August 22, 2007

Portrait: Phil Shapiro

Author: Tina Gasperson

Phil Shapiro seems to delight not only in remaining a staunch supporter of free software ideals, but also in his role as a encourager and defender of people. "I see myself as more of a follower than a leader," he says. But Shapiro really is a leader, the best kind: one that nurtures the gifts in others instead of promoting himself.

Shapiro is all about empowerment. He fell in love with helping others in the 1970s, when he began tutoring Harlem high school students. "I loved what I saw about outside-of-school learning," he says. "In-school learning is never going to equalize." He realized that when students had access to computer technology, they could learn more and do more. "The big turning point for me was when I read an article about a computer lab set up for the community to use for free. They didn't hire teachers; people were just teaching themselves. They didn't need fancy classes or to hire teachers. When I saw that, I said, 'That's what I'd like to do for the rest of my life."

Though Shapiro started his adult life as a law school student, he decided early on he'd rather be a teacher. "I went to law school more as a stepping stone to journalism. Failing the bar exam didn't help. I just wasn't cut out for law. I was cut out to be a lawyer when it was a tool for social change," he says. "Education is the tool for social change now."

Considering Shapiro's background as the son of a UNICEF worker, it's no surprise that he insists on making a positive difference. "My late father worked for UNICEF for 25 years. Whenever there was an earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or other disaster, my dad was the one who specified what was on the planes that were sent to the disaster. I'd watch photos of families huddling in tents after a disaster, knowing that my dad ordered those tents onto the relief planes. He probably saved about 5 to 10 million people via his public health work. He gave me a good example of a life worth living."

And so Shapiro began four years of teaching computer skills to elementary and junior high school students in the Arlington, Va., school district. That was also the beginning of his love affair with free software. "I came to [it] late," he says. "I started to get real interested in Linux about 2000. When I heard what it had to offer, I wanted to explore it more." Shapiro, a devoted Mac user, watched a fellow teacher use Linux to inspire and motivate his students and began to see that free software was a key to the kind of empowerment that he had envisioned back in his tutoring days. "I went to some LUG meetings and I was so impressed that the meetings were run by his students. The students were in charge." Shapiro says one of his own third grade students became interested in Linux and attended some of the LUG meetings. "I called over to him [at one of the meetings] and said, 'Luke, what distro do you have?' He said, 'Mandrake 7.' And he's a third grader in his Cub Scout uniform. The speakers were from IBM, talking about using Linux on mainframes. He goes bouncing down the aisle of this small auditorium and goes up to talk to the IBM people, and they're looking at this eight-year-old kid. That was a special moment." Shapiro says free software is "a more level playing ground for everybody. The ethic of free software is what our society needs to rebuild itself."

In the late 1980s, Shapiro left teaching to develop educational software for Apple computers. He poured a large chunk of his savings into that venture, and never made it back. The company failed, but at least one of his games, Which Number, has been ported to pygame and may be included in the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Today, Shapiro is passionate about libraries. "I believe public libraries will emerge as the central social and educational institutions in our communities," he says. Recently he's combined that passion with his technical abilities to provide computer support at the Tacoma Park Library in Maryland.

"I asked my supervisor if I could change my job title to 'public geek.' She's a geek herself and laughed approvingly at the suggestion." Shapiro uses his role as "public geek" to teach people how to use the workstations at the library, which run on Linux. He also conducts mini-seminars on the use of open source audio, video, and graphics-editing software like Audacity, PowerBullet, and Draw. "Using these programs enables you to tell many kinds of stories online -- stories related to your business, your advocacy, your interests, your hobbies, and so forth," he says. Shapiro uses these tools and others to facilitate his own multimedia projects, including what he calls rosetimes, a method of conducting interviews with interesting subjects -- kind of like those done by Charlie Rose, an Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist known for his one-on-one interviews where the subject sits on the other side of a round oak table -- except in rosetimes the participants can be thousands of miles away from each other.

Shapiro uses his musical skills to record songs for friends and family members, like this song he wrote for his niece. "I wanted to show her that a creative gift can be far more meaningful than one bought in a store. This song is my present to her, and her present to the world."

With all the talents and gifts Shapiro possesses, friends ask him why he doesn't put those energies toward launching another business. "I'm a bit shy to start something new," he says, after losing most of his savings on his first venture. Shapiro says he's not averse to entrepreneurial avenues, though, if an opportunity presents itself. But if not, he's OK with that too.

"I see myself as a change agent. Thus far my role in this world has been smaller rather than larger. That might change. [But] I have only so much control."


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