people to build packages for distros that aren’t just openSUSE.

Cool stuff: Helping Hands sessions to help new users with using openSUSE.

Zonker came to being a community manager from being a technology journalist.  This experience has been helpful because it’s made him a good writer and communicator which is crucial for managing a community.  He misses the objectivity of being a journalist and not being perceived as being connected with a company.

Developing on Mac

Had a really nice slideshow.  Lots of big icons.  As with Zonker, the slides were really sparse with most of the details being filled in with the talk.

Presenter defined the fundamental concept of Unix as:

$ ls | wc

“Little bits of functionality that you can link together in interesting ways”

Quartz composer tool is analogous to the pipe.  Patches link together graphic effects.  All the animations on the Mac are built this way. 

This Japanese artist uses Quartz composer in cool ways to make cool works (and he gives you the source).

This stuff is so cool.  The downside is that you have to be able to afford mac hardware and the OS.  I think the reason that people like Macs so much is because they’re fun to use.  Apparently all 6,7, and 8 graders in Maine get new Mac notebooks.  Kids found a way to cheat on a test, even with iChat disabled by creating ad-hoc wireless networks named things like ‘The answer to question 5 is D’.


There were two talks on virtualization.  The first was on enterprise virtualization and the second was on virtualization security.  Apparently, a lot of the big apps at IU like Oncourse, Onestart, and the IU home page are all running on virtual servers.  They did a cool demo where they moved a virtual machine from on physical host to another with no perceivable downtime.

One big advantage of a virtualization that I didn’t really think about was the fact that, by consolidating VMs on fewer physical machines, all the environmentals like electrical, cooling, cabling, space.

books on community informatics and radical mathematics teaching that I want to read


  • Researching with Communities: Grounded perspectives on engaging communities in research Edited by Andy Williamson and Ruth DeSouza
  • Networked neighbourhoods : the connected community in context / Patrick Purcell (ed.).
  • Community informatics : shaping computer-mediated social relations / edited by Leigh Keeble and Brian D.
  • Social and community informatics : humans on the Net / Gunilla Bradley.


  • Rethinking mathematics : teaching social justice by the numbers / edited by Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson.

Jail Resistence in Bloomington

Some folks have started organizing to plan resistance to plans to organize against a proposed “justice campus” in Bloomington that would include a new, larger jail (as the jail is notoriously overcrowded and there is a federal lawsuit about conditions in the jail), a juvenile “treatment” facility (as youth from Monroe County who are sentenced to one of these facilities have to be sent out of county), and court and administrative facilities (to make transport of inmates between the jail and the courts (and other services?) easier).  Ideologically, I am opposed to the expansion of the number of incarcerated people and a sad reality in most communities is that larger prisons and jails are quickly filled (either by sentencing or by the moving of inmates to take advantage of available space or recover costs), but there needs to be some remediation of the conditions at the existing jail for the inmates and the Federal lawsuit may require some kind of action in the end.

So, I don’t want to frame this issue solely in terms of supporting or opposing jail construction.  If I oppose the jail construction and lose on this and don’t manage to push for increased programming and services for people in the jail and the community at large or assurances that the capacity of the jail will not be used to import people from elsewhere, this is a failure.  Similarly, calls for increased support of social services, to end injustices that are connected with incarceration, and to change the court system or make other changes to incarcerate fewer people are not dependent on jail construction either way.  These things need to be part of the dialog and I think it will be a failure if focusing on jail construction as the sole issue means there isn’t space for talking about things.

My personal goals when it comes to this issue are:

  • Empower incarcerated people, their friends and family to have a central role in the dialog and policy shaping of the jail and criminal justice in Monroe County
  • Include the voice of youth in the dialog about juvenile justice facilities
  • Accurately depict the reasons that people are incarcerated in Monroe County and explode the cultural mythologies of crime and incarceration
  • Explore alternatives to incarceration in Monroe County and move towards expanding and implementing them
  • Address prejudices and stigma about crime, “criminals”, and incarceration
  • Connect issues of economic and racial privilege in Monroe County, support (or lack there of) for social services or grassroots community-based support, and development policies and paradigms with incarceration

Ideally, achieving these things would result in a decision to not expand the jail or build a juvenile facility.  However,  because I see these things as important, I wouldn’t see the defeat of the jail proposal on fiscal grounds (as is the position of many Republican county government officials/candidates) as a victory because it would be likely that there would community support or support from the county officials who rejected jail construction for the things I mentioned above.

community wireless vaporware

Update: Apparently Houston is going for it, planning on deploying 10 wifi ‘bubbles’ in low-income areas.  Link to Houston Chronicle article about the plan.

From the NYTimes (via the Community Informatics Researchers mailing list):

PHILADELPHIA — It was hailed as Internet for the masses when Philadelphia officials announced plans in 2005 to erect the largest municipal Wi-Fi grid in the country, stretching wireless access over 135 square miles with the hope of bringing free or low-cost service to all residents, especially the poor.

Municipal officials in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and 10 other major cities, as well as dozens of smaller towns, quickly said they would match Philadelphia’s plans.

But the excited momentum has sputtered to a standstill, tripped up by unrealistic ambitions and technological glitches. The conclusion that such ventures would not be profitable led to sudden withdrawals by service providers like EarthLink, the Internet company that had effectively cornered the market on the efforts by the larger cities.

