Explorers of Exchange: Girls Traverse the Digital Divide

We live in a digital age where it is assumed that all young people—a generation targeted to consume and use media—have access to media and media making. From cell phones to iPods, MySpace and YouTube, young people seem to have multiple ways to communicate with one another and express themselves freely.
For example, a recent Yahoo! News article describes a technological utopia in which the rosy-cheeked youth of the world pirouette from social networking websites to digital file sharing in a global dance of communicative bliss. According to Yahoo! “The My Media Generation is the first to fully leverage the freedoms that new technology has provided, and they are putting it into practice in all aspects of their lives.” It’s no news to youth media educators that this vision appears only to those whose eyes are already accustomed to gazing at monitors glowing with the limitless promise of the Internet. However, the reality of globalization and communication technologies is a digital divide between those who have access to information and resources, and those who don’t. This clear digital divide in the United States also exists in communities around the world, where access to media and technology access hinges on an imbalance of gender, race, and class.
Building Access on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City
The Lower East Side (LES) Girls Club was founded in response to a grave discrepancy in access based on gender, race, and class in our own neighborhood—the Lower East Side of New York City. Founded in 1996, we sought to address the egregious disparity in programs for youth in the community, particularly for young women of color from low-income backgrounds (there were three “boys-only” clubs in the neighborhood at that time and no comparable programs for girls).
One of the first programs offered was photography because of its power to capture an individual perspective and share this viewpoint with others. Initially darkroom-based, we quickly turned digital and, by the end of 1999, our students were exhibiting their own “day in their life” work at museums and galleries throughout the city. Our “digital diaries” approach was born.
This approach works by connecting young women with technologies to examine, document, and display their lives and communities, providing them with a safe, all-female space in which to do so. Each girl who joins the Girls Club takes a quick, one-on-one, “Tech 101” class that gets her up to speed on blogging, pod casting, creating quick-time movies and slide shows, zipping around on Google Earth, exploring Second Life, and more. Using technology education, we encourage girls to become part of the digital age.
Girls need safe spaces to explore technology and be part of the digital landscape, particularly when mainstream media pressure young women to remain absent from such landscapes. Advertisements, mainstream films, television, and even institutions perpetuate gender-coded messages that can make girls feel objectified and voiceless, valuing appearance over skill or action. We seek to increase girls’ confidence in using technology by placing cameras in their hands and paying attention to their stories.
This attentiveness encourages young women to speak, to share, and observe the world in which they live in, starting in the Lower East Side. But we quickly realized that low-income young women of color needed to be part of a global dialogue—and what better way to do so but with other young girls from a different country. The LES Girls Club embraces and values perspectives of the “other”––new people, new experiences, new ideas, and new environments––while using photography and digital media to cultivate a critical gaze in local and global communities.
Village Voices/Virtual Journey
The notion of cultural exchange has been integral to the LES Girls Club from the start. As an anthropologist, I have been working in Mexico for over 25 years, where I met the director of the Indigenous Photography Archive in San Cristobal and realized the similarities of our goals. The Archivo was training young indigenous photographers to document their communities using disposable and 35 mm cameras, technologies that, like the LES girls, these young women would otherwise not have accessed. The meeting was both logical and organic and took place at a time when our needs coincided. As a result, the opportunity to initiate the Village Voices/Virtual Journey project presented itself.
The Village Voices/Virtual Journey thus began as a collaborative project between the LES Girls Club and young women from the Indigenous Photography Archives in Chiapas, Mexico. The project (2000-05) built a working relationship between our organizations and entailed, among other things, LES girls introducing digital technology to young women in the Chiapas program. In addition to creating this technological exchange, the first four years of the program also included two exchange trips, with LES high school girls going to Chiapas and young Mayan women coming to New York City. These four trips were complemented by exhibitions of the visiting girls’ photography of their experiences in the host city and a published photography book combining both their projects. These exhibits and the book documenting the lives of teens in New York and Chiapas are only the by-products of what has been an ongoing lesson in global exchange and girls’ empowerment.
