Technology and neighborhood youth – a missed opportunity?
When LISC Chicago began laying the ground work for its Smart Communities program a couple years ago, the assumption was that people in traditionally underserved neighborhoods were behind the curve in terms of Internet access and digital literacy. Those were conditions, after all, that the program was designed to address.
In many instances that proved to be true. But not among young people. Digital divide? Hardly. From North Lawndale to Englewood, youth – even those without computers or home Internet access – are surprisingly fluent in social networking. But are they using technology skills in a way that will advance their learning and, ultimately, benefit their future and their neighborhoods?
“How can we overcome barriers to bring programming to youth and youth to programming?” asked Sue Thotz, of Common Sense Media
As a first step in finding out, LISC Chicago last month gathered 30 representatives of community organizations, local schools, digital youth projects and youth organizations for a meeting at Quest School on the city’s Near North Side to share information and resources about the digital habits and needs of young Chicagoans in tough neighborhoods.
LISC makes connections
“We have a breadth of relationships in neighborhoods,” Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director told the group. “But how do we improve the (youth) programming we do in neighborhoods with you? Because they’re online; they’re texting; they’re in the digital universe. And if we don’t figure out how to connect that world to the world we engage them in, then we’re missing half of the world they’re playing in.”
Representatives from two organizations – Common Sense Media and Hive Chicago – were on hand to describe how they could help.
Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping kids and families navigate the currents of media and technology, is already engaged with the Smart Communities program through the five neighborhood-based local websites in each of the Smart Communities (portals in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen). It also provides weekly trainings in resume building, interviewing and conflict resolution to students in the Smart Communities’ Digital Youth Summer Jobs program, and trained Smart Communities staffers so they could deploy their curriculum as part of past Digital Youth Summer Jobs programs.
“How can we overcome barriers to bring programming to youth and youth to programming?” asked Sue Thotz, of Common Sense Media. “We’re trying to help young people become responsible and ethical in their use of technology. It’s a very big part of their lives.” And through social networking and other means, whether they know it or not, young people, said Thotz, are creating their own digital footprints. For better or worse. One of Common Sense Media’s goals is to help young people, and their parents, understand that.
Meanwhile, Hive Chicago (part of the Hive Learning Network), through research and practice, is striving to create a “learning platform” whereby everything that young people do, whether in school, at home, in libraries, in community sites or wherever, is seen as a learning experience.
Hive, for example, is currently funding a project about youth violence involving the Chicago Public Library, which will emphasize the issue through its “One Book, One Chicago” program, and various stagings through the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Christina Timmins, of Hive Chicago, is working to digitally connect cultural institutions with neighborhood youth.
“But there’s a missing link in our network,” said Christina Timmins, who directs Hive Chicago. “And that’s community-based organizations.”
She was in the right room.
“One of the things that drives me crazy are the disconnects,” said Vasquez. “And to hear that, wow, Steppenwolf’s doing something on youth violence and Enlace Chicago is not at the table?” (Enlace Chicago, a community organization in the Little Village neighborhood, is doing groundbreaking work in addressing youth violence.)
Connecting the needs of neighborhoods with organizations such as Common Sense Media and Chicago Hive was at the heart of the matter.
Neighborhoods create the content
As Vasquez described it, neighborhoods, through their fundamental work with youth around violence, sports, or education, are creating potential digital content. What they typically lack are the resources to get that content to a larger audience.
A wide ranging discussion followed about how digital media connects to neighborhood youth work and what the top youth issues are. Oji Eggleston, who for years has been running youth programming at the Near West Side Community Development Corporation, noted that young people aren’t aware of the impact technology is having on them because they were born into it. They didn’t consciously learn it. And their parents are often clueless about it.
Oji Eggleston, of the Near West Side Community Development Corporation, says youth in his neighborhood take technology for granted because they were essentially born into it. It's a different story, though, for their parents.
Shoshanah Yehuda, who directs LISC Chicago’s Elev8 program at Marquette Elementary School in Chicago Lawn, talked about the difficulty of fighting a culture that equates technology with entertainment rather than learning. “When they (students) have access to technology, they’ll go to Facebook and watch the YouTube videos and play the games,” she said, “as opposed to looking at it as a tool for learning, to access information.” For further information on that issue, see this recent New York Times story.
Rishi Desai, from the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation in Humboldt Park, bemoaned the absence of applications geared toward jobs and skills. A representative from Chicago Public Schools noted the difficulty of getting new technology into the classroom because of CPS’s lengthy procurement process.
All problems discussed weren’t related to technology. When one observer mentioned “security and transportation” issues, he wasn’t referring to online security. His point was that young people often had problems attending afterschool technology classes because they weren’t comfortable walking to and from school after dark.
Here’s another issue: the Pilsen Portal frequently embeds videos about neighborhood activities. But when visitors access those YouTube videos, they’re often connected to a menu of other Pilsen videos, many of which are produced by gangs and depict gang activity. There’s no gatekeeper.
In Englewood, Rosalind Moore and Teamwork Englewood are teaching kids how to write code and news stories. Other youth are learning to create websites.
But there’s good news, too. Rosalind Moore, who manages the Smart Communities program in Englewood, reported that last summer, in the mornings, they taught students how to write computer code. Then, in afternoon sessions, students were paired with journalists who taught them to write news stories that were subsequently posted on the Englewood portal. Additionally, students leaned how to build websites, with the hope that they would help small business owners establish their own websites.
None of the digital world problems were solved at the meeting, but the urgency of addressing them was clear.
“If our neighborhoods fall behind one more time on something that is access to power, we’re done for,” said Vasquez. “And if our youth go down the other path to amusing themselves to death, we’re done for. For me, either we get on this and drive the bus, or we’re forever going to be sucking up the fumes.”
Posted in Smart Communities News