This morning I provided some consultation to an organization I used to work with, AMIGOS, regarding the use of social networks and technology during their summer youth programs. The gist is this-- AMIGOS runs programming in rural Latin America, where youth from the global North (and a bit, from the global South) spend their summers living in pairs in rural communities and working on youth leadership and civic engagement programs. This program has been running for decades and decades, and the old timers love to regale younger generations with stories of using ham radios to communicate. These days, young people use the cell phones in their community to call program headquarters. They work with youth who log onto Facebook and their host moms have Instagram. There are no ham radios. And yet, as they try to hammer out some sort of standard around the use of technology while American youth live alongside Latin American youth and lead civic engagement programs, there's an interesting thing happening. The older youth who run these programs- mostly in their twenties- resist the use of technology. They worry it will impede our teenager's ability to form relationships, and to really, truly do cultural exchange.
If you're scratching your head, wondering what the hell?, then you're with me. Sort of, at least. I've watched this organization resist change at every level. Over the years, they have resisted including Latin American youth, until they included them and then they became a core part of the program. They resisted tossing out the antiquated, colonial word volunteer to name their youth, until they started (only very recently) participants. They resisted having youth come together and have giant sleepovers in schools and dream up weird new programming ideas because it was too expensive, too dangerous, too much, until it became standard. It's actually a fascinating process to witness, and I'd love to sit back and watch it unfold if it didn't pull at all my heartstrings.
You see, it seems there's an interesting kind of retrospective nostalgia at work. We are seduced by the idea of the deeply rural, the totally real and human- which is so completely unmediated by technology, in our collective nostalgia. An offshoot of the "poor but happy" and "but I learned so much more from them than I was able to give" narratives that young people draw on to explain their AMIGOS experience all too often, I wonder how to even approach this challenge. Everyone uses technology. Community meetings can be organized on Facebook, fundraisers engaged on Instagram and photos of home shared on an iPhone. And yet, our young-people leaders resist. It's the contemporary parallel to saying that our young people shouldn't live in placed with electricity because having a light-bulb in their host family's living room will prevent them from sitting around bonding in candlelight. I mean what?
What we do know, is that young people use new media and social networks to reinforce existing relationships- they're not really going out and making friends with strangers much. We do know that new media has been used, time and time again, to galvanize young people around social justice in placed the world over. We do know that making media with youth isn't neutral- it's complicated and messy and rife with power dynamics. And for sure, we know that media can be used to build networks, enrich relationships, and encourage dynamic, playful storytelling. After all, my own AMIGOS project in Boaco, Nica, which is so dated now (2009-2012) did this exactly- we used media to highlight youth voices, we played with technology and organized with Facebook. It wasn't all rainbows, of course- there was broken equipment and dreams too invested in the power of the computer to weave magic out of youth collaboration, but in between those messy crises, youth solved problems with images, interviewed each other for documentaries, and petitioned local TV stations to show their short videos about immigration and health politics. They bonded, even though there was blue light emanating from a computer screen more often than there was only a candle to illuminate the conversation. Yet here we are, having this conversation. So how then, can we create the conditions of possibility for the folks in this organization to critically engage with their own colonial fantasies of "no technology because then the relationships won't be as real?"