This partnership has resulted in the founding of a sister girls club in Chiapas run by our Mayan photography partners (described below) and a blogging site called “Girlville.” Like all cultural exchanges, one’s impression of the “other” hinges on which “others” one meets, and what access beyond the standard tourist experience one has. In this case, access was extraordinary for both groups of young people. Because the project unfolded over time, it fostered rich dialogue as the young girls, linked by a digital global platform, grew into and out of adolescence.
Girls Documenting Shared Culture
The sustained combination of photography, travel, and conversations revealed powerful similarities among the young women of Chiapas and the LES Girls Club. The process of documenting cultural differences, even the obvious and superficial, quite literally generated an expanded collective vision of the world.
Key to the collaboration was that each group had the experience of being both a visitor and a host. This allowed us to observe significant similarities in our own communities regarding, for example, gentrification and globalization—that we come from places where we, the indigenous (or marginalized) cultures, are the subjects of outsiders’ gazes. In Chiapas, buses daily bring tourists into town squares and markets viewing the way of life of the “native,” which tourism has greatly affected. On the Lower East Side, patrons stare from the security of new and expensive bistros and bars, or gaze down from double-decker buses at poor girls of color, often unreflecting about the changes that have challenged our communities and neighborhoods.
Since the publication of our co-produced photography book in 2006, our relationship has continued to deepen. When we returned to Chiapas with copies of the book, the Mayan women said “We want to continue working with the Girls Club.” In fact, they envisioned creating their own girls club based on our program to engage young women in environmental, ethical, and entrepreneurial projects with a strong digital and technological skills component.
After continued collaboration and fund development, there is now a thriving young girl’s club—Club Balam or “the little jaguars”—in San Cristobal de las Casas. This group meets every Saturday at Na Bolom, a prestigious research center that acts as the sponsoring cultural institution. Participants go out on digital photography trips and post photos and blog entries to the website, Girlville, shared with our LES girls, who then respond in kind. Thus, the partnership continues on the web.
Exchange and Technology for Young Women
For youth media organizations or efforts interested in global projects, international exchange is crucial. The Girls Club introduced young, marginalized women face to face with one another, using photography as a starting point for continued communication and sharing of perspectives. This exchange provided fertile ground for exciting collaboration that continues on the web, extending the girls interaction with technology.
As the LES experience makes clear, digital technology can serve as a powerful vehicle fostering discussion and growth. Just as the young women of the Village Voices/Virtual Journey were able to see their shared experiences with gentrification and globalization in their photographs, any young person making media—photography video, music, or radio—can use technology to bridge real or perceived differences. What greatly enhanced the Village Voices/Virtual Journeys collaboration was that each organization was able to travel and meet the other and to witness first-hand their shared circumstances in terms of poverty, race, and gender.
We must continuously challenge the role of women by becoming independent actors in our own cultures—and it may just start with the click of a camera. It is critical for young women to engage in digital media and technology, for these technologies are part of the new global experience. With them, young women can become 21st century explorers, with cameras and computers, participating in shared ethnography of their own, and others,’ experiences.
Lyn Pentecost is the Director of the Lower East Side Girls Club in NYC and is currently leading the Lower Eastside Girls Club Capital Project to build the first all ‘green’ state-of-the-art Girls Club and Center for Community in New York City. The center will allow the Lower Eastside Girls Club to greatly expand their innovative digital arts programs: film, photography, podcasting, physical computing and interactive telecommunications- while also offering computer training and free wireless service to the surrounding community. For over a decade, Pentecost was an adjunct professor of “Ethnographic Film Theory” at City College and developed and taught courses in “Teen Culture in Urban America” and “Urban Schools in Crisis” for the Metropolitan Studies Program at New York University. www.girlsclub.org