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Emoti-Con!: Digital Learning Comes to NYC

July 12, 2012

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she chatted with Kimberleigh Smith, board president of the New York City-based Paul Rapoport Foundation, about the foundation's decision to spend down by 2015 and what the foundation is doing to help grantees navigate that transition.)

Elearning_imageWhat if a bunch of nonprofits and funders found ways to work together on new projects that furthered their respective missions while also creating outcomes that were larger than the sum of the new parts?

Productive collaboration among organizations is one of those textbook goals that funders love to promote. Many an executive director has heard from a major funder about some like-minded nonprofit she should find a way to work with, sometime in the future. But too often, such suggestions lead to circular conversations, mission drift, and/or wheel spinning.

Lately, however, several New York City nonprofits have discovered that young people's interests are a key that can unlock the secrets of successful, mission-driven collaboration.

Hive Learning Network NYC is a coalition of youth-serving organizations that encourages young people to explore their interests and further their learning through the use of digital media and technology. Fueled by grants from the New York Community Trust, MacArthur Foundation, and others, students from all five boroughs participate in a lively system of out-of-school time (OST) programs that use digital tools to help them dig deeper into subjects they're passionate about, from science and art to creative writing and filmmaking.

All Hive Network member organizations are driven by the interests of kids. Members work to develop programs that help youth become active producers of digital media, rather than letting them just use digital tools to passively consume off-the-shelf products created by adults. In turn, young people's experiences with new digital tools and artifacts helps nonprofits whose missions include serving youth to advance those missions more effectively.

A number of examples of that dynamic were on display at the fourth annual Emoti-Con! NYC digital media festival earlier this month.

According to Kerry McCarthy, program officer at the New York Community Trust, "The Hive Digital Media Learning Fund's grant to MOUSE [a NYC-based nonprofit that empowers students to succeed in the twenty-first century information economy] enabled teens to plan and run Emoti-Con! NYC, which brought together Hive NYC institutional members, educators, and their students to showcase their ideas and creations. And the collaborative continues to connect funders -- including MacArthur, Mozilla, and the David Rockefeller Fund -- interested in working together to help kids find and follow their interests and get excited about learning with digital media tools."

The Parsons School of Design's contribution to Hive NYC is the Parsons Scholars Program, an intensive, three-year summer and weekend pre-college program for students interested in the visual arts. With faculty and graduate students as mentors, twenty young scholars are exposed to all the available tools in the visual media professional's toolkit. Charged with using those tools for social action, the seniors choose an issue for their capstone -- this year it was curtailing gun violence -- and work with a client -- this year its was Beyond Bullets -- to create PSAs, DVDs, and loads of amazing print material that their NGO partner can use to raise awareness about an issue. Except for the fact that they were infused with the passion of students who want to make a difference and break the cycle of gun violence in their own neighborhoods, this year's final products were indistinguishable from professionally produced marketing materials.

New York City-based Global Kids sent a team from Long Island City High School to this year's Emoti-Con!, where it premiered a youth-directed video documentary that explores why LIC High School kids cut school. Many of those involved in making the video described their own first time cutting class, including one young man who said he felt so insulted when a substitute teacher fell asleep in class that he got up and left for the day. The hope, of course, is that honest answers from students will lead to more informed solutions to the city's truancy problem.

Girls Write Now, a NYC-based nonprofit devoted to drawing out the literary genius in young women, added a fresh component to their programming by giving students the tools and training they need to do digital remixes of their literary creations. Through the program, one high school senior is making a trailer for her forthcoming novel, while others have created animated versions of published stories and poems written by the professional women writers who serve as Girls Write Now mentors.

Chris Lawrence, director of Hive Network NYC, said, "The great virtues of Emoti-Con! are that it brings together youth from across the city to share their creations with their peers and professionals, gets them inspired by each other's work, and teaches them about other opportunities for youth across the city." Hive's swarm of thirty-nine partner organizations in NYC includes the American Museum of Natural History, Bank Street College of Education, the Bronx Museum, Make the Road, and WNYC Radio Rookies.

What's the lesson for those of us who may be too old to count ourselves as digital natives and/or are grown-up program officers and executive directors looking for better ways to bring nonprofits and social-change groups together on an issue? Simple: Don't forget to ask a high school student with a smartphone what he or she thinks. You just might get the answer you were looking for.

-- Laura Cronin


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