Listening Across Borders: Creating Virtual Spaces for Youth Global Exchange

Photo by YouthLAB
As we transition into an increasingly global and technology dependant society, new participatory media networks have the potential to affect an international youth-led social justice movement. Because youth media programs are consistently at the forefront of technological innovation as well as the development of youth-centered educational practices, as a field, we are in a unique and exciting position to facilitate and incubate new youth-centered forms of global exchange.
However, there are few spaces where young people of different backgrounds and global perspectives can interact under conditions not mediated and controlled by adults—even in youth media. Innovative models that provide instruction on how such interactions can take place must be thoughtfully discussed, tried out, and shared among educators, which requires learning new pedagogical approaches.
As youth media educators, how can we create a different kind of pedagogical space where young people from around the globe can use the tools of participatory media (blogs, wikis, social networks, digital sharing sites, etc.) to connect politically and socially? How do we learn to “listen across borders”—the first step in creating a youth platform for global social justice?
These sets of questions inspired me to create YouthLAB, a program where youth are in charge, conceptualizing how to use participatory media as a springboard for youth leadership, activism and organizing.
About YouthLAB
YouthLAB, (Youth Listening Across Borders), an intensive two-week program, took place in summer 2007. Twenty young people from Barbados and Chicago came together in a virtual space to create global exchange using peer-to-peer networks and other tools of participatory media.
Each day during these two weeks, youth from Barbados and Chicago would meet physically in each of their respective locations but would also come together in a variety of wired worlds as well (such as online video chats, blog posts and comments, video letters, GoogleMaps, and Facebook).
Before the official start of the two-week exchange, a 16-year-old Chicago-based member of YouthLAB traveled with me to Barbados to provide computers, cameras, high-speed Internet service and skill training for eight young people at Mela Berger’s Caribbean Institute for Cultural and Healing Arts (CICHA). During that time, we shared knowledge on how to produce journalistic videos using iMovie and Final Cut Pro, shoot digital photographs, use social networking sites, and upload content to blogs and Google MyMaps.
Despite the high incidence of poverty on the island, the Bajan youth were digitally literate. Most youth access technology such as YouTube and satellite television regularly, although few had ever worked on Macintosh computers or software. While all the Bajan participants were black (as is 98% of the population), they were diverse in terms of socioeconomic status, schooling opportunities and the parish in which they each lived. In Chicago, the participants were comprised of 12 youth, 16-18 years of age (African-American, white, Latino, Muslim, and from a range of income levels).
Physical and Virtual Contact Zones
The diversity among the youth participants, within and across sites, is a critically important component of the YouthLAB model. As the work of Michelle Fine, Maria Elena Torres and others in the Participatory Action Research Collective have shown, “contact zones”—in which different cultures meet, clash and negotiate meaning—are not always neat and conflict-free. In fact, these messy spheres are necessary in order to create the kind of conversations that kindle democratic dialogue and richer forms of cross-cultural understanding.
Bringing youth into conversation about oppression and injustice both in physical and virtual spaces fosters critical consciousness. In such “zones,” new relationships form across previously uncomfortable differences. This is an area that is essential for educators to support if we are to “listen across borders” and help build global social justice movements by and for youth.
Pedagogical Approach
Part of YouthLAB’s mission is to provide a space where young creators and activists in Barbados and Chicago could engage in meaningful talk and listen and learn on their own terms, using their own tools and cultural forms of communication. The intrinsic properties of open source and Web 2.0 technologies are perfectly suited for this form of global learning.
While far from being naïve about the problematic aspects of social networking sites, most youth still perceive YouTube, social networks and other “affinity zones” (Henry Jenkins, MIT Comparative Media Studies) as having ample “street cred” precisely because of the way they exist outside the control of adult authorities and institutional gatekeepers.
In creating new spaces for young people to conceptualize their creative media & dialogue, I drew inspiration from the work of Harvard law professor, Yochai Benkler and his book, The Wealth of Networks, where he expands on the theory of “socially-motivated commons-based peer production.” Benkler describes a new public sphere, in which the creative flow of many people is galvanized into large-scale, participatory projects, but without the baggage of traditional hierarchies and profit motives. In other words, commons-based peer production supports many voices coming together to shape an idea or product.
Benkler identifies several defining features to commons-based, peer-to-peer production; however, in designing YouthLAB, we focused on the following:
Make the work “granular.” Everyone should contribute something of value that advances the overall cause.
