Vision of a Neighborhood Office

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Into the time machine we go for an article about the "future" written in 1981...

In our world of the 21st century, have we achieved this vision yet????

(Please comment in the "discussion" page for this article...)

Vision of a Neighborhood Office in 1985

by Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz in 1981

Janice Robertson felt the mugginess already, even at 9 a.m., and wished the August heat wave would pass. As she watered the plants and drew water for her “solar” tea pot in the Neighbors Together office, a discouraged looking woman walked in. “Hello, can I help you?” asked Janice. “Buenos dias,” responded the woman, “Habla usted espanol?”

“Si,” said Janice, who then invited the woman to sit down and explain her problem. The woman was new to the area and was having terrible difficulty finding housing for herself and her three young children. She also needed a job. After a long conversation about the woman's needs, talents, and resources, Janice asked her to relax for a few moments while she checked her housing and employment files.

Janice walked over to the microcomputer in the corner and put in the community information disk. After a quick search, she found five apartments which seemed suitable, including one offered by a Hispanic landlady just yesterday. She also consulted the employment file and found three possibilities. As these were printing out, she asked the woman about her preferences for food and neighborhood services so she could enter keywords into the electronic welcome wagon program. Soon the computer printed out a series of ads and coupons for local shops where Spanish was spoken. The woman was confused about the machine clattering in the background, but after Janice showed her the results and explained them, she smiled broadly and said several times, “Muchas gracias, muchas gracias!” As the woman left, she seemed to walk taller and step more lightly.

Janice smiled to herself. The microcomputer really was the “superorganizer” as the staff jokingly called it. By keeping the neighborhood office files and handling routine work like mailing lists, newsletters, reports, letters, meeting minutes, lists of volunteers, and more, it freed up time for Janice and other staff members to get out into the community or be in the office to work with people and their problems, rather than paperwork. Later on that afternoon, some folks from the Clinton neighborhood would be coming over to enter and print out their newsletter, as well as a current mailing list. And to think that people used to have parties to hand address newsletters! Now they can get together for other reasons. Although a few neighborhoods used small computers as early as 1976, it would have seemed strange to rely on a microcomputer in a neighborhood office five years ago, in 1980. Now it was a necessary tool.

The microcomputer was also essential for the skill banks and the barter exchanges which developed during the 1981-1982 mini-depression. Even now with a healthier economic climate, neighbors continue to barter and trade skills, services, information, and goods. Energy audits with computer support were more popular in the early '80s before mandatory weatherization took effect, but even now the computer helps analyze potential energy loss from homes on request, usually when homes are bought and sold. And the 1985 interim census data for neighborhoods is going to be formatted for neighborhood “micros” in compliance with the Neighborhood Act of 1984 which will be of tremendous help to Neighbors Together in preparing their yearly plans and budgets.

By now, several other staff members had arrived in the office and the usual bustle began picking up, with phones ringing and people going in and out. Janice took this opportunity to use the microcomputer to call up the city teleconferencing system and join in the ongoing neighborhood coalition meeting. Since she checked last, there were new comments and responses entered on the city-wide Office of Neighborhoods budget, the topic on neighborhood balloting and the cable TV system, minutes from yesterday's Planning Commission hearing, and discussions of how to spend funds from tax revenues returned to the neighborhoods. As she studied the new material and began thinking about her responses, Janice remembered all the time she used to spend going to meetings. Now she could participate in many more electronic meetings and task group activities from the office at times of her own choosing and meet with others in person only when it was important for social reasons or to resolve difficult interpersonal problems.

But before she could get to entering her thoughts and ideas into the teleconferencing system on these matters, Janice needed to do some work on the joint proposal she and a friend from the Community Coalition were writing for a pilot project involving day care centers in city government offices for employees' children. As usual, the government was lagging behind the private sector where this had been done on a broad scale for several years. Again, Janice used the microcomputer and city teleconferencing system to enter her draft section on implementation objectives and timeline. Her material would be waiting for her Community Coalition friend to read whenever it was convenient. After they finished their drafts and did some text editing to correct spelling and format the budget and other tables, they would print out the proposal ready for duplication. How nice to have the machine to print out the final draft with no massive retyping!

Janice still had some time before meeting some other staff members for a late lunch and their daily afternoon walk around the neighborhood. She used the “micro” to connect to the national Neighborhood Information Sharing Exchange (NISE) to see what experiences other community organizations had had with in-house day care. Looking through the NISE database, which was established in 1981, she found no information about day care centers in government offices, so she raised an inquiry in the community inquiry-response network. After stating her question briefly in five lines, she also composed a page of background information to expand the question. She knew that the brief question would be sent to the hundreds of community-based groups in the network and only those with interest in the topic or information to share would get the background material. She would check again in several days to see what responses had been entered to her question. Sharing problems and solutions like this between communities on a regional and national basis started in 1979 with a small project connecting rapid growth communities. As inquiries are answered, all the responses are shared with all those interested. After sharing information among people in this way, it is then condensed and entered into the NISE database.

Janice logged off the system and turned off the machine. She had had a very productive morning, thanks to their electronic “superorganizer”. Time for lunch. It was still hot and muggy, and she would be glad to see the late afternoon thunderstorms that were forecast. She walked out the door with the other staff members and they began sharing their mornings' experiences.