Now, community organizations worry about their prospects for helping poor neighborhoods get online.

Link to NYT article Hopes for Wireless Cities Fade as Internet Providers Pull Out

california communities at the margin

I think that California always has had this iconic quality of Americanness, capturing the most extreme visions of both this country’s aspirations and its challenging realities.

Collapsed structure near the Salton Sea

This weekend, Greg rented a documentary called Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea about the Salton Sea, an area in California that, in the previous century, due to a strange set of ecological circumstances, saw both incredible development and growth and later, an equally magnificent collapse.  The landscape is now one of flooded and collapsed mobile homes and other structures and a small population of people, many of who moved there to escape conditions in larger California cities, or who moved to the area during the Sea’s boom and now find themselves without the economic resources to leave.

Today, I saw this video from the BBC via BoingBoing about tent cities inhabited by people who have lost their homes in the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Men Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Discussion @ MCPL Auditorium. 7-9p.

On behalf of Nu Alpha Alpha Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., I
would like to invite you to participate in our “Men Against Sexual Assault
and Domestic Violence.”  This program will be held at the Monroe County
Public Library’s Auditorium on Thursday November 15, 2007 from 7pm-9pm.
The program will be divided into three sections. First, a representative
from the Middle Way House of Bloomington Indiana will speak about sexual
assault/domestic violence.  Then, we will facilitate a dialogue on the
issues surrounding sexual assault/domestic violence. Last, there will be a
resource fair providing information about preventing sexual
assault/domestic violence and ways to support victims of sexual
assault/domestic violence.

Please join us for this important conversation!


Russell Hollis, Basileus
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.
Nu Alpha Alpha Chapter
P.O. Box 8542
Bloomington, IN  47407

media check for the week of 2007-08-19

I decided to go to the IU library to check out the book The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? (ISBN-13: 978-1-56898-678-4) and found a wealth of other interesting books in the HN80.N5 section on the 7th floor. I also checked out There Goes The Neighborhood (ISBN-10: 0-394-57936-4), a book about the politics of race and class in Chicago neighborhoods, and passed on Praciticing Community (ISBN-10: 0-292-73118-3), a book about similar dynamics, but in Cincinatti, though it also looked good.

I heard an interesting recording of a Michael Parenti talk on Alternative Radio on WFHB on Monday, 2007-08-20 that was kind of all over the place, but mostly about how identity politics are exploited to divide people who are marginalized by race, gender, or sexual orientation. He also suggested that the division of power in this country often finds people with very different ethnic, gender, sexual, or other cultural identities on the same side of that power divide.

I read this article by Dave Zirin, author of What’s My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the U.S., Welcome to the Terrordome, and other books about sports and politics. Zirin writes about the difficulties in sending copies of his books to a Texas death row inmate because

“It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

The offending content, according to the TXDOC, included quotations such as this from baseball great Jackie Robinson:

“I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults. But it was really getting to me. … For one wild and rage-crazed moment I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s “noble experiment.” … To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of [expletive] and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”

I use del.icio.us for managing my bookmarks. Often, I want to access my del.icio.us bookmarks through my browser instead of having to visit the del.icio.us site. The del.icio.us Bookmarks Firefox add-on lets me do just that.

Roy F. Baumeister’s talk, Is There Anything Good About Men? is really interesting. It talks about the different ways that culture have used men and women to achieve its ends. It also talks about how a fundamental difference between men and women is that men favor wider, shallower relationships and women prefer closer, more intimate relationships and how this has driven the different cultural realms that are inhabited disproportionally by men and women. At the base of this, claims Baumeister, is the evolutionary reality that far more women reproduce than men. The wider, shallower, relationships or more risk-taking activities favored by men, in general, facilitates the differentiation that will allow some men to reproduce.

On a somewhat related note, this is a program that my friend is working with. The program is trying to organize
Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs in DC and other communities. A friend who works with the Middleway House, a Bloomington shelter for women and children affected by rape and family violence says that young men who stay in the shelter really lack a community of other males to critically examine their ideas of identity and masculinity and to model ideas of gender or relationships that differ from the violence that they’ve experienced. These clubs seem like a rare example of something that might begin to provide this support/education. The clubs are described as:

Men of Strength (MOST) Club has provided young men in Washington, DC and California high schools and colleges with a safe and supportive haven to connect with male peers while exploring masculinity and male strength.

Exposing young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood, the MOST Club challenges members to define their own definition of masculinity and to translate their learning into community leadership, progressive action, and social change.


  • Provide young men with a safe, supportive space in which to connect with male peers through exploring notions of masculinity and male strength.
  • Promote an understanding of ways that traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault and other forms of men’s violence, perpetuates gender inequity, and compromises the health of men and women.
  • Expose young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood.
  • Build young men’s capacity to become peer leaders and allies with women in promoting gender equality and preventing men’s violence.

I have Debian Etch with KDE installed as my workstation at work, and I had a hard time figuring out how to make Iceweasel (Debian’s all-free software version of Firefox) the default browser instead of Konqueror.  Turns out it was as easy as

$ update-alternatives –config x-www-browser