Make the work modular. Divide the tasks into self-selected individual projects so that the work is divvyed up equitably and progress is clear.
Make the work capable of integration. Individual contributions can be assimilated efficiently into a meaningful and publicly shared final product.
YouthLAB put this theory of socially motivated, commons-based, peer production into pedagogical practice. All 20 participating youth joined together to create media and dialogue about racism, segregation, inequality, migration, and social justice through the collective authoring of a central multimedia blog.
For example, this cadre of teens co-created an interactive multimedia GoogleMap on migrations, which contained both personal and historical travel and migration routes, embedded geo-tagged photos, stories, and videos and placemarkers indicating past, present and future landmarks. In addition, teens raised and answered questions in the form of videos, online chats and blog posts for a global exchange.
YouthLAB developed a networked system that allowed youth to see themselves as contributors to a shared political discourse. Integrating collective intelligence into the participatory framework, youth became actors in a public global arena rather than passive recipients of mediated information.
Emerging Practices for Youth-Centered Global Exchange
1. Start with a leading, genuine question. For example, in YouthLAB our exchange was launched through a joint inquiry: “Does evidence of the legacy of slavery, injustice or inequality exist within in your everyday lives and communities today?” This leading question spurred research and dialogue and led to a new set of questions posed and pursued by youth participants.
2. Enter into “interpretive discussions” about youth-made videos. Several videos and clips were posted on the YouthLAB blog and youth participants engaged in “interpretive discussions,” analyzing the meaning of videotexts. For example, a fascinating exchange centered on the video, A Girl Like Me, where the teen filmmaker raises the question, “Why do so many of the Black children in the social experiment choose the white doll to play with?” The videotext can operate as a fulcrum for a shared discussion in which everyone contributes. In this way discussions can move beyond limited and non-interactive comments towards real exchange and communication.
3. Pose cross-cultural questions and responses through video. For example, the youth in Barbados produced a video asking a series of questions of their U.S. counterparts in Chicago and vice versa. Each YouthLAB team then created videos responding to these questions. The questions ranged from lighthearted, to social, political and educational. Some of the more complex topics incorporated research and street interviews, which teens posted onto YouTube or on the YouthLAB blog.
4. Use “skyping” and online chats to build intimacy. The immediacy and realness of these interactions through live video chats provide personalized exchanges and visceral experiences across borders.
5. Use online mixing and mashup tools for collective authorship. In YouthLAB, we created a split-screen video with images of Bridgetown Barbados on one side and Chicago on the other. We also began experimenting with a video online mixer tool housed on the video-sharing site, Motionbox. The possibilities for new forms of creative collaboration through digital content-sharing applications are endless.
6. Step back and give young people the lead. In YouthLAB, peer-to-peer teach-ins, collective intelligence-sharing, and co-construction of “tag clouds” through social bookmarking were important ways that youth participants not only created media products but shaped their own curriculum and instruction as well.
Key to this work is that youth media educators become “invisible” in the learning process—which is different from most of the training we received as educators. As youth interpret the meanings and questions their peers bring up, they bring their own perspectives, informed by a complex set of experiences, seen through the lens of race, class, privilege, gender, and nation. Young people in global exchanges hear challenging and different perspectives, which lead to new questions and understandings that can strengthen the social justice field.
The YouthLAB participants needed no persuasion to merge social activism with cultural production using digital networks. They did not need to be coaxed to talk about the issues affecting their lives with peers from a different country or prodded to sit down and watch media made by other youth. On the contrary, they couldn’t get enough of it. Clearly, youth with access to the tools of participatory culture experience new international and media-based sites as powerful and vibrant, fostering imagination, youth activism, and international exchange.
As an educator I was schooled in the methods of backwards-design; however, in a learning environment built around youth-led, commons-based, peer production, adult facilitators need to relinquish predictable outcomes in favor of a more elastic approach. We need a different type of pedagogical space—one where youth are in charge at the outset to use media as a springboard for leadership, activism and organizing. Using tools like commons-based peer production, interpretive discussion, and virtual contact zones, we can provide the types of environments for online global youth media to develop.
By creating these pedagogical spaces where hierarchies are flattened out but differences are not erased, youth media makers can provide a global example of dialogue by listening across borders.
Mindy Faber is an educator, curator, consultant and award-winning media artist. She is the Founding Director of Open Youth Networks and the designer of YouthLAB (Listening Across Borders). Faber lives in the Chicago area with her husband and 16-year-old son.