Knowbility, AIR and September 11, 2001

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AIR-Austin Participation BadgeOur local NPR station, the daily paper and countless other media spigots are asking for remembrances of 9/11.   As my mind goes back to that day and I allow the political to fall away, what I remember is the Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin (AIR-Austin). At that time AIR was kicking off its fourth year of bringing the community together around the powerful idea of access to technology for all.

If you have never competed or volunteered in a web Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program – here’s how it works:  Knowbility recruits nonprofit groups who need web help – and in 2001 many were getting their very first web site.  The program also recruits teams of web developers – that year we had teams from IBM, from Dell, from St Edward’s University, Frog Design and many others.  Our chair was a VP from St. Ed’s, John Houghton.  With the help of the Judge Brothers – Jim Thatcher, John Slatin, Jim Allan and other advisors – we had recruited and trained nearly 20 teams and nonprofits.  On the evening of September 11, we were scheduled to meet at our historic local beer hall, Scholz Garden and announce which team was matched to what nonprofit organization and allow them to begin to plan their accessible web site. Rules were originally drawn up by Jayne Cravens who used to say that AIR was party that began at the oldest beer garden in Texas and ended up on the world wide web!

When the horrific events of the day unfolded, we eventually remembered our kick-off party, scheduled for 6pm that evening.  Our mighty staff of three made calls to each other and to the advisors.  We knew no one would come, and that we would have to postpone the kick-off and probably the Rally.  We might cancel the entire event for 2001, who could tell with the whole world upside down?

We decided that we would make our way to Scholz to provide some re-orientation information to anyone who might wander in.  We expected that a few people might come by.  Well, at about 5:30 a few did wander in.  They hugged each other gently and held on for longer than usual. They looked stunned and smiled gently, almost reluctantly at one another.  Soon there were more.  By 6:15 every single team and every nonprofit was represented.  The advisors were there, the judges were all there, the advisors and teams were there for the kick-off – it was clear they wanted the events to proceed!

John Houghton got on the little riser stage and prepared to go on with the match-up announcement.  We were clearly, each one of us in the crowd of people, surprised that we WERE a crowd.  John spoke for all of us, it seems, when he said,

“On this day when we have seen the worst that humans are capable of doing to one another, I wanted to be here.  I want to participate in the best that we are capable of.  I want to build a community that shares skills and knowledge and works to improve our capacity to help one another. That is what the AIR program means to me and it must mean that much to you too, because you are here.  Let’s get to work!”

We cried, we held each other, and we got to work.  In 2001, AIR-Austin volunteers built web sites for more than two dozen NPOs, including Austin IDEA Network (now the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas), Lone Star Girl Scout Council, GENAustin, SafePlace, Family Elder Care, Keep Austin Beautiful, Blackshear Elementary School, Girlstart and others.  Of course, the sites have changed with the times and for many of these groups, the momentum of that first AIR site carried them along.  Sponsors included IBM, Austin Usability, Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, the University of Texas and Dell.

Since 1998, we have produced AIR programs all over the US, including Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver and Atlanta raising awareness of why and how technology access must be made available to all.   In all that time, we have not missed a year in Austin – not even when the planes took the buildings down in New York City.

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