Last June, a young student from Harlem walked up a flight of steps and received an award from the king of Sweden. In the same hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded, the young man accepted an award in the Global Bangemann Challenge, a competition that recognizes significant uses of technology to improve society.
The young man is part of HarlemLive, a Web publication by and about Harlem teens, and one of only four U.S. winners from a field of more than 400 applicants from around the world.
HarlemLive is the brainchild of Richard Calton, a teacher who helped students produce school newspapers in Harlem public schools for nearly 10 years. The program's goal is to give inner-city youth a worldwide platform for expression while teaching them valuable skills.
HarlemLive was launched in 1996, when Calton took a year off to work at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University. While there, he found he missed working with students. He also found out about the Internet and how it could be used to publish material for a much larger audience than a school newspaper.
That's when Calton came up with the idea for HarlemLive -- an online magazine covering political, cultural and historical topics and featuring interviews with important and interesting people in Harlem. Calton contacted five of his past students, who were immediately interested in the project.
"We just kind of went out and started covering people, places and events in Harlem," said Calton. "We started slow with one laptop and a digital camera, and the kids put most of it together from home."
But HarlemLive found a niche, and it grew quickly. Suddenly, more students were interested in joining, and it became apparent that Calton and his students were going to need a place to work in order for the project to expand. Robert McClintok, director of the Institute for Learning Technologies, offered HarlemLive access to the Institute's computer lab.
That gave the project a launching pad, and it quickly expanded to nearly 75 students. Last November, HarlemLive moved again, this time to an even larger community technology center in Harlem called Playing 2 Win.
As HarlemLive grew, the structure became more formal and students' responsibilities increased. Students must now commit a minimum amount of time to HarlemLive. In addition, they can now take advantage of individualized tutoring, learn a variety of digital-media skills, journalistic protocols and diverse writing skills, and contribute a wider variety of material to the Web site , including poetry, editorials, art, photography and reviews.
A recent issue of HarlemLive included a story about the protest over the imprisonment of a former Black Panther accused of murder, a look at how three new businesses will affect the community and a visit with U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, whose congressional district includes Harlem.
Skills Plus Communit
While HarlemLive lets kids learn valuable skills, Calton said an equally important aspect involves broadening students' knowledge and networking abilities by introducing them to people, events and institutions in the larger community.
"Our goal is, certainly, to empower youth with skills that will give them a lot of opportunities as they go into the workforce," he said. "But this is also about the community. They get a lot of exposure by
covering these events. Because they're producing stories, people open their doors to them, and they get to see people and places and situations they wouldn't have otherwise seen."
"HarlemLive is a great way to involve students in the community," said Oaskwe Beale, a 17-year-old who's been a part of HarlemLive for three years. During his tenure, Beale has served as a senior editor and done extensive public-relations work for the organization. "It also gives you a sense of belonging."
Because HarlemLive allows students to stay involved in the project as long as they wish, the organization gives kids a sense of family that they may not get at home. "We get to work with kids over several years, so they really get grounded," Calton said. "There's a strong sense of family in the organization -- we do many things together, we get to know each other well and there's a lot of trust."
Because HarlemLive operates separately from the public-school system, the organization has more flexibility in working with the kids. As a result, kids gain skills they probably would never get in school, and get to participate in activities that otherwise would not be open to them. "The school system is very concerned about liability, so the fact that we take them out to all these places would cause the Board of Education to have a fit. But they are learning things they wouldn't learn in school," Calton said.
Beale said until he got involved in HarlemLive, he barely knew how to turn a computer on. Since joining the group, he's learned to build Web sites, run various computer applications and HTML programs, honed his public-speaking skills and improved his grades in his English classes.
Nicole Farrow, 16, also works for HarlemLive. "When I first started, I didn't know anything about computers," she said. "Since then, I've learned how to make a Web page, how to post things on the Internet, how to use a scanner, etc. I know those things wouldn't have been available to me at school, and if you don't know how to use a computer these days, you'll get left behind."
"The schools are really slow in implementing this stuff," said Calton. "They talk about doing things like this, and even get grants, but little or nothing ever happens because they are tied down with delivering their curriculum."
HarlemLive actively recruits new members from local schools and even collaborates with the schools on occasional projects. "Last year, we started a program in which we go into the schools and model what we do. Then they produce content for their school and give it to us, and we post it, linked, through our Web site. Otherwise, they would have to go through all kinds of red tape before they could even post it at their school."
From the beginning, HarlemLive has been supported entirely by volunteers. But the group is now working to secure some grants allowing them to purchase more technology and hire some full-time staff members. Considering the Global Bangemann Challenge award and subsequent nomination for a ComputerWorld/ Smithsonian award last summer, it looks likely begin to see some big payoffs for their hard work.
"At first, nobody took us seriously," said Calton. "Eventually, people began to change their minds. Once we get some more of our projects under way, people are really going to be blown away."
Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication. E-mail her.
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