Interview: Phil Borges on how children in 30 countries can teach one another with digital tools
Acclaimed photographer Phil Borges spent decades chronicling social, environmental and cultural threats and problems around the world. Now he has handed cameras over to young people in 30 countries to tell their own stories. His organization, Bridges to Understanding, links classrooms globally, pairing students from indigenous cultures with their urban counterparts in the United States. It has helped thousands use digital media to teach one another.
Dowser: What benefits do youths get from engaging in cross-cultural storytelling?
Borges: They learn with and from each other, not just about each other. When we paired kids in Seattle with kids from the Navajo Nation, the kids from Seattle wanted to hear the Navajo kids speak their own language, but only half of them could speak it. The Navajo teacher told me, ‘Those kids asking our kids to speak Navajo gave our kids a sense of pride about their culture that they were losing.’
What kinds of insights do kids in the U.S. gain from those abroad?
In one workshop, two girls from Washington State went to Peru. When they got home they made some observations: ‘The Peruvian kids all have to work to help support their families,’ they said. ‘They spend a lot of face time together. Here we’re online, talking to each other, texting. They tell each other things we wouldn’t dare tell our friends about ourselves. They’re more emotionally open.’
How does your Bridges Ambassador Program connect youth from Seattle with youth in India, South Africa, and Guatemala?
The kids from different countries pair up–say kids in Seattle and in Guatemala. They first communicate online, and then the kids from Seattle travel to Guatemala. The kids from Guatemala pick an issue in their community that they would like to see solved, and they and the kids from Seattle together make a movie about it.
The themes we’ve been exploring are ‘culture and traditions,’ ‘conflict reconciliation,’ and ‘environmental sustainability.’ Our latest curriculum is on climate change; students make stories about how it impacts their lives. We send teachers to mentor the kids, to show them how to use the cameras, how to use the software, and how to put the movies together.
What effects do these programs have on the kids in Guatemala, or in other countries?
In Guatemala, a girl named Berta got the idea to do an interview. She said, ‘I’d like to interview the only woman councilmember in our town.’ She happens to be Mayan, so she’s an indigenous councilmember — almost unheard of down there. Because of that, the councilwoman recommended Berta to be the translator for Guatemala’s president when he came to investigate a mudslide that had buried a town in the area. Berta is now in law school.
At 45 you quit being an orthodontist, sold your practice to become a photographer, and a decade later you founded Bridges to Understanding. What led to the second career shift?
In the early ’90s, at the beginning of my photography career, I was working on a personal project about street gangs that had come from L.A. to Seattle. I gave one of these gangs cameras, and said, ‘Tell your story, let the community know what you want them to know about you.’
The project was successful. We had shows of the kids’ work in a major museum. It brought a change to the kids who were part of the gang– one guy became the most improved student at his high school. I saw what storytelling could do for the storyteller, not just for the person listening to the story.
So the idea started in L.A.?
Yes, and the idea fully emerged for the organization when I was in the Amazon in Ecuador. I learned that a lot of oil had been spilled there, and it caused tribes to move away. The American government was spraying defoliants over the Amazon to kill cocoa plants to stop the cocaine trade. That was our war on drugs. It wasn’t in the headlines in our papers. I thought, ‘If only these people had a direct voice in telling us about it.’
As a photographer, and now with your organization, how do you gain the trust of the communities you work with?
When I was going into tribal communities to photograph, I would bring my Polaroid camera. I would meet kids, do their portraits, and hand out Polaroids. It was like a magic show that ingratiated me. I let the chief know why I was there and what I wanted to do, and I asked if there was anything they wanted. They might ask for a bag of wheat, a radio, or a goat, and I would bring it to them. They wanted to learn about what was going on outside, to understand the rest of the world. Today, it helps that we partner with other organizations already working in different areas.
What have you tried that hasn’t worked?
We started with lots of sites in the U.S. I’ve realized there’s no way we can do quality control with all these sites spread so far apart. So now in the U.S., we’re only in Seattle. We consider ourselves a Petri dish for growing this means of engaging kids across cultures.
Also, we used to lead mentor workshops, like volunteer vacations, to generate income. People would pay to travel to our sites and pair up with the kids. I thought these people would then come back afterward and be mentors in our classrooms, but it didn’t work out that way. So we’re not doing that anymore.
Have there been any unexpected successes?
The number of schools who have called us; the parents who have asked us to go into their kids’ classroom; the sites overseas that wish we could be there. Finding people who want to get involved has been the easiest part.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Sean Duggan