In a perfect world, this would be an easy story to tell. After all, Lori Atwater is a young woman of considerable talent and achievement. Bright. Articulate. Hardworking. Playing a major role in the shaping of our community.
As the information coordinator for the city of San Luis Obispo, Lori’s directly responsible for getting the town on that much ballyhooed national information highway. So this story writes itself. Lori Atwater–one of a kind, one in a million.
But this isn’t a perfect world. And this isn’t an easy story to tell, because, unfortunately, Lori is one of a kind around here, and in the computer industry nationwide. She’s an African-American, the only one among the roughly 350 current city employees.
1 out of 350.
Lori’s also often the only Black in attendance at industry conventions and conferences, a sharp contrast to the white males who have come to symbolize the computer culture. Therefore this must become a different story.
The story of the power of one.
Lori had big dreams as a kid growing up in Los Angeles. Her father drove a truck. Her mother taught school. She dreamed of being an engineering physicist. “I’ve always liked seeing things under construction,” Lori says. “I like have a vision and seeing it built.”
She studied engineering for two years at Cornell University but dropped out because of too many C’s (cold climate and culture shock). Marriage brought her to San Luis Obispo in 1980. She worked at Cal Poly as a technician and gradually developed an expertise in computers, training that later paid off when she was hired to be the main computer person for the city.
Now Lori’s our link to the future, what she calls “an architect of our community on-ramp to the national information highway.” It’s an exciting time. Creating an electronic village. Dramatically reshaping the concept of community.
But Lori can’t get to tomorrow without having to deal with today–with having to deal with being a black woman in a largely white world. She’s always been aware of the challenge.
“All my life, I’ve been groomed as to how to live in a white society. It’s become almost habit about how you face rejection or how people look at you strangely when you walk into a room.”
Being a minority in her town, in her job and in her profession poses a triple challenge to this 35-year-old mother of four. It also creates a sense of pressure, a need to prove herself daily.
“Every time I do something, I have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m qualified and capable. Every time I walk into a room, I feel the pressure to change the stereotype. And I get frustrated at that. But it also drives me and I became an over-achiever because there’s a desire to break through that barrier.”
Why is Lori one of just a few? Lori blames it on the lack of appropriate role models for African-American children. “We have to have role models,” Lori argues. “Most people follow things they’ve been exposed to. We have a growing number of black lawyers and physicians, but there just hasn’t been as many in technology.”
Until that changes, Lori will continue to go it alone at work, being the one out of 350. Or at conventions, often alone in a sea of thousands. Her goal is to transform San Luis Obispo into an electronic village, a concept that Lori believes will be accomplished this year.
In this new village, people can sit in their homes, or visit the library, or the shopping mall. They can send messages to people across town, or around the world.
People communicating electronically. Not knowing if the person on the other end was Anglo or Latino, Asian or African-American.
That, for Lori, would be a perfect world.
San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune (1994)
Author’s Note: Lori Atwater eventually left San Luis Obispo and moved back to Los Angeles.