The Container Project in Jamaica: A vision of technology that puts communities first
Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column
Thanks to Camille Turner, mervin Jarman, Matt Price, Francesca da Rimini and Wayne Motayne for sending such an abundance of information and inspiration as I developed this column.
Several afternoons a week, the second floor of the Red Thread building in Georgetown is abuzz with the chatter of children’s voices. For years Red Thread has been holding computer classes that are taught by the women at the Centre, working with children ranging in age from 6 to 18 years. Using recycled computers and printers (which often break down and require creative energy and the substituting of parts from one machine to another until the problem is fixed), the programme was initially developed as an incentive to get children to read, and is part of a broader approach to engaging children, mainly from the Charlestown community where the Centre is located. Children are also involved in classes and workshops in the bottom flat and participate in summer programmes (which for the last two years have included camping trips), while the older ones are part of a youth network which focuses on how they build community and take control of their lives. In other words, working with computers is part of an integrated strategy that sees the children in holistic terms.
Last week, in the latest coverage of the One Laptop Per Family project (OLPF), the Guyana Chronicle announced to much fanfare that the first 27,000 laptops had arrived. There have been questions raised in the media and elsewhere about various aspects of the project, from the super salaries offered to consultants, to the transparency of the bids and the cost of procurement, to the timing of laptop distribution. Several media houses have referred to the OLPF as an election gimmick, and in true Guyanese style one person wrote me to say the laptop project was another example of the lap-pot approach to politics these days.
I have always been far more interested in the overall vision driving this project, beyond the usual pat phrases of bridging the digital divide and providing computers for families that could not otherwise afford to own one. Last Saturday’s article in the Chronicle made reference to the OLPF as the single largest example of volunteerism and community co-operation (it is not clear how), and pointed out that 35 hubs or learning centres would be operational across the country where people would be trained for a minimum of eight hours (on the OLPF website this covers basic skills such as how to take care of your laptop and navigating the internet). The other training modules that are listed so far relate to Microsoft Word and Excel (http://mac.olpf.gov.gy).
There was something missing, it seemed to me, between what I have seen unfold in Red Thread’s attempt to engage young people through technology and what I found on the OLPF website. Put simply, the OLPF does not explain precisely what volunteerism and community involvement actually mean, and everything on the website points to teaching people about technology, giving them skills they do not yet have and computers they cannot afford. On the face of it, this seems like a worthwhile and laudable project, but it seems to me that despite all the hype, it does not really start with people.
Dr. Matt Price runs a variety of community computer engagement projects in Toronto, and also teaches in the Department of History at the University of Toronto, where he has developed an innovative course called ‘Hacking History’ which teaches students with no technical skills to build websites in collaboration with community groups. His comments perfectly expressed my unease at the OLPF vision:
“Of course information technology (IT) can help people. But the intellectual, social, and economic benefits of IT come from engaging people as active participants in the creation of a knowledge infrastructure. It is never enough to teach people how to turn a machine on, or even how to use word or excel. People need to transform their relationship to the technology, so that it confronts them, not as a mysterious device to which they can interface in a limited way, but as a mode of creative expression whose intricacies they can master. This means teaching, not particular skills, but a capacity for exploration and understanding. And it means building and engaging communities around the technologies and the forms of expression they make possible.”
Just last week I hosted a visitor in my university class in Toronto, Camille Turner, who told us of one initiative that does just this, The Container Project in Jamaica, a non-profit initiative which provides community access space to computers as a way of “empowering the youths and long-term unemployed in developing and improving their ability to successfully interact with the new and emerging technologies.”(www.container-project.net). Of Jamaican heritage, Camille was one of the first artists-in-residence when The Container Project was launched in 2003 in Palmers Cross, a rural Jamaican community, and in 2008 it was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award for Education. It is the brainchild of mervin Jarman (he does not capitalize his first name), who hails from Palmers Cross and returned to the Caribbean from the UK (those involved talk about the repatriation of technology, which as we will see below is more than just moving equipment and software). Jarman also situated the container on family land, which artist and writer Francesca da Rimini (who has written extensively on The Container Project) points out helps to ensure that the initiative is not beholden to private owners or the state.
