Youth Converts Culture

by Barbara Cervone

July 25, 2012

MARION, ALOne by one, 27 high school students from Alabama’s poorest county face the camera and speak their mind.

We are innovators of this generation. . . and trailblazers for the next.

We don’t need your map because we’re seeking out our own pathways . . . pathways that are being blocked, censored, restricted, filtered, and firewalled.

We are digital soldiers . . . fighting for our right to be individuals in life and online.

We have pledged to dedicate our lives to action, positivity, and dreaming.

We seem invisible . . we’ve always been invisible. Do we have your attention now?

These evangels for change have spent the past week reflecting on who they are, where they’re from, where they’re headed, and what stands in their way. They’ve zealously embraced technology as a tool for making their ideas travel—and boast a Twitter hashtag (#YOUTHCC ), a Facebook page, a "vlog" (a.k.a. video blog) on YouTube, and a website.

“For youth to convert culture, you have to use your voice, and we have to do that with what we have—technology,“ says Javarius, a rising senior at Francis Marion High School. “We can affect locally real quick. With technology, we can affect the world.”

An article in Huffington Teen Post about the remarkable summer “camp” begins with one student’s friendly warning: "The world doesn't even know me just yet, but one day it will."

For Javarius and his peers, neither geography nor race nor social status stops them from saying what they think and pushing an agenda for change. They reject the labels that cling to them like a magnet to steel: irresponsible, apathetic, at-risk, “needs improvement.”

“I grew up in a small Southern town with so many students like these rural youth,” says John Norton, founder of the education website MiddleWeb. “To hear their wise voices and think of the potential trapped in so many isolated communities across the region—it’s really amazing to consider what all those kids could do.”

Nestled between the end of the Appalachians and the start of the Black Belt, a third of the 11,000 residents of Perry County live below the poverty line. Seventy percent are African-American, 30 percent are white, and 30 percent are under the age of 18.

A positive digital footprint

The teachers who founded the Youth Converts Culture Summer Camp, Beth Sanders and Daniel Whitt, had several goals in mind when they raised enough money to house, feed, and digitally equip 27 students and six teachers at Perry County’s Judson College this July. They wanted to help students “promote a positive digital footprint” and, together with their teachers, learn and use technology in ways that could energize and deepen the school curriculum. And they wanted to wrap students’ minds and hearts around empathy, community and humanity—then send these life-affirming vibes out into the world.

“We wanted to bridge the gap between technology and humanity by making our students content creators, not just audience members of the Internet,” explains Sanders, who during the school year teaches 11th grade social studies in Birmingham. Worried that today’s youth perceive “a different value set online than they do in non-digital settings, we believe that digital citizenship is best promoted in public schools,“ says Sanders.

On the first morning of camp the students—drawn from the county’s two high schools—talked about the barriers they confront, from public diffidence toward teenagers to complacency, poverty, and isolation. That afternoon, they identified what they aimed to build: a community that engages young people as visionaries and problem solvers. By the end of the day, the youth had videotaped their opening thoughts, with the help of the camp co-director and videographer Daniel Whitt, and by the next morning, their video was up on YouTube. That’s how Huffington Teen Post learned about their efforts.

The rest of the week, each day began with a session of “tweet bombing” and a review of the previous day’s video blog (aka “vlog”), followed by a fresh round of discussion, exploration, and videotaping. On Friday, the youth and their adult allies gathered the public—close at hand and virtual—for a behind-the-scenes look at what they had accomplished, a screening of their culminating video, and dialogue.

“Come to youth converts culture in Marion at 4 CST or watch us online live,” tweeted Reggie Vasser (Reggie aka The Kid).

The taste of empowerment

Two hours before the Youth Converts Culture Summer Camp would take its work live, Javarius and Jonathan, another rising senior at Francis Marion High School, talk about their hopes.

Javarius: “I really hope they believe in us, that they see we can make a difference. Words can’t express how much I have to say. This culminating event is only the beginning, not the end. We hope our peers, teachers, and community can get rid of adversity and open their hearts to something new, to change, to analyze and adapt to change as a positive force.”

Jonathan: “We’re going to be there, converting the culture we live in, fighting today’s deviation from unity. We’re going to make this final year of high school the best it can be. Francis Marion won’t know what hit them!”

Javarius: “We need to start by converting our peers, helping them believe that they know a lot more than they’re given credit for.“

Jonathan: “Just look at us. We live in the poorest county in the state, we don’t have the best of technology, but we as children know we have the ability to make change.”

Beth Sanders is already planning next summer’s camp, along with how she and this summer’s campers will stay connected once school resumes. And she hopes the digital empowerment ignited in Perry County this July will spread. “You don’t need a big budget to do this,” she says, noting that the camp’s technology bundle included one iMac, 15 iPads, a copy of Final Cut Pro, a $150 Amazon gift card, a $100 microphone, and the students’ smart phones. “We’re not selling this impossible idea. You just have to believe in the power of youth to raise their voices with the technology they have at hand.”

The Youth Converts Culture Summer Camp was made possible with support from Alabama's A+ Education Partnership.

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator