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Date posted: 12/17/01

Speaking Out: The Voice of HarlemLive

From the Fathom Website



Among the many goals of the Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT) at Teacher's College, Columbia University, is "to configure advanced technologies in everyday educational settings" and "to promote the reconfiguration of knowledge into an integrated, comprehensive resource, open to all, for bringing ideas and understanding to bear in the conduct of life." This mission is successfully realized at HarlemLive, an ILT-supported after-school program housed in a neighborhood technology center in New York City.

HarlemLive is more than just a website about a community; it is a tool to teach youngsters a wide range of life skills and professional skills, and a means to guide them toward greater career aspirations. Fathom spoke with HarlemLive about this innovative project that bridges the "digital divide."

HarlemLive: When HarlemLive started, it started with only a laptop, a guy with a dream, a digital camera and a bunch of kids. HarlemLive is actually the brainchild of a very concerned teacher, Richard Calton, who was working in the public school system and felt that youth were not getting the opportunity to completely express themselves. In the context of school, they're kind of boxed in by these four walls, and the experiences they get are only those that teachers bring in.

When Calton was a teacher he tried to do as much as he could within the school system. He'd take students out and go on field trips, and they could explore what was out there. He demanded that his students write about what they saw in a news journal, a newsletter for their school. After working in the school system, he was frustrated, because it was still very confining.

He got together some of his former students, and he bought a laptop and a digital camera. They decided to start an online magazine, which was HarlemLive, at first working out of the living rooms of his former students' homes. They'd talk about what was interesting, and then they would go out and report on it. And he would leave the laptop at a student reporter's house so that he or she could finish the story and it could eventually be posted.

Fathom: What was the first story ever produced?

HarlemLive: The very first story that HarlemLive did was the African-American Day parade. The students interviewed people about the significance of the parade, how they felt being out there and what they liked. From that story, fast-forward to four years later. There are hundreds of stories up on the site, and we've covered a lot of different people--hip-hop artists, different museums, different politicians, local businesspeople. We've gone to events like the Million Youth March, the first one, up in Harlem, which was definitely an experience.

The students have taken a little bit of everything that they've seen and done and put it on the website. HarlemLive in itself is a vehicle for students to be able to express what's important to them, for them to broaden their social network of people. As they go out and they interview folks, they're meeting people who can be their role models, their mentors, people who can open doors. So, what started as just a vehicle to get kids exposed to what's out there has become a vehicle for connecting them to people who can really benefit them, and to real life skills that will help them in the future.

Fathom: What are some examples of HarlemLive stories?

HarlemLive: On HarlemLive, we have something that's called "Pulse of the People," which is a kind of man-on-the-street feature. We'll send a group of journalists out on the street with a question of the day. It could be "What do you think about all the hype for Y2K?" (before Y2K actually came) or "What did you think about the Amadou Diallo verdict?" or "What do you think about Mayor Giuliani and how he's shaping New York City?" Then they'll go and talk to people on the street, from the community, and get their perspectives. In that way, we voice what the community is really thinking on certain issues. Students have covered things that aren't necessarily as publicized as other topics, like the Classical Theater of Harlem, which is at the Harlem School of the Arts, to show that there are African-American and Latino teenagers actually performing Shakespeare in Harlem. We've gone to the Harlem ice-skating program and ice-hockey program. We've done stories on Sylvia's, the soul-food restaurant that's very famous out here. We sort of give you an idea of what life in Harlem is.

Fathom: How has the site evolved technologically?

HarlemLive: When we first started, the site was a couple of links to a couple of stories, and a couple of pictures. Now it's much more elaborate; there's a flow and a logic to it. And I know it's going to go even further than it has so far. As our students have grown, the website's grown. We have been able to recruit more technical talent, like high-school teenagers who already had HTML or Web development experience when they came to us and have then taken it further.

We've been able to integrate more stories, more animation and some videos. We have audio on our website. And we're working on new projects that will hopefully make it just a little bit flashier--but not so flashy that people are overwhelmed.

Fathom: How much of the technical Web work is actually done by the students?

HarlemLive: The kids do the entire technical markup of the site. They definitely get guidance from Richard, who started HarlemLive, and from the volunteers who come in who have a lot of technical know-how. But the kids post the stories on the Internet, and they come up with the icons and all the graphics that are on the website. They come up with the layout. The adults that are involved with the program are there just to guide, and the students really drive the content and the look of the site based on what they want it to represent.

Fathom: Is HarlemLive empowering girls in technology?

HarlemLive: Empowering girls in technology is definitely a challenging task. I think the way science and technology has always been packaged, it's alienated a lot of women. It's really important to have people in place who make it inviting and show them how it can be a way for them to share their voice, their influence and their flavor, if you will.

We had a graduate student from Teacher's College, Columbia University, who came in and said that she wanted to help us with our girls' involvement. And they started the "She Thang" pages. These are a bunch of Web pages that deal with issues that are important to young African-American and Latina females. They've been able to put stories on there that dealt with websites that they felt were relevant, issues of advice and relationships, birth control, their views on technology accessories--making technology fun and relevant.

Because of this feature, a lot of our girls have become excited about technology. They've gone from just being reporters to switching and transitioning over to the technology side. Learning how to create websites, do HTML coding and those sorts of things. So it's definitely had a positive effect.

Fathom: How is HarlemLive more than a website?

