Friday, January 11, 2013

Hobnobbing at the State Capitol

Today I was invited by Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council of Rural Development to speak at a conference at the Vermont State House with Senator Patrick Leahy in regards to the announcement that Senator Leahy has secured 1.8 million dollars to expand internet capacity for Vermont businesses, farms, non-profits, and communities in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
This is an incredible opportunity for all towns in Vermont to have access to a robust digital infrastructure, like Front Porch Forum, an electronic bulletin board available for communities, so that they will be prepared for emergencies, just like Moretown was in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. As a librarian, I am heartened to see funds devoted to training internet interns to work in our robust public libraries to help our citizens access technologies vital to thriving in today's world.

What follows is a transcript of my statement. It was an incredible honor to speak with Senator Leahy and representatives from Governor Shumlin and Senator Sanders offices in our gorgeous State Capitol. As some of you may know, a fun fact about Senator Leahy (Senate President Pro-Tempore and third in the Presidential line of succession) is that he is a huge Batman fan and has cameos in three Batman movies. What you may not have known is that Batgirl was a librarian, for Gotham City Public Libraries. I should have worn a cape.

"Moretown is a typical rural Vermont town, defined by her extraordinary landscape of hills and valleys, and peopled with caring, resilient, and proud people. When the rains of TS Irene caused our rivers, The Mad River and the Winooski River to rise and inundate our neighborhoods, when our village had to be evacuated, when our post office, town office, and elementary school filled with flood waters, when our bridges were compromised and roads washed away, we had one thing going for us that some other towns did not – a digital infrastructure and a citizenry who knew how to use digital tools to communicate, to organize, and ultimately, to continue our long-term recovery.

Moretown was the recipient of round two e-Vermont funding that established, among other things, Front Porch Forum, a robust digital network for our residents, digital workshops and training for our residents, computers and wifi access for our town library, and an invaluable partnership with Digital Wish, providing each of our 4th, 5th, and 6th graders and their teachers with netbooks and training for how to learn and teach with them.

Without our own local news station, newspaper, or radio station, typical of so many rural Vermont towns, a platform such as Front Porch Forum proved to be vital when we needed it the most. Moretown only had Front Porch Forum for a few months and it was slowly growing. Town officials were embracing it and posting agendas for upcoming select board meetings, some neighbors told of yard sales and extra eggs from their hens to give away, but many weren't sure of why we had it, or what its purpose was.

That changed in the days and weeks immediately following Tropical Storm Irene.

Within days, interest in Front Porch Forum exploded. Dozens and dozens of residents signed onto FPF as it became the number one way that town officials and neighbors communicated with one another. It became so important that minutes of our daily emergency response meetings posted onto FPF were printed and tacked to the Town Hall and other outlying areas of our town. Moreover, social media was taking off and assisting in helping Moretown’s recovery. Social media use of Twitter and Facebook, and especially the Vermont Response hashtag and the Mad River Valley Hurricane Recovery page were vital in spreading the word - our story - so that we got the support we needed to meet immediate needs, such as mucking out basements, saving family photographs, and coordinating places for families to live but to also coordinate communication with everyone from FEMA officials to neighbors cut off by washed out roads, as the days turned into weeks and into months.

Governor Shumlin asked of us yesterday, in his second Inaugural speech, think about how technology has changed our daily lives. I can’t imagine to think about how Moretown would have recovered from TS Irene without technology.

What we experienced in Moretown after Tropical Storm Irene was the grassroots organization and communication that have always made Vermont strong, enabled and enhanced by strong digital access and connection to high-speed Internet. A FEMA official said, in his 25 years of service with across the country, had never seen a community that had done so much by the time he showed up. We organized volunteers, supplies, and services for our students who started their first weeks of school under tents and on field trips, through our strong digital networks. We fed our volunteers and neighbors, distributed forms and endless paperwork, and gave our thanks and small reasons to celebrate not only face to face, but through our digital networks.

Access to digital tools and the training to know how to use them are no longer additional, or add-ons, to one’s education. They are essential. Our public libraries are in perfect positions to give support and training to our citizens as are our strong public schools are where we can educate students to be critical, collaborative, and communicative consumers of social and digital media, preparing them for an economy that desperately needs these skills.

At Moretown School, our students are learning how to become citizen journalists. They are learning how to post news updates with our school’s Twitter handle. We have 5th and 6th graders creating their own websites. We have students who already have the skills that companies such as Burton Snowboards are looking for as they hire technology savvy, You-tube friendly, social media using employees. I have students that swept a state-widevideo game contest last spring, winning Xboxes and games. All three winning teams from Moretown School were made up of girls.

We are closing the digital divide, not just across income levels, not just across rural and urban communities, but also between boys and girls. Our students are reaping the benefits of being connected in this digital age we inhabit. Whether they Skype with local business owners, such as the Red Hen Bakery or Grow Compost, to ask them about business plans, or receive a tweet back from an author on Twitter, or Skype with Senator Leahy in his office on Capitol Hill, my students – our students - hear something very powerful. You matter. And when they know that they matter, what they think, what they say, and what they do starts to matter to them, too.

Communication. Community. Resiliency. Vermont has those attributes in spades. Strong digital networks will only enhance, engage, and build upon these values, ensuring that we are prepared to weather storms, support each other in times of need, equip our students and citizens with access to digital technologies that will shape their lives for the better, and bounce back even stronger than ever."