Community and Volunteering

Thursday 05 March 2009 at 23:20

In recent months I have become deeply involved in the formulation of a new instructional program at Columbine. What I see with new eyes tonight is that a community is a different sort of organization. Businesses and governments depend on money like most living things depend on fresh water. A community depends on time and commitment. Volunteers are the engines of community.

Wednesday night four representatives of the programmatic visioning team met with other non-Spanish-speaking parents who either have kids at Columbine or might have kids there in the next few years. Our goal was to collect three lists from our constituents: a list of core values and a list of things we want in an elementary school and a list of things we hope our kids will remember at graduation. The meeting was quite successful and I'm pleased by those lists. But I'm especially happy that it was composed entirely of volunteers. It wasn't Government, or Business. It was a bunch of neighbors getting organized around our interest in education.

The most surprising part for me was witnessing community taking root. I felt like there was some striking sense of connection developing between us, though most of us were strangers and the connections are still tentative. That wasn't what I expected, and it may be the most valuable outcome of the evening. The experience has brought back some memories of other experience with community and tied those experiences together in this new insight.

While I was a student at the College of Architecture and Planning, the school was hiring a new instructor of computer design technology. During his interview, the man who was eventually hired, Mark Gross, asked me about the computer community at the school. To my knowledge at the time, I was it. After he was hired, he set about developing community. For my part of that effort I helped to organize a group of students to provide volunteer support for our new computer labs. There were many other ingredients, but a community grew and only a few years later we began to see some compelling application of computers in student projects and various student research projects grew in the Sundance Lab. Many students began to develop programming skills among other things.

When I graduated I asked Mark for suggestions about teaching myself LISP. He replied that, like human languages, it is very hard to learn a programming language without a community. If I were not in a LISP community, why bother learning LISP?

Another language that interested me at the time was perl. I knew it was a common tool for sysadmins. I occasionally found uses for MacPerl at my first job and became active in the online community of MacPerl users. That was my first exposure to online community and what would come to be known as open source software. I now make my living programming in perl with a strong LISP accent.

In a later job I learned to program in Java as part of a small team, but also became a Turbine committer. What is especially interesting about the Apache Software Foundation is their expressed focus on the community of software developers. Their mission and purpose is more about the community of developers than it is about their specific code. Although their code is important, what is most important is the community that supports the code base.

Through my volunteer work, I have earned a right to participate directly in the creation of a new vision for this school. Through my demonstrated commitment, I have earned the respect of my peers, and neighbors, staff and teachers at the school, and administrators at the school district. I'm not sharing this to brag, but to highlight these unexpected benefits of volunteering. When I set out on this path I wasn't expecting to find myself in a position of influence. I just wanted to help solve some problems, to create something of lasting value. Yet in the process, I find myself playing a leadership role in my neighborhood.

Anyone who has participated in an open source project will immediately recognize what I described in that last paragraph. At the Apache Software Foundation they call it meritocracy: those who actually do the work get promoted by their peers to have a direct influence over the code base. The Sundance Lab, MacPerl, and Turbine were my first sustained volunteer efforts and all three cases followed a similar pattern. I'm happy to report the same can also be true outside of code.

Open source, although something relatively new, has radically transformed the landscape of software development. In fact, the core software systems that make the Internet work are all open source: domain name servers, email servers, web servers, TCP/IP stacks and even complete operating systems. I hope that in a few years we will look back and see that a local community, like the one taking root around Columbine, can transform the landscape of public education and local government. I also hope to help my community learn to use some of the power tools enjoyed by open source developers for organizing even very complex community projects.