Echa Schneider, web developer at Oakland Public Library, used to hang out in Reed College’s rec room dropping quarters into a pinball machine. It was Medieval Madness, she remembers, and the object of the game was to knock over a castle. A Classics major from Texas and Louisiana, she was roped in by the ecstatic noise, the flashing lights, the wobble of flippers, and the tilting, what she calls “artful nudging.” It launched her into the world of pinball, and soon tech, where it’s all about taking a plunge. “I just start,” she says. “I love figuring it out, playing the game to figure out the rules.”
Echa has been helping the library figure out how to stay ready and relevant as e-book readers gain popularity. Expectations are high, she says, and you don’t want to be stuck with a static, “janky” website. Working with limited resources, she helps card holders find what they’re looking for by sprucing up the library’s online catalog and blogs. She’s also led Oaklanders to free programs like Discover & Go, which offers discount passes to local museums, and OPL’s Summer Reading camp.
All this tech-savvy is about getting back control, making upkeep and advancement simple. Echa is also a volunteer at Girl Develop It, which shows women how to develop web and mobile software through hands-on instruction. It’s meeting a new need, a new school of job skills and independence.
“It used to be you’d get a big book on code and work your way through it,” Echa says. Now there are all sorts of permits and a fire-hose of education tools online and off. Echa was a self-taught coder and worked with scripts and computer lingo whenever she needed them, like to build sites for her favorite political candidates, as a favor, or to tease out a WordPress site.
Echa’s ingenuity, code-zazz, is what helped her power her local beat blog A Better Oakland in 2007. It started as a way to tell her story, to drill wit and vigilance into a dull politics scene. But readers were eager for a progressive take, and they asked more and more questions about the democratic process and spoke up. The blog got more in-depth, from crash courses in zoning to budget dissections. “It turned out,” she says, “a lot of people had a lot to say.”
At its peak, A Better Oakland reached about 3,000 readers a week, a following that grew organically and got attention from the government and gadflies alike. “Online is the Great Organizer,” Echa says. “You just jump in. You just do it. No screening. You’re a part of it.” (Read more about how Echa pioneered the hashtag “#oakmtg” on Twitter: #Oakmtg: Meet the Hashtag Warriors of Open Government)
Echa even took her civic strengths to the League of Women Voters, directing the Observer Corps, whose job was to represent the league and be as attentive as possible to City Hall and political movements. But this turned out to be a constant struggle to find information scattered across the city’s website: where are the minutes? where will the next meeting be? Echa stresses clarity, making politics as easy and ordered as a card catalog. “Why not use space, pare it down? Identify what users come to the site to do.”
But knocking down hurtles and barriers-to-entry is practically Echa’s M.O., what’s earned her much respect, and what finally got her thinking about pinball again. She founded Belles & Chimes, an all-women’s pinball league that gathers at Hi-Life, a pizza place downtown, every month. Echa was interested in the idea of “separate women’s spaces,” creating a pocket of safety and unabashed fun in an otherwise dude-dominated sport. “It was awkward for me when I first started competing seriously,” she said, “I thought I could make it less, make pinball more open.”
Echa is somewhat of a pro at this point. (She peaked at #690 in the world pinball player ranking and might get bumped under 500 with a good-showing from tournaments.) But she doesn’t think it takes a high level understanding of the game’s mechanics to get started–“don’t see why it should,” she shrugs. Her advice is to feel out the shots and, even if it’s not always her style, shake the machine. “In pinball they’ve got a saying: ‘If you’re not tilting you’re not trying.'”
Echa goes for the old school machines from the ’70s when she gets the chance. They’ve got the fantastic artwork, she says, the ones that aren’t just movie tie-ins, that have a “story inside the game.” It’s that classic feel, the authenticity and excitement that Echa protects in her hobbies and her community. There’s been a lot of artful nudging along the way, but Echa’s a force who’s taken on the stonewalls of tech, and politics and pinball. She’s still knocking down castles. She’s come a long way.
(Photo by Ellen Frankel)