working with Communities: inclusion and co-production, not education

I am usually very critical when it comes with working with communities, especially when these communities are what the West or the Intelligentsia considered “disadvantaged” or resourceless. I have seen countless examples of interventions where a well equipped, educated and clearly hegemonic individual or group literally descended upon a group of kids or a marginalized community with great intentions but the unfortunate assumption that their role is to bring tools and technologies, thinking they would be adopted flawlessly and without discussion. This approach does not take into consideration that these communities are not blank, they have their traditions, habits, behavioral patterns and they are perfectly able to reflect and contribute creatively to what is being offered. Forcing non-flexible adoption and infantilizing the receiver-group is a form of colonization, and as history teaches us, it can create monsters. There have been many scholars who addressed this issue. recently, my favorite are Kavita Philip (see her article with Lilly Irani and Paul Dourish on Postcolonial Computing) and Ron Eglash

At Subtle Technologies I was pleased to see also some inspiring projects that moved away from the usual one-way approach and relied not only on the contribution, but also on the active engagement of a variety of groups to create project that would meaningfully enrich and empower them. Foad Hamidi, a PhD candidate in Computer Science and an Interaction Designer from York University started his presentation admitting that when he started as a computer science researcher, he chose to work with people. however, he soon discovered that these people were only “numbers”. His move to a more human-intensive approach came when he had a chance to interact with and learn from people with disability: in this case, in projects such as CanSpeak, it is absolutely necessary that the interaction designer understands how to address the necessities and personal difficulties of the disabled. this is only possible by working closely with those who will use the tool to be designed and to collaborate with social workers, families and institutions.

In his current project with  elementary school kids in Oaxaca, Mexico, Hamidi had to deal with a different issue: how to introduce a group of kids unexposed to electronic devices to the culture of making and to interaction design? how to grab their attention without showing them high tech that they would not be able to reproduce once left by themselves? how to introduce the use of technologies without erasing, but enriching the cultural expressions of the region? the (for now) quick solution was to help them illuminate their alebrijes drawings with simple LEDs.

led

A different approach that makes an excellent use of, and helps disseminate an already existing project is Zohar Kfir‘s Points of View.  The project uses videos and new submissions from the now extensive but not very well disseminated  B’tselem’s Camera Distribution Project which consists of videos shots by civilians to record human rights infringement in Israel and Palestine. Cameras are legally permitted in Israel. by distributing the camera to civilians, the B’tselem’s Project give them a chance to document abuses and eventually to use the device to protect themselves against extreme brutality.  here is a description:

The organization distributes video cameras and provides training to Palestinians living in areas in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip where tensions are high and clashes are commonplace. from http://www.btselem.org/video/cdp_background

camera

Kfir’s interactive web documentary seeks to reveal the reality of the west bank and gaza by showing both the violence that occurs on a daily basis as well as the everyday life of a population trying to carry on with their lives despite the conflict and the consistent abuses. While the visitor can locate the videos on a map of the West Bank/ Gaza strip, local participants can upload new videos using geolocation to insert them on the map. This is an important work of dissemination, as it really gives global visibility to a relatively local initiative that previously could only be made visible  through shorts or edited documentaries (see for instance the short “Smile and the World will Smile Back” which uses such footage).

gaza