Is the Internet the New Civics Classroom?
When I was in high school, civics was taught out of a dusty textbook, in a four-walled room about half as dusty as the book. I was lucky to have an inspirational teacher who tirelessly worked to expand our horizons beyond that limited text and those equally limiting walls. He was a fervent believer in the idea of people not only being steeped in the facts, mechanics and historical figures of U.S. democracy, but also in the idea of the continual “practicing of democracy.”
“Practice makes perfect ...” Mr. Glynn would say, “… a more perfect union.”
At the recent national Digital Media and Learning Conference organized by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and supported by the MacArthur Foundation, diverse scholars and practitioners gathered to foster dialogue and link theory, empirical study, policy and practice to this year’s theme: “Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voice, and Remixing Youth Participation.”
In the opening keynote, Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, encouraged audience members to think about the future of civic education and engagement in terms of its relative “thinness or thickness.” A “thin” civic engagement is one that does not require much effort; a “thick” action takes commitment.
Zuckerman has made a handy matrix to demonstrate this concept. The matrix consists of two axes, one representing a continuum of engagement from “thin” to “thick,” and one representing actions that result from the engagement, on a continuum from “symbolic” to “impactful.”
Zuckerman asserts that in a time when the Internet and digital technologies allow nearly everyone to develop messages designed to engage people in social awareness and action, we must define—and perhaps redefine—how people engage and participate in a public sphere that is no longer governed by traditional publishers and media outlets.
“Moving from thin to thick engagement involves teaching digital literacies, helping people understand how to make sense of opinionated media designed to promote specific agendas, and how to triangulate between these different perspectives. ... it’s especially critical for people who want to move beyond taking the steps prescribed by a movement leader or political strategist and towards proposing novel solutions to problems.”
And, that is exactly the goal of some of the work undertaken through our GenerationZD Digital Media Literacy Program. Launched in 2010, GenZD enables under-resourced youth across the western U.S. to learn digital media skills, hear new perspectives, develop unique insights and participate in the creation of vital ecologies that support change and vibrancy in their communities.
For DML 2013, ZeroDivide was invited to organize a panel session to feature some of this work. The panel, titled “Unique Locations for Civic Education: Youth and Their Adult Allies in the Third Space,” focused on the role of adult allies and community-based organizations in creating environments, not at home or in school, but in the "third space" that foster authentic voice, engagement and action. The panelists we tapped for this discussion were from our partner organizations Access Humboldt (CA), Center for Multicultural Cooperation (CA), Reel Grrls (WA), and Spy Hop (UT).
Each panelist presented a unique project, its outcomes and discussed the adult ally role at their organizations:
- Maile Martinez, Program Manager at Reel Grrls, presented DIS THIS, a digital media production program developed for youth with and without disabilities that seeks to address representations of disabilities in the media.
- Kasandra VerBrugghen, Executive Director at Spy Hop, spoke about their podcast radio program, Sending Messages, which is created and produced by incarcerated youth.
- Brett Hanover, Program Manager at Access Humboldt, presented the Real Life/Real Labs curriculum, a media and participatory research project where young people examine access issues of news, information, broadband, and economic opportunity in the most remote and rural areas of California.
- Brandon Wright, Executive Director at Fresno-based Center for Multicultural Cooperation's previewed a new, youth-led, web-native project that investigates life expectancy rates in different areas of the community as part of a larger community mobilization effort called “Building Healthy Communities.”
One thread that ran through all the projects was that this third space work occurs in places and with youth—immigrant, incarcerated, LGBT, rural poor and indigenous—who are rarely heard or seen speaking for themselves in the public spheres.
In these programs and others across our network, young people and their adult allies are creating public service announcements, documentaries, news programs and digital forums on a range of topics affecting their communities, from homeless youth to immigration to environmental health to broadband equity. Much of this inspirational content is created, distributed and accessed through multimedia websites, YouTube uploads, Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. The production and distribution of this content is resulting in: peer-to-peer learning, the development of engagement networks that include adults, and actions that take place in young people’s real world communities.
But more significantly, these programs are creating spaces where young people can practice moving into the ‘thick” things. Adult allies are helping young people develop the technical, hard and soft skills that support the change these youth will want to see in the world, for themselves and for their communities. Empowered peer-to-peer networks have emerged where young people climb ladders of civic engagement, influence and action.
Thick, impactful and scaleable ...
I think if Mr. Glynn were to see this work, he’d view it as critical steps on the path toward effective civic education and engagement of youth and communities, at large. I think what we’re learning about the creativity, technologies and new types of leadership that are incubated in these programs would genuinely excite him.
I think he may, however, also ask, “Are there ways for us to be more intentional about how digital media literacy and related production, and consumption activities connect young people to endeavors in civic education, engagement and participation?”
In response, I would say we need to continue to build and expand opportunities for young people to “practice” civic engagement through programs focused on digital media literacy, broadband technologies and the creation of new information networks. But, we’ll still need some Mr. Glynns—allies and educators who inspire young people to fully practice democracy by expressing their views and taking action—in both digital and physical communities.
Are you an “adult ally in the third space” ? We’d like to hear about insights from your work.