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

Amigos de las Américas: Incorporating media in youth-oriented Latin American volunteer projects

In today’s fast-paced world of digital cameras and Blackberries, it may be difficult to imagine a place where roads are unpaved, running water is a luxury and digital technology is practically non-existent. With the media’s oftentimes negative representation of young people, it may come as a surprise that young people in the U.S. are willing to serve indigenous communities in other countries—using digital media.
At Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), teen volunteers travel to Latin America to investigate, document, and share culture and history as they work to improve the local communities’ living conditions. Each summer 600 volunteers—with an average age of 17—live with Spanish-speaking host families and participate in service programs in eight Latin American countries.
Last summer, an AMIGOS Digital Culture Project in Oaxaca, Mexico bridged youth media, leadership, and service-learning. Digital media was taught by teens to a local Latin American community, documenting indigenous stories and culture. In addition, blogs and online journals helped U.S. teen volunteers document and communicate service work, sharing their cross-cultural, global experiences back home.
Having a youth-led media project was a new initiative for AMIGOS and provided great insights into the ways youth take the lead in teaching global communities about technology and how digital media can capture shared cultural exchange.
About AMIGOS and the Digital Culture Project
AMIGOS is unique because of the leadership and cultural sensitivity it requires of young volunteers. First, young people must go through about six months of extensive cultural training before stepping foot in Latin America. Volunteers are educated about overcoming cultural differences, trained on project specific Spanish vocabulary and taught how to engage community members in Latin America. Once trained and on Latin American soil, small groups exercise their personal initiative and leadership in designing and implementing projects with their host communities. AMIGOS projects foster youth education to promote healthy social development, leadership skills, and creative expression of young people.
The first AMIGOS Digital Culture Project was created in 2006 by Jon Crail, a two-time AMIGOS Volunteer and Project Staff member. The project incorporated the leadership of teens who team-taught media to inspire youth in the host community. Teen volunteers worked with adults and mainly young people between the ages of 8 and 16. These teens had a high interest in technology and media products.
Crail explains, “Video in particular can be really creative and empowering for young people in marginalized or indigenous communities.” He continues, “People who are less educated [often] are scared to speak or write, so they end up losing their voice. Video and photography allow them a creative way to express that voice.”
In the project, teens taught digital media skills through a hands-on approach with one-on-one tutoring. They worked in small groups, which allowed young people to learn about digital technology first hand. These small groups created a special peer-to-peer relationship between community youth and AMIGOS volunteers. In addition, having a peer-to-peer teaching model set an example for the community to teach one another across generations.
Young children learned quickly about aspects of the camera and photography and took part in the documentation process. Teen volunteers posted photos and videos online in a digital museum, kept archives for the local community to use, and kept web journals on their experience in Oaxaca.
For example, Apporva Shah, a 2006 Volunteer in Oaxaca kept an extensive blog about his experiences in the Digital Culture Project (http://apoorvainoaxaca.blogspot.com). Shah’s blog is an example of the ways AMIGOS youth volunteers share their life-changing experiences with the worldwide online community.
Emily Untermeyer, Executive Director/President of AMIGOS says digital media is an expressive resource for young people. She explains, “Our young volunteers often experience a rollercoaster of emotions. For many, it is their first time being out of the country and the longest period of time they have spend apart from their family and friends,” Untermeyer says. “The use of media provides a healthy outlet for them to share their experiences as they live and work within a new culture.” As teen volunteers served the local Latin American community in Oaxaca using digital media, digital media served a purpose for their own expression and experience in Oaxaca—a two way system of learning.
Youth led Media Serves Marginalized Communities
Youth are taking a leadership role in teaching, training and engaging Latin Americans in technology in ways that support and represent their culture in a digital age. The use of technology is shared across the Americas, and young people—as a new generation of technology users—are sharing their interest in digital media more globally.
Untermeyer explains, “AMIGOS volunteers and project staff are a positive catalyst in helping communities throughout the Americas to use the incredible educational and professional opportunities today’s technology offers.” The fusion of media with a cultural exchange service-oriented program is extremely beneficial to our young participants and our Latin American counterparts.
AMIGOS volunteers are excellent candidates for teaching digital media because they come with knowledge of digital technology. Most teen volunteers enter the program with computer and technology skills from growing up in the U.S., which can be shared with Latin American counterparts that have extremely limited access to technology.