It is easiest to describe this inspirational initiative by referring to three inter-connected R’s: Recycle; Reach; and Relate. Recycle seems fairly straightforward, and refers to the use of a forty-foot shipping container that has been outfitted and transformed into a multimedia centre. Along similar lines, in 2008 The Container Project launched the istreetlab, imaginatively repurposing a large garbage disposal wheelie bin to hold an entire multimedia training unit. This recycling of objects is, however, part of a deeper philosophy that engages people who have been marginalized, seen as having no future, society’s outcasts. We see this in Jarman’s description of the place he has returned to: “It’s been said time and time again that nothing good can come from Palmers Cross, and that’s from both within and outside…I know this because I am one of them, one of the rejected and sidelined, those relegated to the sidewalks and street corners of our time.” The project is about giving hope, not through empty promises of deliverance, but by finding supportive ways to unlock the potential that exists within us for individual and collective transformation. Attitudes and behaviours that destroy people and communities can be recycled, while the local knowledge that exists in homes and on street corners becomes valuable, a critical resource that must not be wasted. Many will recognize the parallels between this emphasis on what da Rimini calls self-directed learning and the practice of Walter Rodney that is based on the principle of self-emancipation, a vision developed partly through his work in the 1960s with Rastafarians in Kingston, Jamaica. For Rodney, we are a community of learners and he insisted, “I feel that I had a grasp and a confidence that our people have the capacity to deal with their own situation, and that has not changed in me since.”
Reach starts with where people are at in a geographical sense, going to where they live and socialize because those places matter. Originally the idea was to attach wheels to the container so that it could travel around Jamaica and also be transported by ship across the Caribbean, tapping into the creative energies of other places with workshops and training sessions. However, the container ended up as a fixture in Palmers Cross, an accessible community space that residents have become deeply attached to. The istreetlab, developed to reach at-risk youth between 9 and 25, has become the mobile centre. One can wheel it easily down uneven streets and through winding alleyways, stop and set up a mini recording studio on a street corner. As Jarman explains, “before you had to get people into a formal structure to try and educate them, but now the education goes to them, and in their familiar space where they are comfortable, and most likely to benefit from the process. A kind of tek it to dem attitude!”
Reaching people on their turf is key to reaching them in a more fundamental way, offering alternatives to dead-end jobs, discrimination, drugs, crime and violence. To be sure, individuals are trained in Information Communications Technology Skills that are verified by the National Council on Technical Vocational Education and Training, but in a context that seeks to get people to Relate to the multimedia tools and each other in creative ways. For example, da Rimini writes of Camille Turner at the official opening in Palmers Cross, witnessing “people cutting and welding windows, installing insulation and flooring, fixing adjacent buildings…the building site became a social space, as people came to look, work, or just hang out, with communal cooking and music energizing the locale. The community’s labour created “shared ownership” and “inclusion” because it became “THEIR space”.” The project website has an inspiring video in which a man describes his plans to set up a small business, and who helps train people at the container which has facilitated his own development. Moreover, people are not just learning about computer codes. Just as important are social codes like respect, trust, co-operation, sharing, punctuality and social responsibility, codes for how we relate to each other that are repeated and reinforced through daily practice. At yet another level the relationships extend beyond a single community or street corner to embrace “the marginalized of the world”, from volunteers from other countries who helped set up the container and continue to come in as artists-in-residence, to the digital links that enable users to interface and share with other communities in other countries involved in similar projects.
What strikes me as fundamentally different between the vague promises of the OLPF project being rolled out across Guyana and the simple and clear vision offered by The Container Project, is that the latter has a holistic approach that begins with people and nuff respect for the knowledge they walk with. It goes beyond handing out a computer and teaching Microsoft Word and Excel skills to grateful families from impoverished communities, many without regular electricity or phone service. That makes for a great photo op with the relevant Minister, and as many have pointed out can be easily tied to a state propaganda media machine in an election year. One hopes the orientation in Guyana can change but it is clear that the shift in thinking has to be a radical one, one that requires rethinking our relationships to technology. Matt Price calls this alternative approach emancipatory technology: “It’s not simply or even about giving people devices. What matters is how people relate to technology. If they relate to it as creative masters as opposed to people enslaved by technologies, then tremendous possibilities open up for building communities and for creating knowledge for economic and social benefits. This is what makes something like The Container Project so subversive and powerful. It shifts that understanding of yourself and of our own capacity.” This is not a technological issue, but a political one, for it threatens the traditional power structures with a movement from below that is creative, joyful, collective, critical and able to think and act for itself. mervin Jarman’s words are the perfect place to end: “For me it really wasn’t about the technology. Technology was just a tool that I had that I could use. It could have been anything. It is first and foremost about the people. That is the subject of the Container, its people. What the Container can do to alleviate the pain and suffering of its people.”