"PRRAN-LA: The Los Angeles Poverty & Race Researcher & Activist Network"September/October 1995 issue of Poverty & Race
by Manuel Pastor
The Poverty & Race Research Action Council and the International & Public Affairs Center (IPAC) of Occidental College have recently inaugurated a matching service for researchers and activists in the Los Angeles area. Called the Poverty and Race Researcher and Activist Network - Los Angeles (PRRAN-LA), the service is simple: users can call in with a request and we send them a list of those activists and/or researchers in the area of interest specified.
For example, users can request the names of researchers working on immigration issues, activists in community development, researchers and activists on police accountability. Using an extensive database and a user-friendly interface, IPAC staff do the appropriate match and send the information requested, and users follow up themselves with contacts. It's an easy way to network and one designed to both
amplify resources for community empowerment and ensure that good research is connected to the struggle for justice.
PRRAN-LA grew out of a Fall 1991 PRRAC-initiated meeting of some three dozen researchers and activists in the Los Angeles area. At this gathering, participants expressed interest in a service that could link together activists, researchers and community groups working on similar topics and strategies for progressive social change.
IPAC offered to develop such a service, and PRRAC, with funding from the Kellogg Foundation, funded this and related networking projects in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Throughout 1994, IPAC staff first tested an interview instrument on a small group of activists and researchers, then sent out our revised surveys to more than 1,300 activists and researchers on race and poverty issues in Los Angeles. This list of 1,300 was built up by merging conference and organization lists/ databases and gave us a strong base of progressives, particularly people of color, who have been active in the Los Angeles area. Nearly 300 individuals eventually responded to our questionnaires, listing names, addresses and areas of interest. Finally, a brochure was developed and mailed to about 1,500 activists and researchers, announcing the matching service. Since then, requests to join the service have been pouring in.
What Can Users Ask For?
To make use of the service, users call or fax IPAC and indicate they want to use the PRRAN-LA service. The choices are simple: do you want to contact researchers or activists, and on what topic(s)? (A partial list of potential topics is shown in the accompanying box). One feature of the underlying program is that as more users sign on and use the service, the topic list can be expanded to create new areas of interest. When the request is completed, IPAC mails or faxes a list of relevant contacts, including names, addresses and phone/fax numbers. Users can request multiple lists, full database listings, mailing labels and other options.
One key aspect of the program and database is that it is extraordinarily user-friendly. The IPAC staff members who respond to user requests never see the complicated programming or database; PRRAN-LA comes up by clicking on an icon, and a series or menus drive staff through the process of selecting names and areas of interest. Adding or editing names is also menu-driven, as is the process of printing area lists, mailing labels and even the questionnaire and fax-back request forms.
The program used is Microsoft Access, with the programming done via macros and embedded in the database itself. IPAC chose this program because it was so friendly (for the user, if not the programmer) and because, with Access, the programming (or macros) is built right into the database. This makes it easy for other cities to replicate our efforts: if we provide the database/ program (without our full list of names), you can build your own names and fields of interest through the add and edit functions built into the program.
The program is written in Access 1.1. We selected this older version because it works reasonably well on computers of older (386) vintage and limited (4 MB)
memory-the sort of equipment that community groups might typically use. An earlier version of the database was converted to Access 2.0, with good results. We are currently coupling the database with a 1.1 engine so that it can be loaded onto machines that do not have Access 1.1.
Building the Future
Networking is said to be the wave of the future-businesses are doing it and so should progressives seeking to challenge our country's right-wing drift. PRRAN-LA is one easy way to rapidly build coalitions and pull together resources. While the technology used in this project is perhaps one step behind-it would be nice to have all this on the Internet for easier access (although this could create privacy problems)- most community-based organizations are more familiar with calling and faxing for information, and we can provide it through these mechanisms. Both PRRAC and IPAC are eager to share the results of this project and hope that others will see the utility of undertaking such an activity in their own organizing areas.
After receiving a user request, IPAC sends a fax-back form, listing all fields of interest, which helps steer users through the request process. Users must be in the database; if they are not, we request that they fill out a questionnaire along with the request (which serves to constantly expand the database). For the first year of operation, the service is free, although there is a modest charge for mailing labels and other special requests. (We will at a later date determine our costs per request and charge accordingly.)
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