Looking to the Future
Ana Sisnett: The Reluctant HeroineAna Sisnett remembers how her grandmother was with telephones. "She wouldn't ever put them up to her ear," Sisnett says. "And when the phone rang, she would yell, "'I'm coming! I'm coming!'" As the executive director of Austin Free-Net, a nonprofit providing Internet access and training to low-income populations, Ana Sisnett sees that kind of fear and confusion in the face of new technology all the time. People who think their computers are broken when they're unplugged. People who look for the rodent when they're told to move their mouse. While other members of the tech community ride out on the cutting edge, Ana Sisnett is sweating away in the learning curve.
She has become a spokesperson for bridging Austin's digital divide (a term she doesn't even use; she prefers "equitable access") and appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly Biz as one of the "power players of Texas high-tech," but when I ask her if she considers herself part of the tech community, her forehead crinkles and she lets out one of her low, hearty chuckles. "Noooo, not really," she says. "I'm probably more concerned with human networks than technology networks." In fact, Sisnett is downright ambivalent about the whole thing. "I stay up at night and wonder: What is it that I'm really leading people towards? And what am I providing people?"
So far, she has provided people a chance. Computer access and training, if you want to get specific. Started in 1995 by Sue Beckwith with a grant from the City of Austin, Austin Free-Net wired the city's libraries and, through various other grants and partnerships, put computers in schools and community centers. ("You have to promise me that you will not in any way suggest that we provide access from home," Sisnett says. That misunderstanding, clearly, has created problems.) These days, Austin Free-Net is expanding their mission -- better equipment, more locations, bigger staff, more partnerships. "It's not enough to have computers in the libraries," Sisnett says. "There are people who will not go to a library, people who, for whatever reason, will not go to a school." But for Sisnett, the ultimate goal is not just to get people using the technology but to get them thinking about it. "Part of why we do what we do is to teach people about the pervasiveness of the technology, how it's in their lives whether they want it or not."
Another of her goals is to bring what she has learned to the community at large -- especially those in high tech, whose collaboration and capital (both intellectual and financial) could be vital to nonprofits like Free-Net. "We know there are people who still don't know what this is all about. People who say that in a city like Austin, 'Well, if people don't use computers, it's because they don't want to.'" But Sisnett sees daily evidence to the contrary. And she doesn't want the tech community -- a bunch better known for displacing neighborhoods than building them -- treating these communities as little more than wait staff. "There are communities here in Austin where potential is really great," Sisnett says, speaking of the black and Latino and other lower-income neighborhoods close to her heart. "Working with those communities to recognize the tremendous history that they bring, the tremendous struggles that they faced here in Austin to make the city what it is, deserves respect."
Austin Free-Net has helped to tap that enormous potential. Unlike Ana Sisnett's grandmother (who is, by the way, the inspiration for a children's book Sisnett wrote called Grannie Jus' Come) with her dreaded telephone, many people Sisnett trains are actually getting over their technophobia. They never thought they'd care about being in front of a computer, but part of the joy is watching them prove themselves wrong. "Once they learn a little something, they are so eager to share it," Sisnett says. "And that's what you see in our sites. Somebody looks over, they see somebody who needs a little help, they know a little bit more and they help them. And they're very generous that way. And that's what makes my heart sing. Not the latest bells and whistles."
Ana Sisnett supports independent bookstores and coffee shops. "If you don't say anything else," she tells me, "say that."