After leaving a message containing all my pertinent contact info, I get a call back from Mountain Area Information Network Director Wally Bowen. He has one question: "Why do you use AOL?"
I fumble through my lame explanation -- it came with my computer, and I've been too lazy to switch Internet service providers. But Bowen's point is clear: Keep your business local. He adds, "People don't understand that [MAIN's account holders] are where a lot of the funding for our programs comes from."
Unlike AOL's home page, MAIN's is all about Western North Carolina. "We're trying to provide a clearing-house of local news, information and resources," Bowen explains. That means offering links to local meetings, weather forecasts, newspapers, pollen counts, business info, classifieds, film and book reviews, and even cartoons.
"MAIN is a nonprofit network," continues Bowen. "Our goal is to power the Internet and use it to build community in WNC."
For Bowen and his staff, building community means reaching out to those who aren't necessarily tech nerds from the word go. "MAIN applied for a $20,000 grant from Rural Internet Access Authority [a state-funded organization put in place to help ensure that all areas of North Carolina have adequate access to evolving Internet technologies]. RIAA deals with digital-literacy issues," reveals Office Manager Tess Johnson. "Each county can apply for up to $20,000 to enhance digital literacy. MAIN applied on behalf of our area to help the Latino population."
As Johnson points out, the average North Carolina resident already struggles to keep up with computer technology -- especially people living in rural areas where Internet access may be harder to come by. Factor in a language barrier and the challenges multiply.
So, this past April, MAIN launched Carolinahoy.org, a Web site aimed at the local Latino population. Log onto the site and you're met with an array of information links -- all in Spanish. If you don't habla espanol, you begin to get a sense of what a Latino immigrant is faced with on a daily basis.
"The norm is that most Latino people watch Spanish-language TV," notes Carolinahoy Program Director Nora Ardila. "There are only two channels in this area, and those two channels focus on the news mainly in Mexico, or maybe big cities like New York. So, the people know nothing about what's happening in their own community."
Now, with Carolinahoy.org up and running, Latinos can log on and get local news and information, as well as leads to services. "The Web site also offers a schedule of classes in many locations throughout the county," Johnson explains. "For example, the Literacy Council works with many English-as-a-second-language clients. While the Web site may not generate all of the classes, it offers a centralized location to find that sort of information."
But what about folks who don't know how to navigate the Web?
Carolinahoy has an answer for that, too. "While the Web site is the central goal, we also offer classes to teach digital literacy," Johnson reveals. "Nora is headquartered in El Centro in Hendersonville, a coalition of agencies and nonprofits geared toward serving the Latino population." Besides the digital-literacy classes, she explains, "there is also the Mountain Microenterprise Fund, GED classes through the University of Tennessee, and other services all housed under one roof."
And for people in rural areas who can't get to a class, she continues, "There's self-guided, online study for free. For example, a person can learn how to do online banking, look for jobs, and get a green card."
Carolinahoy also offers media-literacy training, which helps students use the Internet to best advantage by learning to spot more credible Web sites and how to evaluate and integrate the information found online into their lives.
Since the launch of Carolinahoy.org, Ardila estimates that some 1,860 people have visited the site. Another 50 have attended her classes, which began in January. To get the word out, she explains, "I attend community meetings at El Centro, I attend church meetings, and I contact Latino businesses, especially the Mexican stores. Fliers help, but it's mostly word-of-mouth. I tell the Latino leaders, and they tell others."
Although Ardila is a native Spanish speaker, computer programming is her primary area of expertise. She was teaching computer classes at Blue Ridge Community College and helping the Hendersonville Community Center set up a computer lab when someone suggested she could get a much-needed monitor from MAIN. That's when she found out that Carolinahoy was in the works.
"At the college, I felt like I was helping the community," Ardila explains. "But with this project, I felt like I could take charge and really help meet the needs of the Latino population."
Nine years ago, Ardila herself immigrated to the U.S. (from Mexico). "The language barrier and culture shock affected me," she recalls, "but I had family to guide me. Now there is more of a Latino community. When I first arrived, there were very few Latinos. It was difficult to find someone to talk to, so it was definitely a priority to learn English."
She continues, "I know others come here without people to help them and without the education -- especially English education -- to find things out."
Often, that lack of resources, combined with an immediate need to generate income, leads people to take jobs below their skill level. "It happens all the time," Ardila confirms. "I've seen doctors working in factories."
Rosio Martinez, a recent transplant to Asheville, left a job in a law office in Mexico to move to the U.S. And despite her experience working with computers, she found the software was different in her newly adopted country -- plus, everything was in English.
"I took a class from Nora for maybe two months," she explains. "Nora helped everyone in both languages. She teaches in Spanish, but the computers are in English."
Once Martinez had nailed the computer skills, she landed a job as assistant outreach coordinator at the Mountain Microenterprise Fund in Asheville. These days, she aids Latinos who are planning to start their own businesses. "I enjoy this job -- it's similar to what I did in Mexico, because I can help people," she observes. "Language is the first difficulty. People don't know what they need to start a business, such as a business license or how to pay the taxes. It's all different here."
Martinez feels her involvement with Carolinahoy helped her find a job she enjoys. "I think taking classes in computers is very important for Latino people," she asserts. "When you take the class in your own language, it's better. This class shows you that you can learn the same as in your own country. It gives you some confidence."
She adds: "Every day, I learn. On Wednesdays, we have meetings [at Mountain Microenterprise Fund] for two hours. I hear, hear, hear and I practice, practice, practice."
Martinez's job also offers this additional perk: Even as she hones her English, many of her co-workers are busy learning Spanish.
"I think it's great if both parties take an interest in each other's world and language," Ardila insists. "It makes the relationship stronger."
Of course, not all job applicants fare as well as Martinez. And many of the people who take Ardila's classes are less interested in finding jobs than in gleaning a little technical know-how. "Most of my students are adults with children in school," she explains. "They want to know what their children are doing on the computer. They want to be able to teach their families."
Ardila, meanwhile, has big plans for Carolinahoy.org. "I'd like to expand the Latino business section and add a Web market," she muses.
And then there's MAIN's new radio station, WPVM ("The Progressive Voice of the Mountains"). "We're working on a Spanish-language program, maybe an hour a day," Ardila reveals. "I'd like for the Web page to stream that program."
Bowen, too, has a vision for Carolinahoy. "We hope to develop a dynamic English version, but it's primarily for Spanish speakers" at the moment, he adds.
"I don't think there's anything like [Carolinahoy] in the Carolinas," notes Bowen. "It's just getting started. There's much potential for it developing into something positive for the Latino community in WNC as well as in North and South Carolina."
He continues, "This started out as something regional, but we're getting such good feedback that we're coming to seeing it as a tool for outside the region, too."
To sum it up with a bumper-sticker quote, it all boils down to thinking globally and acting locally -- which I guess means it's time for me to get motivated about changing my Internet service provider.