During my final year of college, I found myself shuttling between African Diaspora studies, American history and media production classes. I began to draw connections between Information Technology and the development of American culture especially in regards to race relations. So upon graduating I decided that my course of action would be to make films that raised awareness of these connections and encouraged critical analysis. But one question showed me that a more direct course was needed.
In 2008, while I was discussing 1950s American culture during a workshop for teens in Detroit, a student stopped the conversation and asked, “Wait a minute, people could see in color back then?”
At first I didn’t understand what she meant by the question but she explained that she believed that, since TV programs and films were in black and white during that era, people could not see in color. What was even more surprising was that she was not the only one in the classroom to share that thought.
This one question made it clear how media shapes reality for young people in our society and why information technology and critical media literacy can no longer be treated as auxiliary or something to be worked into the curriculum but must be viewed as the foundation of our education especially in communities of color.
We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. In fact we have access to more than we can process or handle. Today, American teens spend more time engaged in media than they do in the classroom. This means that the bulk of their education and the information by which they make decisions come from unmitigated media consumption.
Mainstream media has traditionally misrepresented communities of color and the exponential increase in media usage has created further distortion and led to much of our youth building values and identities on misinformation.
At the same time, the American education system — especially in inner cities — is faltering. Over-reliance on test scores and inadequate funding leaves students without the skills critical for success in society. In a democracy, education serves to provide citizens with the tools needed to participate in wider society. The methods and content used to educate must, therefore, be reflective of that society.
Students of color have difficulty relating to the content or presentation of information and teachers find themselves competing with the technology instead of using it to their advantage. In turn, we have created an education that exists in a vacuum. Students are being hand fed information and taking tests for a world that does not exist beyond the classroom.
Although our society has moved from the Age of Industry in which modern public education was born, into the Age of Information, the foundations of our education have remained the same. An education system designed to train us for industrial labor and management has little relevance in the Age of Information.
African-American youth are not receiving the tools to critically analyze the information and media messages with which they are bombarded and furthermore are failing to make sound decisions in their daily lives.
The effects of this can be seen every day from Twerk Team, to school fights, to leaked sexting photos. Youth of color are using IT without adequate consideration or accurate knowledge of the consequences. I consider this lack of critical thinking a major contributor to the social issues plaguing communities of color.
In the last ten years, educators and organizations like NAMLE, Partners for 21st Century Education and the Center For Media Literacy have made strides in incorporating IT and Media Literacy into American education, but have failed to address the cultural content that is being left out of the curricula in communities of color.
In the winter of 2009, I began developing an organization called What’s Left Out to address this issue. Networking with other community organizers, educators, and activists in Harlem, we developed ideas for programs and sought resources to provide innovative media literacy enrichment programs for the community. The programs would be specifically for communities of color to counteract the impact of unfiltered mass media, to encourage community action, and to prepare community members for competition in the global marketplace.