Blog Post

Access + Digital Literacy Is The New Civil Rights - Part 1

By now many of you have viewed my presentation I gave during the residency portion of my HASTAC Distinguished Scholar at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center. It was here that I made what some may consider a bold statement access + digital literacy is the new civil rights. Perhaps you are thinking what qualifies her to make this type of declaration? Doesn't she know her history? Doesn't she know the sacrifices that civil rights pioneers made? So, I think it is important that I begin this series by introducing myself by sharing a bit about my life's fifteen year journey that has brought me to the point of this statement and how it has led me to craft the Access + Digital Literacy Project.

I am Dr. Allison Clark, a Research Scientist at the University Illinois Urbana Champaign and HASTACs first Distinguished Scholar in Residence. I was fortunate to spend a portion of my time at the John Hope Franklin Center, the second half continues virtually. For the past 15 years I have worked in the area of digital literacy, access and inclusion.
It feels as if technology chose me and not I it. Yet, once it found me, I was launched like a rocket into the field of Information and Communication Technologies. My relationship with computers went from simple word processing in the mid to late 80's to being immersed in the world of high performance computing in the mid 90's.

I arrived at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC) in the winter of 1995 to participate in the Big Ten's Traveling Scholars Program. At the time I was a Mass Media Ph.D. candidate from Michigan State University. As a Big Ten Traveling Scholar I was able to work with a scholar, whose expertise was not available on my campus. At the time, my studies were not focused on any aspect of technology nor computing, I came to UIUC to augment my research by working with an expert in the area of popular culture, that person was Professor Lawrence Grossberg. However, I had left my research assistanceship behind and was in need of employment. I found myself as a temporary hire at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). NCSA had released Mosaic, the first popular graphical browser created for the World Wide Web in 1993. As we know, Mosaic revolutionized computing by bringing it to the masses. I would find that working at NCSA would revolutionize my approach to scholarship.

At the end of my temporary position, I became a permanent employee at NCSA. During my ten-year tenure at NCSA I was allowed to learn, expand and grow in the area of high performance computing. During my time at NCSA I worked with scientific and education communities to support collaborations with the NCSA and the National Computational Science Alliance (Alliance), to create an advanced computational infrastructure for the 21st century. My activities included designing, developing, leading and implementing projects and programs with educators and scientist to integrate high performance computing and communications technologies into higher education institutions and new communities.

As a result of my time at NCSA my research interests began to shift and change. I became interested in examining culturally specific approaches as an intervention strategy to aide in the creation of digital equity for underserved communities. I was ready to complete my graduate work and took a years leave of absence to examine to complete my graduate studies.

Upon my return to NCSA I became the Assistant Director of Digital Equity Initiatives. In this role I developed programs to create strategic relationships between the Alliance and members of underrepresented groups in the area of high performance computing. I developed a Digital Equity Initiatives program and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) program in an effort to create a comprehensive effort to involve African American, Hispanic, Native American, and female scientists and engineers in the National Computational Science Alliance and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications research. Members of these underrepresented groups were provided valuable hands-on experiences with Alliance and NCSA technologies and teams. This served to diversify Alliance teams to ensure that the new tools and applications developed in the National Science Foundations Partnership for Advanced Computing and Infrastructure program would benefit all people and not just a select group. The primary goal of Digital Equity Initiatives was to instill diversity in computing to assist in the equitable dissemination of new technologies fairly across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines.

At the time I began informally exploring the possible impact of computing on other underserved communities the arts and humanities. In 2005 I left NCSA to become the Co-Director of the Seedbed Initiative for Transdomain Creativity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was a natural transition as the Seedbed Initiatives credo was creativity is the shared foundation of art, science, the humanities, and technology. It is at this interface that I began to explore the feasibility of utilizing cyberinfrastructure to create self-sustained interdisciplinary communities of collaboration involving technologists, social scientist, artist and humanists from around the world. I soon discovered that the research commonality of these communities that are traditionally underserved by high performance computing and cyberinfrastructure are the same as those traditionally served by HPC and cyberinfrastructure data. Towards this end, I began to build upon the UIUC campus, national and international collaborations network by working in conjunction with artist and humanist to explore the creation of cyber environments to support a distributed model of intellect and knowledge discovery. To accomplish this I began working to establish relationships with key consortia in the humanities and arts such as the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), the United Kingdom's e-Science Arts and Humanities Board, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) for the Support of Research, the e-Science Core Program (EPSRC), the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN).

This deepened my commitment to investigating methodologies on how to bridge the participation gap in computing with creative and innovative approaches that are not typically embraced by the academy. I was devastated by what I saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The HASTAC InFormation Year became an outlet to channel this emotion and a way to demonstrate how advanced technology could be used in the service of social change. Each participating campus selected a theme for the yearlong InFormation programming and we chose InCommon. It was in September of 2006 that UIUC kicked off the HASTAC InFormation Year with Katrina: After the Storm Civic Engagement Through Arts Humanities and Technology. This three-day summit created a virtual community of artists, community members, technologists, activists, scientists, teachers, healthcare professionals, and social entrepreneurs from across the country to showcase, highlight and discuss creative approaches and solutions to critical social issues. The summit demonstrated how advanced technology could be utilized to inspire innovative approaches and solutions to critical social issues brought into focus by this devastating disaster.

I recently completed a research study in on Community Technology Centers in Chicago Illinois as part of a grant from the State of Illinois to the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. My time in Chicago CTCs coupled with a few personal experiences of my own and friends were eye opening for me. I realized that while I was doing good work, it was from the goggle view and I needed to be at the street level

Stay tuned.

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