Participation in society helps people belong

Participatory culture creates a sense of belonging

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In 2005, I started a new job working as the public geek at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, a public library in the Washington D.C. area. My main duty is helping youth and adults use the 28 public Linux stations. I started the job soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and one day found myself welcoming several Katrina refugees who had relocated to Takoma Park.

When you've lost your housing, your job and your city the world can seem pretty scary. It was up to me to give these Katrina refugees a new sense of belonging, place and purpose. I chatted with a nice woman who had logged onto our public computers. I learned she grew up in Guyana and moved to New Orleans as an adult. So I silently asked myself, How can I help this person feel a new sense of purpose and belonging in the world? I went straight to Wikipedia and searched for the country of Guyana.

I told the woman, "Here is the Wikipedia page for Guyana. Let's read it over. There's something missing that you can add." She was surprised that this entry could be edited, and easily. And was happy to hear that something she knew could add some value. She was an expert on Guyana, after all having grown up there.

I noticed that the entry only listed the majority languages in Guyana; surely there were some minority languages that were left out? So I asked her, "Are there any native languages in Guyana that are not described here?" She perked up and said, "Yes, yes there are. We call them aboriginal languages. There is Arawak, Wai Wai, Carib and several others."

"Ok, let's add that to the entry," I said. And so we did. 

I let her do the typing so that she could have a tactile sense of adding to this book of knowledge. I walked back to my desk giving her some personal space to do her work, because all human beings need personal space. When she was finished writing, I looked it over, gave her a quick nod of approval and she clicked save. We both smiled when her revisions showed up beautifully on the Wikipedia page.

That was in 2005. Today, I ask refugees to tell me a story from their life and record it using a combination of LibreOffice Impress (also called LibreOffice Presentation) and GTKRecordMyDesktop. Here is an example of one of my finished narrated stories using these tools. I might also ask them for a photo to scan and create a digital story of their narration—using the free web service, I marry the graphics and audio narration to create a YouTube video.

Participatory culture creates a sense of participation and a sense of belonging. I have never fled a city as a refugee, but if I ever did, I would hope my new home would help me quickly gain a sense of belonging and purpose. The open source way does that. It takes a refugee and makes them a valued contributor. 

That's what all human beings need. Human beings need to be needed. Bless Jimmy Wales and the others who got Wikipedia off the ground. Using the open source way they have made people from all walks of life feel needed. It's up to you and I to extend this further in whatever ways we can. It's not difficult to do when you set your compass bearing in the right direction. Consider it a puzzle or a challenge. You'll get a kick from figuring out the challenge when you encounter it.

Put on your creativity hat. The open source way is calling you. Are you up to the challenge?

About the author

Phil Shapiro - Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations. Between 2007 and 2012, he blogged for PC World magazine on various technology topics and currently writes for Ars Technica, MAKE magazine, FOSS Force, TechSoup for Libraries, and Visit him at his...