#sanctuary

I remember days settling in with one of the public terminals, logging into Twitter, and making a simple post: “#sanctuary”. For my very few followers in-the-know, it was an indicator that I was at the local public library getting some work done and available for distraction.

The hashtag carried a heavier substance, though. At a time in my life when I found myself on the wrong side of the haves and the have nots, the library really was my sanctuary: It was a place where I could check my email and search for jobs. It was a change of scenery, temporarily leaving a mindset of despair behind to put in a shift with hope. It was a place to discover that I wasn’t alone as I sat alongside other middle-aged engineering-types who looked lost outside their cubicles in the middle of the day. It was also a reminder that we were not the worst off; there were regulars there who were far more dependent upon the library’s ancillary services than we were: the homeless, the elderly, the mentally ill, the “illegals,” and others. The library was their sanctuary too.

Working though my own issues, I happened upon a local zen center one early midweek morning and knocked on the door. I was met by a fellow who threw on his robes and invited me in to sit with him. Over the course of a few years this place became another sanctuary for me, and I worked with what little leverage I had to make it a sanctuary for others as well. Whether that was successful is an open question, but there were certainly “lessons learned.” From a technical standpoint, it was clear that people seeking a safe haven from one thing or another in their lives often need safe ways to communicate. We took initial steps toward ensuring the facilities had free internet access and that those in a need had an email address provided by the organization. In retrospect, this combined with a monk giving “dharma names” for those dedicated to the practice had the makings of a rudimentary “identity provider:” The center vouches for these individuals through association and knows them by these names.

Wandering the grounds of a local Franciscan shrine–yet another local sanctuary–I considered how more and more often I’ve encountered people without a voice. Whether they lack the means or the wherewithal to speak and to speak freely; whether they find themselves in an environment hostile to what is in their hearts; or whether there are actual technical measures taken against them to suppress, to track,to spy upon, or to threaten them; it’s important not only to offer a safe space, but also a voice inside a sanctuary’s community.

A library. A zen center. A church. A homeless shelter. A battered spouse shelter. A community center. A support group. There really is no shortage of mutually supportive communities who know and vouch for one another that may benefit from the ability to offer safe, inexpensive, individual communication services for those who need them. With identity established within the group, the members can enjoy near anonymous service facing outside. A group may offer whatever level of protection they wish while holding the individual accountable against abusing the protection and the services.

So, what if the library staff could say, “Papers or not, I know that person is a regular here.” What if, while on site, that person could make and take phone calls and check voicemail from an individually assigned phone number? Send and receive text messages through a web application? Communicate securely with other members of the group? The community provides sanctuary, a safe identity, and various services within the community. That’s my rough initial thinking for Sanctuary IdP.

Forward? The notions of “sanctuary” and “refuge” continue to hold a special meaning for me, both in the offering and in the receiving. I’m not always able to provide a physical place, but I can sometimes offer in skills, experience, or other resources. For now I’ll just state the intention here. Call it a “vanity project,” but maybe for a good cause. I’ll document my plodding progress, and maybe it will attract some interest, attention, and help.

Who knows? We’ll see where it goes.