Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Midwives of Nonprofit Technology

I've been mulling this one over for several days, not sure what to do with it. But I need to do SOMETHING.

It was the morning of New Year's Eve. Philip and I were reading in bed. NPR was on in the background. We were only half listening. It was "Talk of the Nation."

Then Philip recognized it was Andy Carvin speaking (about 12 minutes in). Ah, what's he up to these days? (We'd worked together at Benton and traveled in nonprofit/community technology circles back in the '90s.)

So I put down my book (or my laptop, most likely) and listened. Ah, he's talking about another "old timer" of nonprofit/community technology-- Steve Snow! I wonder how Steve's doing? Haven't seen him in years. Then I hear Andy use the "was" verb. Huh? And to make matters worse, he mentions another Steve in the past tense-- Steve Cisler, librarian and very active in Apple's early forays into putting computers into libraries. All this long before the Web came along in the mid-late 90s.

These two men were major contributors to birthing the "nonprofit technology" movement. And we lost them both in 2008. Cisler lost a battle with cancer back in May; Snow gone from a heart attack right after Christmas. I found myself weeping, but in anger.

What makes me mad? So few people bouncing around the current online aether even know about these and other fine folks out there who laid the groundwork of what has become a very vibrant online environment, rich with advocacy and social change and human services and culture-- back in the day when it was NOT ALLOWED TO SELL THINGS ON THE INTERNET! (People under a certain age, but not much younger than me, look at me like I'm out of my mind when I tell them that such a time existed.)

I was but one of the many "midwives" of nonprofit technology, many of whom have faded away or moved on to other ventures (as I did), some (I refrain from using the phrase "die-hards" given the recent deaths) who continue the NP tech work like the Energizer bunny. (Beth Kanter comes to mind.)

So I find myself on something of a desperate journey to track down the "midwives of nonprofit technology" (of whatever gender) -- to make sure they know how important they are, what a critical role they played, no matter what they may be doing or not doing now. (I just learned that one such midwife is recovering from her second bout of breast cancer!)

Maybe it's because I'm about to turn 50, an age I can't quite fathom. Just like I can't quite fathom that Steve and Steve are gone from this plain.

Who was your midwife? Or your organization's? Have you seen or talked to them lately? Have you told them the impact they had on your life? on your community? Do they know? Go find them. Tell them. Before they're gone.

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Anonymous said...

Oh, come on Jillaine, I'm 52 and 50's are the new 20!

Thanks for the shoutout.

Ironically, you were one of my midwifes so to speak in early 1990's pre-web working with nonprofits and online internet networks.

David Geilhufe said...

There were so many midwives... Steve Ronan of CTCNet fame just popped up on Facebook... I sense a Steve theme going on.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Cisler right before he died and it definitely reminded me that there are plenty of people out there that are plugging away in obscurity, but having a huge impact on the people around him.

I'm not yet 40, but the number of people that have shaped my career is amazing to me... and they are all so amazing, I try to reach out every few years just to say hi.

I certainly share the anger... young wipper snappers these days just totally lack context... the trajectory of so many great technology ideas (NTEN, NPower, etc.) in lost in time and no longer even on the internet. When is the last time anyone read the NSNT (NAtional Strategy for Nonprofit Technology).

And then I take a deep breath and remember that this is pretty much the story of generations shifting. Even if the details of the past get lost, the broad strokes inform the future.

Jillaine Smith said...

Thanks, David. Nicely said. I would imagine that if Snow and Cisler were here, they would convey similar sentiments as you do in your final paragraph.

deb said...

Hey Jillaine--weren't we midwives together?

The IT Resource Center (now called Lumity) is the oldest surviving organization of its kind.

Midwife is an interesting term because I believe you and I were among the few females at the earliest pre-NTEN meetings.

It's nice to see so many activist women now.

After 22 years at the ITRC (I can't quite give up the old name), I am consulting on general nonprofit topics and keeping my hand in with a little work relating to community technology centers and access to broadband.
Deborah Strauss

Marshall Mayer said...


Thanks for the remembrances. Steve Johnson was one of the first "Steves" in this space, and also one of the first to duck out. I met with him a few years ago in one of those great beer bars in downtown Portland, and we laughed our asses off. I miss him, but I'm sure he's still out there...


P.S. Please email me at marshall at livemodern dot com. I have a question about some good LTE tools that Green Media Toolshed used to provide.

Put said...

Jayne Cravens, who is herself a great example of the early advocates and explorers, has posted a brief essay on these early days and the pioneers who explored the possibilities of these new capabilities. See it at Coyote Communications (her site).