"The mountain counties of Western North Carolina saw a huge increase in Latino populations over the last decade. In Yancey County, for example, the Spanish-speaking population increased 975% over the last 10 years, while Mitchell and McDowell saw increases of 622% and 1,064% respectively. "As people settle out of the migrant work stream and into the community, they face many barriers to community participation: isolation, language barriers, lack of transportation, lack of work, lack of health care and uncertainty about their documentation status," according to the WNC-based nonprofit Center for Participatory Change.

At a time when economic advancement increasingly requires technological competence, achieving digital literacy is a steep challenge for Latino citizens. According to the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, "Basic and advanced telecommunications technologies -- including the telephone, computer networks, and the Internet--are vital components of economic and social life in modern-day society [...] For Latino communities throughout the US, these technological advancements permit, say, small businesses and underprivileged students alike to leapfrog their (generally) disadvantaged place in the global economy and make uncommon strides. "

Clearly, digital literacy is vital for increased Latino participation in, and contribution to, Western North Carolina's economic and civic spheres. The Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) is well-positioned to join forces with local ESL (English as a Second Language) agencies and economic justice organizations--such as the Center for Participatory Change, the Latino Advocacy Coalition, and Centro Encuentro Familiar--to bring the benefits of digital literacy to our region's growing Latino population.

Currently, most traditional literacy instruction in WNC is conducted by volunteers with local libraries, agencies, and literacy councils. For example, community organizations, such as local Literacy Councils, International Link, and the Blue Ridge Reading Team, train volunteer tutors in ESL instruction and language-acquisition methodologies. These ESL tutors in turn conduct free or low-cost classes with local immigrant populations, the majority of whom are Latino.

MAIN's Digital Literacy Project will strengthen these local ESL endeavors through the development and dissemination of online curricula which unite English language acquisition with the cultivation of vital digital literacy skills. This twofold approach to literacy--an approach to learning that unites the linguistic and technical realms--will be designed to help strengthen the Latino community's participation in economic and civic life. Additionally, the MAIN Digital Literacy Project will enhance the work of local ESL agencies and volunteer tutors by providing them with much-needed access to effective, easily-implemented curricula for learners at all stages of language acquisition and technical mastery.

A variety of well-designed digital literacy curricula for students and teachers of ESL is presently available on the Web. Unfortunately, the curricula often are unknown or unavailable to ESL practitioners and students, and hence are not currently integrated into existing local ESL endeavors.

MAIN is prepared to compile and integrate online digital literacy curricula with existing ESL curricula currently used by local ESL agencies. More importantly, MAIN will customize this online curriculum for local Latino communities by integrating it, for example, with Spanish-language content from local social service and economic justice agencies. We will also "localize" this online content by integrating the local Spanish-language newspaper El Eco with this online curriculum. El Eco is currently not online. Bringing this vital local newspaper online will be our first priority.

Obviously, creating compelling online Spanish-language content is not alone sufficient incentive for Latino citizens to acquire digital literacy. Though we will also be offering free training workshops for Latino citizens (to be discussed later), free and easily accessible workshops are likewise not sufficient.

Our discussions with ESL and other Latino advocacy leaders have yielded the clear consensus that extensive, face-to-face community organizing and outreach will be necessary to raise awareness of--and promote interest in--the acquisition of digital literacy by Latino citizens. To this end, MAIN and our Latino advocacy partners will create a community outreach plan as well as printed materials in Spanish to introduce the basic concepts of the Internet and digital literacy to targeted Latino communities.

For example, a birthing class in Yancey County started by bilingual Latino advocate Teresa Onofrio (a member of our steering committee) has evolved into a knitting class for these young mothers. Working in this specific venue, we will begin building awareness of the benefits of digital literacy among these key Latino citizens who, in turn, will be encouraged to share this awareness with their spouses, children and extended families.

This community outreach and training will be supplemented by an online clearinghouse of digital literacy curricula, programs integrating digital literacy into local ESL teaching, and regional ESL public access terminals, MAIN's Digital Literacy Project seeks to unite these valuable learning resources with the area students and teachers who need them.

Uniting under-served populations of Western North Carolina with access to tools and information is at the core of MAIN's mission as a community network. MAIN is best known for providing local dial-up Internet access to more then 5,000 mountain citizens, with a special emphasis on serving low-income and disabled citizens. Moreover, since 1996, MAIN has helped local libraries provide free public access to the Internet. MAIN is also coordinating efforts with Latino advocacy groups to establish the region's first public access sites designed specifically for ESL participants."

NOTE: This narrative was part of a grant to secure funds for Latino Digital Literacy Project program staff and curriculum. The missing piece now is the funding for hardware, actual computers to set up for public access by the Latino community. With early site planning focusing on Henderson and Transylvania counties, we hope to eventually expand the program across the region. For more information, contact Tess Johnson at Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), 828.255.0182 or tessj@main.nc.us .