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New Media, New Voices

This morning’s session at the MIT conference on the Future of Civic Media focuses on new voices and new media. I’m giving the closing talk in the session, talking about the ten projects that currently comprise the Rising Voices effort of Global Voices. It’s a good fit, as our work on Rising Voices is precisely about figuring out ways that new media can allow new voices to reach a local and global audience.

Mitchel Resnick, one of the three founders of the Center for Future Civic Media, offers a frame for discussions by looking closely at the limits of teaching and journalistic models. Both disciplines can fall victim for a paradigm of “inform and instruct”, which can be confining. Resnick is interested in models that focus on discovery, and is known in the academic world for projects that help young people learn through discovery – notably the Scratch programming environment and the Computer Clubhouse project. Specifically, he’s interested in creating “opportunities for everyone to create, design, share.”

With the exception of Rising Voices, the projects showcased this morning are MIT projects, either coming out of the Media Lab or the Center for Media Studies. Some are well-known to people who follow the Media Lab closely:

Computer Clubhouse, which now boasts 104 clubhouses in 21 countries, established over the past 15 years. The clubhouses act as community centers, allowing kids to explore computing in an afterschool environment, which help connect kids with elders and immigrant communities.

Silver Stringers, led by former Boston Globe editor Jack Driscoll, allows senior citizens to create community newspapers online.

Others, I hadn’t seen before, including:

– What’s Up, a project by Leo Burd, which is an online and telephone-based community news system for kids. By dialing into a toll-free number, kids can obtain free voicemail accounts and start voice-based “mailing” lists, which transmit voicemail messages to groups. The system has been used in Lawrence, MA and helped youth throughout the community organize a meeting with the local mayor.

Speakeasy, an amazing project started by MIT Media Lab researcher Tad Hirsch, now run by the Asian Community Development Corporation. The system uses mobile phones to allow immigrants with poor English skills to access volunteer translation services. Second-generation immigrants, the ACDC discovered, were interested in volunteering as translators, but didn’t want to come in from the suburbs to volunteer for half and hour. Now they help people navigate health appointments, student/teacher conferences and, increasingly, negotiations over forclosures.

I got the chance to present the ten projects David Sasaki and his team are funding and advising through Rising Voices. I offered a lightning fast overview of the projects, and told the story of how the HiperBarrio community on Colombia brought mainstream media attention and community action to help a local man, Suso, who had fallen into poverty from a family background of wealth and charity to the community. HiperBarrio has very quickly proven that it’s possible for citizen media efforts in marginalized communities to get ideas and stories into mainstream media. A theme for these projects – and perhaps for all the projects presented this morning – is that they’re not all going to succeed. To figure out how new media can enable new voices, we’re going to need to experiment widely with different technologies and put them in the hands of different groups. Sometimes this will work brilliantly, and sometimes we’re likely to have creative, informative failures.