Fiber, Fête and Florida

It appears that the officially sanctioned celebration of the LUS Fiber Network and a coming out party for the project on the national level will take place in Lafayette in April

FiberFête, as the event is being called, was announced via the Baller Herbst email list on February 2. The Baller Herbst firm is a consultant for the LUS Fiber system going back to the early days when BellSouth (now AT&T) tried to kill the project just after it was announced.

David Isenberg (a nationally recognized technology thinker) and Geoff Daily (a technology writer and a paid promoter of the LUS Fiber system) are the event organizers.

LUS is listed as one of the sponsors. So, too, are Lafayette Consolidated Government, Lafayette Economic Development Authority (LEDA), the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, IberiaBank, and the parent company of Acadian Ambulance.

Like I said, this is the officially recognized fiber celebration event.

The explanation of the “Why” of event says all the right things:

FiberFete is a celebration of our connected future. It’s an effort to bring together a critical mass of brainpower to facilitate discussions around how we can use fiber to improve all facets of our communities. By facilitating these conversations set against the backdrop of a fiber-powered community like Lafayette, FiberFete will serve as a catalyst for establishing the models needed to define what network-optimized communities look like and crafting plans for how to get there. FiberFete will also be an inspiration to community leaders and application developers about the benefits of our fiber-powered future. FiberFete will combine good people with good discussions, good food and good music. The rest will be up to us.

So, cool. So, fatally flawed.

The fatal flaw comes from the fact that neither the event organizers nor the sponsors have any understanding of the social dynamic of Lafayette nor an appreciation of what it takes for 21st century communities to succeed.

They know better. How do I know that? Because I was there when they were given this message.

Think back a few years ago when IberiaBank and The Independent Weekly brought to Lafayette the economist Richard Florida, author of the book “Rise of the Creative Class.”

Florida told several hundred business and community leaders gathered in the Cajundome Convention Center that in order to succeed, in order to attract the creative class that he believes will drive economic and cultural growth in this century, communities must have “the Three ‘T’s“:

“The three ‘T’s of Talent (have a highly talented/educated/skilled population), Tolerance (havea ‘live and let live’ ethos), and Technology (have the technological infrastructur a diverse community, which has e necessary to fuel an entrepreneurial culture).

Lafayette has an abundance of talent and one needs to look no further than the university, the community college, technical college, and the business community to see that this is the case.

We have the technology. The LUS Fiber project is but the most obvious example of the technology investments this community has made, but there is also the LITE Center, the super computer and other resources at UL Lafayette, as well as the substantial private sector technology investments that are being made by entrepreneurs and institutions across industries and business categories across the community.

But, as much as Lafayette has nailed two of Florida’s essential three ‘T’s, we have failed miserably at the Tolerance ‘T’. The examples are glaring to anyone who bothers to look.

Let’s start with the local advisory committee. The entire committee is comprised of white people. Should this matter?

Yes, it should because the digital divide in Lafayette too closely conforms to the racial divide for this not to be acknowledged.

How do I know this?

Because a group of us fought long and hard to get LUS to commission a detailed survey of more than 1,000 City of Lafayette residents on the topic of Lafayette and the Internet that was modeled after the nationally recognized studies conducted by the Pew Center for the Study of the Internet and American Life and on the surveys conducted by The Annenberg Center at the University of Southern California. That survey was conducted late last year. The results were analyzed and summarized by a team of academics from UL Lafayette.

LUS has chosen to sit on those results.

How can any forum, event or conversation about maximizing the impact of the LUS Fiber system in Lafayette have any credibility if it does not acknowledge the most serious obstacle preventing the maximizing of that impact?

Well, it can’t. In fact, it can do great harm by reinforcing the myth that Lafayette can somehow succeed in the world if only some portion of the 70 percent of the white population here is allowed to thrive.

Richard Florida’s message, brought to Lafayette by IberiaBank and The Independent, is that Lafayette does not have the luxury of indulging in its prejudices any more. An all-white advisory panel, it seems to me, ignores his message at a time when the goal appears to be to celebrate the fact that Lafayette has bought in hard on his other two ‘T’s.

Is it really a problem?

Yes, it is.

One need look no further than the recent Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce annual banquet. It was held on January 19, which was also the observance of Martin Luther King Day in Lafayette and across the nation.

In Lafayette, that day is traditionally the occasion for a large community assembly at the Martin Luther King Center where the impact of Dr. King’s life and the implications of that life for today are celebrated as well as discussed.

The Chamber was either ignorant or indifferent in selecting that day as the date for their annual banquet. As a result, photos from the banquet gave the look of an event that could have been held in 1950 instead of 2010. The 40 photos on The Daily Advertiser site from that event are disturbingly monochromatic. These are not photographs of a progressive community.

What the Chamber event and the local advisory committee of this event demonstrate is that in Lafayette, the default community planning setting is “whites only.”

There has always been a divide among supporters of the LUS Fiber project between those who saw it only in the narrow economic terms of what it could do for the city (see the sponsorship list for details) and those of us who recognized the economic benefits but placed them in a secondary role compared to the gap-bridging effect the project can bring to the city. Access to technology can be a great equalizer. It has transformed the music business, it is changing the news business, it is about the fundamentally change books, education, healthcare and other fields. It can bridge any divide that it is applied to. It can transform this community. Like the other fields mentioned, though, it can only do so if there is a focused effort to bring about that transformation.

But, the leadership of LUS, LCG, the Chamber and other pillars of the business community here handicap the prospects of achieving even their own narrower vision by ignoring the interests of the broader community. It is a self-limiting vision executed in a self-limiting way.

Compounding the problem is the myth that Lafayette can excel if only the white ‘leaders’ — business, civic, social — excel. According to Florida’s analysis, this would be considered a self-inflicted wound and our leading organizations are habitual offenders. We are not so exceptional as to be able to afford that.

We know we have leaders in this community who, by their own admission, are not comfortable in the presence of people of other races. If this community is going to wring the maximum benefit from the LUS Fiber system, we cannot afford to have our potential capped by these personal limitations.

FiberFête might have all of the best intentions, but it is disconnected from the reality of Lafayette. If all it wants to be is an external marketing opportunity for the city — impressing some out-of-towners with our smart investments — then it sells us short. But, it aspires to be more. It cannot achieve that if it widens the fundamental divide that limits the potential of this system and this community by trying to ignore it.

Give it up, guys. Go back to the drawing board and re-think what it is you’re trying to accomplish here. This event is fatally flawed.