Quick – what’s the first word that pops into your mind when you hear “Africa”?
In the Pulitzer Center conference room in October, journalist Austin Merrill asked a group of about 30 fifth and sixth-graders from D.C.’s Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School the same question.
“Ebola,” they shouted out. “Hunting.” “Senegal.” “Drums.”
Their list ultimately also included Sahara, ivory trade, hot, pyramids, lemurs, water, war, slavery, sand, food, conflict, poverty and Nelson Mandela.
“Why these words?” Austin asked.
“Because that’s what people see when they watch TV,” one student said.
“Ebola is…like a big disaster,” another chimed in. “So they mostly show it on the news.”
Everyday Africa: Education
Without knowing it, the kids had tapped into the mindset that inspired Pulitzer Center grantee Merrill and his colleague, photographer Peter DiCampo, also a grantee, to create the photo-sharing initiative “Everyday Africa.” Professional photographers living and working on the continent capture commonplace, “everyday” moments on camera and then share their photos on social media feeds. The aim: to provide a counter to Western media stereotypes of Africa.
As Everyday Africa’s popularity took off around the world, Austin and Peter quickly realized its education potential. Between the two of them over the past year, they’ve introduced the project – inherent in which are lessons in visual and media literacy and global consciousness – to nearly 2,000 students in Pulitzer Center partner schools alone, as well as at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education summer Project Zero Future of Learning conference. One of the goals is to support students in identifying the gaps in media coverage of their own communities, and creating their own media to fill those gaps.
This fall the Pulitzer Center joined the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative (DCAHEC) as a member. In partnership with Peter, Austin, Everyday Africa photographer and Pulitzer Center grantee Allison Shelley, and the DCAHEC, we launched a series of “Everyday Africa-Everyday D.C.” photography workshops with students and teachers from The Inspired Teaching School.
(The collaboration with the DCAHEC also led to the Everyday D.C. workshops led by Meghan Dhaliwal and Allison Shelley at Ballou High School.)
Everyday D.C. Workshop 1
Austin showed a series of “stereotypical” Africa photos: refugees, damaged buildings, conflict zones.
He explained that while the photos in this first set accurately told true stories, sometimes the images we’re exposed to from Africa are “just exaggerating what’s in that part of the world.”
Then Austin shared some Everyday Africa work: a bored-looking man in an elevator, a smiling woman against a bright background, a man using his shirt to wipe a child’s nose.
“These ones,” one student said after seeing the second set of photos, “show what Africa is – not, like, the war zone of it.” The group discussed how a photo didn’t necessarily represent a large population of people, but maybe only one person.
“It’s a certain point of view; it’s a stereotype of Africa,” a student said.
We examined a photo of a family eating on the ground. Austin asked the students what they thought of it.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s negative” that the family was sitting on the ground, one student said. “It’s just a family eating! If one of us was sitting down with our family eating, how is that negative?”
“They’re basically judging a book by its cover,” somebody else chimed in. “It’s just a picture – there’s no description – but you can’t judge it unless you know.”
Bringing it Home
Then Austin made the conversation local. How was all this discussion of Africa relevant to students’ lives here in D.C.?
“Do you think that people have stereotypes about where you live?” he asked.
Students discussed stereotypes of the different quadrants of D.C. – northwest and southeast, for example.
“When I say ‘Georgetown,’ what do you think?” asked Austin. The response: “Cupcakes.”
Then: “They hear stories about Southeast and say, ‘I’m not going there,’” one student said.
“Not everywhere is really bad in Southeast,” another added.
Then Austin and the students discussed possible photos they could take in their own neighborhoods that would tell their stories and paint accurate pictures of their communities, rather than the stereotypes we’d discussed. Students in the group live in all four quadrants of the city.
Over the next few weeks the students became local photographers; the lead teacher on the project, Latisha Coleman, collected the results. Check out some of the students’ work above, and stay tuned for news on the progression of Everyday D.C.
We made a new list of “Africa” words at the end of the workshop. The updated collection included “sunlight,” “culture,” “cool” and “misjudged.”
“What surprised me,” wrote one student in a reflection, “was that they’re just like us.”