A Room of One’s Own
The Community Learning Network at St. Christopher House
The challenge was both simple and grand: give staff, volunteers and patrons of the downtown community center a cyber-space they could actually use -- something socially relevant, and genuinely useful to their work and daily lives.
Unlike many conventional sites, that operate as bulletin board in an empty corridor, St. Chris' site is a living environment, made up of personal rooms, libraries, and private spaces - a community that aims to share information, ideas and even dreams.
Easy to navigate, and filled with information, the SCH Community Learning Network (CLN) site is a reminder of the very human power that fuels any new technology. Randall, the project's team leader, takes pleasure explaining the site's simplicity and utility. "Let's say I am currently studying for my small engine mechanic's license," explains Terada. "I can register with the St. Chris/ CLN site, and make a short tutorial that reflects my knowledge of small engines. The very process of making the tutorial helps re-enforce my learning for the exam, expands my digital skills."
Although the site is just in its infancy, there's already much activity springing up from between the lines of code. Members of the community can find out about topics as diverse as RRSPs to an after school music program with only a few clicks of the mouse. Members of St. Chris' broad community are all invited to share information and inspiration by way of the site, something volunteer coordinator Jennifer W. has already begun. "Our room is the Volunteer Program and hosts all our information about volunteering at St. Chris," explains Jennifer. "It is aimed at potential volunteers who want to get more information about the program and now they can actually get that information and apply online."
Although the idea of carving out a personal niche in cyberspace is often viewed as the privilege of techies, that's no longer the case. The tools used to create websites have grown user friendly and the team behind the CLN has laboured to make the experience as painless - and even as pleasant - as possible .
"The CLN combats that perception [of the net as a cold and bewildering place] by creating a place for people to help others and hence make technology easier to approach, " explains Ferdinand, a youth program worker. "The Bang The Drum program provides a place for all computer users to improve their computers skills. The most appealing part of the site is that users have the chance to create their web pages the way they like and support it themselves." The site also has public and private options - should someone wish keep the door to his or her private room tightly shut - that's also welcome.
The public and private options effectively allow people to establish a presence on the Internet in an immediate way. As soon as they register on the site they are granted access to a host of self-publishing tools, which they can mount content quickly and easily.
Users can then polish their tech skills in their private rooms. Should they create content they wish to share with the community, they can request that it be moved to a public area. Although some may fear that such ad inclusive site might breed inappropriate content, Randall is quick to explain that the site's inclusive policy isn't a cart blanche for users.
"The site has a comprehensive permissions system that controls what content gets the final go-ahead and is posted to the site. These permissions effectively make it impossible for unauthorized content from making it to the live site, reassures Randall. Even with this necessary editorial controls, the site remains a product of its environment and participation is paramount.
"Being a part of the initial stages of community web site development made me interested in this program," says Lisa A., " a social work student placement from George Brown College. "I felt that I had a purpose and my input was important."
The participatory nature of the site is more than just a feature - it's a creed. "From a top down perspective, many parts of the world itself have totally integrated computer-based knowledge into the social, economic and cultural dimensions of our lives," explains Rick E. "Not understanding the tools may lead to a new form of isolation and marginalization in the future.
From a bottom up perspective, the CLN is a very democratic space that can help people exercise their sense of "engaged citizenship." In a city as diverse as Toronto, those engaged citizens come in all shapes, sizes, ages and colour."
Many people that will participate in the site are new immigrants or people who live in the community who need to feel empowered in their community," explains Joanna P., a volunteer student from York's education program. In the end, the site reflects the community it grew from, and will flourish when tended by the community itself. "Individual creativity and talents will allow the site to expand and exemplify the diversity in the community," adds Joanna. "By allowing for individuals to become a part of the website itself, by adding their own extension to it, the site allows an individual to feel part of something larger."
Buffy Childerhose Volunteer e-journalist at large.