Last week, I had the opportunity to volunteer in New Orleans through our university’s service-based learning program. Our group of ten, nine students and a staff advisor, spent the week living at a local volunteer camp, volunteering each day at a different organization within the city. Each day’s project focused on a different issue within New Orleans – education, housing and homelessness, neighborhood revitalization, environmental sustainability, and arts and culture.
This trip offered something beyond the lessons of the classroom – it provided the opportunity to hear directly from the people affected everyday by these issues. Statistics may help us begin to understand an issue, but it doesn’t fully illustrate the whole picture. Take for example, the fact that Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the United States. By taking the time to talk with the director of a local youth center, we were able to better understand how this issue affects those left behind – the kids without parental guidance and support. We learned how this issue affects individual families, the educational system, and the broader community. As a result, we had the opportunity to move beyond that which is learned from a classroom or a book, beyond the confines of our own comfort zone, in order to better understand the broader world in which we live. We had a chance to hear their stories, hear their perspective, and hear how their lives are impacted by both specific issues and the programs attempting to alleviate these issues.
Self-reflection is a critical component of service-based trips. An opportunity to step outside of our own comfort zone is an opportunity to evaluate, reaffirm, and revise our own thinking. For me, I reflected on not only my own role as an engaged citizen, but also my own work in the fields of media and communication and speech-language pathology. Here are some of the things I walked away with…
Poverty is one of the most significant factors affecting childhood development today, yet it remains one of the most overlooked. Poverty effects the development of childhood milestones, communication development, neurological development, and school achievement. In 2015, one in five children under the age of five lived in poverty (in the US). Parents are their child’s first communication partner and teacher. When parents face insurmountable difficulties in providing their children with the most basic of needs, everything else takes a back seat including quality and enriching interactions and guidance. It’s not that parents and caretakers don’t want to give their child every advantage that they have to offer, in some cases such as education and media use, parents may simply not have the tools needed to help their children succeed. As a result, the cycle of poverty continues.
I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot about the merits and perils of children using screen-based media. I can’t help but wonder, if we put the same amount of energy into addressing childhood poverty as we do debating the effects of screen time, today’s children could have an even brighter outlook.
Education is power
John F. Kennedy said, “a child miseducated is a child lost.”
One of the strongest and most frequent themes of this trip, was the power of education. Everywhere we went, the power of education was mentioned again, and again, and again – whether that was via a traditional classroom education, the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next, parent and community involvement, or in a historical, vocational, or a special education context. Regardless of the context, the volunteer project, or our tourist excursion, it became apparent in the loudest and clearest terms possible that education was the key to one’s success. Education is empowering! Therefore, access to consistent and quality education is a key ingredient for struggling communities.
Want knows no boundaries. Whether you are a college sophomore with the support and means to attend a four-year university or a high school freshman living in one of the poorest urban areas in the country, kids ask for Beats headphones for Christmas, love to spend an afternoon playing video games with their friends, and want to be connected to others through the freedom offered by social media. Put a group of students together from all walks of life and it won’t take long before they are bonding through tech talk. Mauricio Macri said, “there is more that unites us than divides us” and that’s no different when it comes to technology.
The Digital Divide is alive and well
Technology is never a statistic entity; it constantly evolves into bigger and better entities. As a result, wants are never satisfied. There are always more minutes or data to purchase, new games, new devices, new accessories, etc. Dial-up still exists and is used throughout the United States. Schools struggle to find the means to purchase technology for the classroom. Inequality is not limited to devices, but also includes consistent access to quality content and the instruction needed to fully benefit from its use. This is true not only for students but for teachers as well. Teachers may have the technology, but not always the time or training to maximize these tools to their fullest potential in the classroom environment. Technology alone will never be the great equalizer that it is marketed as. Instead, like so many other things, it’s the people who teach and support others in media literacy, media mentorship, and media use who transform media from a cool toy to a powerful tool.
Technology can be a lifeline
Smartphones are handheld computers, plain and simple. They provide a means for family, friends, employers, and more to reach you via phone, text, or email. Pay-as-you-go or affordable monthly plans cover talk and text, while widely available Wi-Fi is free if you know where to look for it. Smartphones give those who may not have access via more conventional ways, keys to the information super highway. People no longer share information via newspapers or fliers. Instead, jobs, social services, and educational opportunities are shared with the community via the push of a button. Websites and social media outlets provide a means to instantly share information with a global audience. As a result, those who need access the most, must adapt in order to access the very information and services designed to benefit them.