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The Winding Road of Y2K Community Preparedness Work: An Update


The Winding Road of Y2K Community Preparedness Work
An Update
(c) Rebecca Dawn Kaplan, May 1999
(permission granted to share this article in any free, not-for-profit forum)

Oakland 2001: Y2k Network for Community Preparedness & Advocacy.


For those of us who have been working on y2k public education and community preparedness issues for several months or more, different patterns and challenges are emerging. I have recently heard from others that many community groups around the United States are experiencing a drop-off in attendance at y2k meetings. We too have been having reduced attendance at y2k meetings in Oakland -- while also having some exciting and inspiring new experiences. These are my thoughts on these trends.

First, I think in this issue, as in almost all others, interest waxes and wanes in an almost cyclical pattern. For activists of all kinds, it has been the experience for years that public concern is not constant. In some ways, it comes and goes in waves.

There are many people who will only come to one y2k meeting. They want to learn about the issue, and how to prepare themselves and their family, but they do not have the time or the interest to become an organizer. They are one part of the wave pattern -- a group will come to the meeting, get the information, and not return. This should not be considered a failure, getting those people to be informed and ready to prepare is a success.

The other "wave" factor is the newness issue. For many people, when they first hear about an issue they are excited and eager to learn more and get involved. When the issue ceases to be new and exciting, they drop out. This has been a pattern in many movements for years, and y2k is having some of the same patterns. For many people, the first public exposure to y2k was during Thanksgiving weekend, 1998 (when USA Today ran their first Y2K front page headline story, and 60-Minutes ran a 20-minute y2k segment featuring many y2k experts), and at that point they became interested to learn more and get involved. Another "wave" of news took place on New Year's 1999, at which almost every major news outlet had at least a small story saying something like, "as we celebrate this new year, we ponder what will happen one year from today, when the y2k computer bug might disrupt our party...". That created another wave of interest.

The past couple months have been an odd kind of lull. The number of stories about y2k in the media is actually growing, but the issue has ceased to be new and interesting. Furthermore, the press has taken to quoting "experts" saying that y2k will not be much of a problem within the United States. Although every official report has stated that they expect significant y2k disruptions in other countries, few spokespeople are making the connection to the possibility of local impacts. Koskinen recently continued his tone of trying to convince people not to take y2k seriously, and not to worry about it. In the same speech, he said that he was very worried that small business owners are not taking y2k seriously -- the majority having not even begun to plan their remediation of their own systems. He expressed grave concerns for the future of millions of small businesses, and, with them, the vitality of the US economy. (Perhaps he has forgotten that "small business owners" and "the public" are the same people. He can't tell "the public" not to prepare, and be surprised that "small business owners" have not prepared).

Additionally, y2k tests are being mischaracterized by the press in a way that produces complacency. When a group of electricity providers tested their backup communications devices, they did find that the backup communications devices mostly worked fine. This is good news, but many media sources completely misunderstood the test, which did NOT test the ability of the electricity providers to provide electricity. Hence, the public was given false stories that the electricity providers are y2k compliant, when in fact they are not.

Nonetheless, it has been my experience recently that many people are NOT complacent. Despite the lack of new "news," many people are taking y2k preparedness seriously, and are very interested in the issue. What the situation might call for is a change in strategy, but it is certainly not a hopeless situation. Within the past couple weeks, the response and receptiveness to y2k information has been excellent. Myself and Rosa (also of Oakland 2001) have attended various public events to give out y2k information (including Oakland's Cinco de Mayo celebration). When I tried to do this months ago, most people were not interested. This time, the public response was overwhelmingly positive. People came over to our table to get y2k preparedness information, and to ask questions which were very informed and showed that people have been thinking about the issue. When we approached other organizations with our materials, they were very receptive, many offering to take them back to their office to photocopy and distribute. Unlike when we started, no one said "y2k, what is that?" And almost everyone seemed to already know that it would be important to prepare, and they were happy and grateful to get information about how to do so.

Various organizations, including churches and neighborhood associations and other community-based organizations have invited us to come to their own meetings and give a presentation on y2k. We have found that many people who might not go out of their way to attend a meeting that is specifically about y2k are nonetheless interested and open to the information when it is presented in a forum in which they are familiar and feel at home, or in a place and time that they are already planning to go for another purpose.

Another cause for hopefulness is the additive impact of the information. People might need to be told about the issue several times before they take action, so it might feel sometimes like the information is not "sinking in" -- but our work is part of a broader picture which collectively helps people be ready and able to approach the issue constructively.

Also, you can never be sure what your impact is. We gave a presentation to one group at which at the time they rushed us out the door as soon as we were done, so they could get on to the next item on their very full agenda. At first we thought our presentation might not have had the desired impact. Yet, a couple weeks later, we learned that the organization not only had appreciated our presentation, but also had decided to take on y2k education work within their own mission, and was using many of our materials and suggestions as a starting point for their own work.

With my own family and friends, when I share our y2k preparedness materials I am getting a more receptive response than I did several months ago. Many people seem to have accepted that this is an issue they will have to deal with, and some are calling to request information from me now, after ignoring the issue for several months.

Finally, there is the issue of timing. Back in January many people were interested because they wanted to get some basic introductory information to this "new" issue. Many of us are now focused on encouraging basic preparedness, at both the household and community level. Many people, including y2k activists, do not think that they have to start preparing yet. I suspect many people are thinking that they will deal with this issue in August or September or October, and that we will see an increase in attendance at y2k-specific meetings at that time. We are in the "valley" because we have passed the time period of introductory interest, but not yet reached the peak of preparedness interest, because for most people it seems too far away in time to begin the concrete work.

I believe we should continue to make ourselves available to those who want information, to share it with organizations that have existing events that we can participate in, and to be ready to handle an influx of new demand when it happens. In the meantime, any y2k activist who has not prepared their own household should take this opportunity to do so, so we can lead not only by our words, but also by our example.