HarlemLive: HarlemLive is much more than the technology prep or college preparation tool. It's a life preparation tool. Not only do you have the social aspect of connecting adults to young people who are going to serve as their role models, and not only do you have people learning technology skills, but you're putting them in real-life situations and you're forcing them to be critical thinkers. HarlemLive's process is vital to what we do, because it's not necessarily the website that ends up making new possibilities and a new future for our students; it is the process of being involved in the creation of the end goal, of really having to do the research, making the contacts in the community, writing a story, editing it, going over it and making sure that it is the quality it needs to be. Thinking about the artistic aspects of what the website should look like helps students, because if they can go through that process they can be in any situation--transposed into the workplace, transposed into college--and be able to figure out the way in which they would be able to attack any goal.

So, whether the end product is a website, finishing this project that a boss wanted to give them or finishing this term paper, they know what the steps are that they need to implement. And I think the process is a beautiful thing. If you teach them to have pride in what they're doing, to make sure that you're doing the best job possible and call on all the resources that you can get to help you, then you can do something that is really worthwhile. Whether it be social issues, or science, or sports, it's going through the process of figuring out how to get your voice out that is, I think, an invaluable tool.

Fathom: What sort of environments do the students come from? What were their worlds like before and after they came to HarlemLive?

HarlemLive: A lot of our kids live in a very sheltered world, as much as you can consider living in New York City sheltered. They very often are familiar only with their block, or with the people that they associate with on a daily basis. But they don't necessarily get to see New York City in its entirety, and they don't really even take the time to contemplate the world as a whole. They don't necessarily know, if they have a dream to become an Internet entrepreneur or if they have a dream to become a doctor, exactly what steps they need to take to get there, because a lot of people in their families haven't necessarily gotten to those stages in their lives or attained those goals. HarlemLive is great for a lot of those students. It completely blows their world wide open, because they get to see a completely different perspective, and they get exposure to things that they probably never would have been exposed to if they were left to their regular education.

Fathom: What have some of the students gone on to do?

HarlemLive: HarlemLive contributors have been able to go on to a whole array of opportunities. Some of them have gotten into really good colleges, and some of them exceeded their expectations as far as college is concerned in general, because they never thought they were going to go. So we have kids who've gotten into Vassar, kids who are going to Morehouse, kids who are going to the University of Vermont, on a full scholarship. Actually, one of the students who was accepted into Sarah Lawrence received a personalized note from the admissions officer saying, "It's amazing the work that you're doing with technology, and we're really impressed with you, and we hope you come here." We have students who have had internships downtown at dot-com companies, and also what they would call "cool" internships, because our students have been involved in MTV's high-school internship. Our students have worked on VH1's "Save the Music"; they've worked at Nickelodeon magazine; they've worked at dot-com companies like SOHOnet; they've worked at Small World Sports, which is an online fantasy sports site.

Right now we're connected with New York New Media Association, which has a high-school internship program that connects our students to dot-com companies downtown so that they can have a paid high-school internship for the summer.

Fathom: What is the parents' role in all of this?

HarlemLive: HarlemLive is attempting to integrate the parents as much as possible into what we do. But it's a very difficult age, because teenagers often don't want to spend a lot of time around their parents. They're craving independence. But we also want the parents to be involved as much as possible, so that they can support our efforts in trying to broaden their children's worlds and get them applying to college and get them prepared to go on to different jobs and different interviews.

I think a lot of the parents don't want to come in because they feel that they don't have much to offer, because they don't know the technology. And they kind of have an image of HarlemLive as being so technology-driven. But one of the biggest things about our site is that we're people-driven and relationship-driven. Hopefully we can get that message out.

Fathom: Tell me about the international recognition HarlemLive has received.

HarlemLive: HarlemLive has been blessed with really great international recognition. In 1999, there was a contest called the Global Bangemann Challenge, which is sponsored out of Sweden. Ours was one of four projects nominated. And four of our students got to go over with Richard to Sweden, to see if we'd win.

We were fortunate enough to win, so one of our kids got to accept the award from the hand of the King of Sweden, which was great because that was an experience that I know he would never have in his daily life. We've also gotten e-mail responses from people in Europe, South America, Africa, from places as far away as Australia and Japan, because of the recognition we got for the Bangemann Award and for a segment on us that was done on CNN. One of the things they really love about our website is that they're almost surprised about what Harlem teenagers are doing, because they have such a negative stereotype of what Harlem is--that it's drug-infested, poverty-ridden. But the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of beautiful things that are coming out of Harlem; and I think that is one of the reasons we do the site, to let the world know that there is a lot of talent and potential here.

Fathom: What is most significant about HarlemLive?

HarlemLive: HarlemLive is definitely a place where young people feel comfortable, because they get to be in a space after school where they can hang out with their peers. And I think what drives them to come here, beyond just having a voice, is the relationships they have with one another. It's been something that has been very meaningful in the lives of a lot of our youth, because they get very upset when we want to close. Any day that we say we're closed they're like, "You can't close HarlemLive down, because we have to be there."

My role at HarlemLive is to help ensure the growth of the organization. Because we started as a club, I'm really trying to take what we've been doing and make sure that we're an institution within the community for a long time to come. I'm trying to make sure that we document what we do so well that it can be replicated, to make sure that we serve as a model for other programs that want to be able to empower their youth constituency by giving them a vehicle to voice their opinions.


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