Moreover, the use of media in service-learning can be effective despite language barriers. Young volunteers, though versed in Spanish, can more readily share technology despite language differences. Because an extensive vocabulary is not needed to teach someone to navigate the Internet or use a digital camera, digital media is a much more effective means to teach technology. Digitial media can be shown, set as an example, as opposed to teaching video and photography verbally.
In addition, because AMIGOS volunteers are versed in Latin American culture and technology before they step foot in Oaxaca, they are prepared to remain conscious and respectful of cultural norms; introducing technology in ways that will benefit communities. Teens become aware that bringing digital media into a community can change the way of life for people who have had limited access to technology, having experienced the power of digital media in influencing cultural norms in the U.S.
As a result, young people encouraged indigenous people to use technology beyond the digital media program. Their leadership enabled the community to confidently use the Internet more frequently and become more comfortable with computers and digital cameras. Introducing technology benefited community members for future work, to store and share information, and to communicate virtually.
Digital Media for Cultural Exchange
Digital media allows host communities to express their ideas and share their culture with a worldwide audience. Using digital media serves the local community in ways that effectively allows young people to work together and interact more readily across cultural differences. Digital projects that embrace and document a community’s heritage have been successful for young people at AMIGOS.
The leadership and digital media expertise of teen volunteers in Oaxaca enabled community members in 2006 to photograph artifacts and take videos of shared stories and indigenous cultural reflections—using technology to capture indigenous history. Digital documentation can be quickly transferred and easier to maintain than a physical museum representing diverse cultures.
The importance of using digital media in this way is that Oaxaca has a high concentration of indigenous people. Due to increased urban developments, these groups have begun to lose some of their rich history and culture. There are 16 total registered indigenous groups, with the most populous groups being Zapotec and Miztec. By documenting culture in a city that has a high concentration of indigenous people; young people are learning the importance of sharing stories and history to both a local and worldwide audience.
Crail said the AMIGOS Digital Culture Project helped document these important indigenous cultures through digital media. Digital media gave community members and volunteers another means of sharing culture through documentation. Used in this way, both community members in Oaxaca and American volunteers learned more about the history of indigenous Mexican culture. As a result, these community members gain a voice to share their history and vision of their community, while simultaneously gaining valuable technology skills and experiencing a lasting impact from cultural exchanges.
The digital program that Crail started at AMIGOS has influenced and launched new projects beyond AMIGOS, a trend for service projects that use youth led media as a tool for host communities to express their culture globally. For example, Crail’s experience in Oaxaca inspired him to start his own non-profit organization called Digital Roots (www.digitalroots.org), an organization that specifically empowers communities around the world to investigate, document and share their culture and history by using environmentally friendly digital technologies, creating physical and virtual exhibitions and museums, and encouraging young people to reflect on the past, present and future of their community and their role as community members.
Youth led media has been instrumental in introducing technology to Latin American community members through AMIGOS’ digital media program. Teen volunteers have combined their knowledge of digital media and service-learning in Latin America to teach local community members how to use digital cameras and other technology, despite language and cultural barriers. These projects have provided community members with valuable technology skills and digital end products that feature their history and culture.
Digital media is a way for host communities to share their culture locally and globally. AIn Oaxaca, volunteers and young community members in the Digital Media Project simultaneously learned about Oaxaca’s indigenous culture. From using digital media as a tool to document and enliven indigenous culture to using blogs and online journalism to convey cultural exchanges and experiences to their communities back home, young people serve as a cultural and global bridge.
Using digital media, young people—despite differences in language and backgrounds—can express their identity, history, and perspective to the world. Young people are using their knowledge of technology and bringing them to service learning sites in Latin America more frequently. Digital technology helps young people teach and learn how to express one’s voice. Marginalized communities in rural areas such as Oaxaca, Mexico can benefit from young people’s leadership, peer-to-peer media training, and their knowledge of technology. Such bridging—of youth led media and service—can enhance social and cultural exchanges for young people in the U.S. and in cities around the globe like Oaxaca, Mexico.
Tara is the Communication Manager at AMIGOS and has a degree in Spanish and Journalism. She grew up on a 3,000-acre farm in Dodge City, Kansas and before moving to Houston, she was the Editor of La Voz online, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Arizona. Tara was also editor of her award-winning college newspaper, The Baker Orange. In her spare time she enjoys yoga.