One Economy (to rule them all?)

Last week I sat in on the "Seattle Digital Inclusion Summit," a day-long meeting convened by the national nonprofit organization One Economy, along with officials from Seattle's Community Technology program.

I didn't know much about One Economy – I was vaguely aware of their involvement in a Seattle youth program called Puget Sound Off – so I was interested to find out more by attending part of the event. Their presentation and materials were very slick – enough so that they seemed more "localized" than truly local. Few local groups that work on community media/tech empowerment had heard of them previously, for example, including Reel Grrls, whose work was being showcased at the summit – so I was curious.

One Economy's basic goals are inspiring – they help bring broadband Internet connectivity to low-income residences, and help provide low-income communities with computer training and digital literacy, and train young people from those communities with technology skills. The Puget Sound Off program is the local iteration of a national "digital connectors" program which trains up low-income young people on technology and tech literacy skills.

The group runs a friendly web information portal, TheBeehive.org, which provides practical info on finances, tax filing, healthcare, housing, resume writing and job seeking. They have also launched a slick web video site called the Public Internet Channel, which at the moment is featuring a number of short documentaries and a feature series featuring Robert Townsend and other Hollywood notables.

During his discussion of this website at the Seattle summit, One Economy President/CEO Rey Ramsey made a comment that rubbed me the wrong way. Contrasting the Hollywood-quality shows featured on pin.tv, with lower-budget community media productions, Rey said "I hope I don't offend anyone here, but there's a reason nobody watches public access."

This struck me as fairly tacky and a gratuitous attack on a media form which is, in many cities, the most diverse and accessible form of broadcast media there is. In Seattle, that is certainly the case with SCAN TV. Public access TV often provides a lifeline for local foreign-language communities; technology training and a sandbox for budding communicators; a rare soapbox for community concerns

One Economy's list of sponsors and partners is a veritable Who's Who of the nation's largest telecommunications corporations: AT&T, Comcast, Cisco, Microsoft, Time Warner, Yahoo and others are all on the list. These companies generally do not have a strong track record of supporting the kind of generative, community self-expression represented by public access. On the contrary, the cable channels in particular go to great lengths to defund, downgrade and marginalize community television channels across the country.

These connections, and Ramsey's offhand diss of public access, make me a bit worried about One Economy and its potential role in (a) displacing support for more locally-based technology/media projects, and (b) influencing public policy against community-based work in the same areas.

UPDATE: As it happened, the week after the Digital Inclusion Summit in Seattle, I got to meet and spend time with Nicol Turner-Lee, One America's Senior VP for External Affairs (we were both participating in a Rockwood Institute leadership training in Colorado Springs). She told me a little more about One Economy's programs around the country and gave examples of where the organization was collaborating with local nonprofit leaders.

Overall, I am left with the current impression that One Economy is doing great work in cities around the country, but that their model of organizing seems to be based on a one-size-fits-all strategy rather than an approach that engages, highlights and supports community-centered grassroots organizing. However, there is evidently a fair amount of internal diversity among One Economy's principal staff, including folks with primary experience with on-the-ground organizing.

By the way, here are a few points I might have made in response to Rey if he had lingered on the topic of public access:

  • It's difficult to know how someone could establish that "nobody watches public access" since ratings companies like Nielsen don't bother to track public access viewership. Whenever the public is surveyed about local public access, they say that they value it highly.
  • Cable companies marginalize community channels by refusing to include program descriptions as part of their onscreen program menus.
  • In cities with separate government, educational, and public access channels, public access is often treated as the red-headed stepchild, and given substantially less support than the other channels.
  • Cable companies (such as the ones that fund One Economy) are waging an active battle to squeeze public access TV out of existence, by cutting off their funding streams, and most recently by degrading the signal quality and accessibility, as in AT&T's "F-U-Verse" system.
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey