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Putting Youth Creativity on Display


The vast majority of the world’s population – some five billion people — still has little or no access to technology or the opportunities it offers. While most of those underserved populations live in developing or emerging economies, the problem is also acute in developed nations, where rural and inner-city families often lack the resources to get connected and bring their kids into the digital economy. Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential is designed to address this problem through products and programs that transform education, foster local innovation, and enable jobs and opportunities.

“As we work to bring the benefits of technology to people around the world, we are focusing particularly on the needs, interests and dreams of young people,” says Andrea Taylor, Microsoft’s director of community affairs for North America. “The generation of young people in school or entering the workforce is key to the economic and social health of every nation. Our passion is to empower young people to become innovators, to create new businesses, and to teach and inspire others.”

Microsoft’s citizenship efforts and emphasis on youth participation have a long history. Microsoft’s partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) began about nine years ago as an effort to strengthen technology access and skills for Club staff and members.

This week Microsoft, Best Buy Children’s Foundation and BGCA are celebrating the unique works created by Club members using technology and the arts. The “Digital Arts Festivals” — five individual contests in the areas of photo illustration, digital music making, digital movie making, Web design and graphic design — are ones where Club members use software to create pictures, Web sites, songs and even motion pictures. They enter their creations in local competitions, with winners working their way up to regional, then national judging.

The winners of this year’s national contest are in Seattle this week, where contest co-sponsors Microsoft and Best Buy Children’s Foundation will offer an idea of where technology and creativity can take kids in their future careers.

Club Tech Connects BGCA Organization and Kids

The Digital Arts Festivals are part of the Microsoft-sponsored “Club Tech” program, which is available to all Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. Now in its seventh year, Club Tech continues to grow, touching more than one million youth last year. Club Tech focuses on building skills with technology and using it safely — beginning with word processing and productivity applications like Excel and PowerPoint, and branching out into digital media and art.

“We use computers in all of our program areas, whether it’s arts, sports or recreation, life skills, there are always fun things kids can do and learn using the technology in our labs,” says Dot Coleman, senior unit director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, Leslie Unit. “It’s grown to become one of our most important offerings in terms of preparing young people for the jobs of the future and to be productive citizens and employees in their adult life.”

According to Taylor, the magnitude of Microsoft’s commitment to Club Tech has been substantial by any measure — about US$150 million in cash and software. As the program’s success has grown, it has also attracted additional corporate and public sponsorship. This year Best Buy Children’s Foundation has joined the cause as a co-sponsor of Club Tech, following more than nine years of supporting BGCA in various capacities, including $1 million to supply digital media equipment for Clubs.

“By providing grants, software, curricula, and the resources to implement the program, our goal is to help strengthen the Clubs’ ability to empower young people through technology skills,” says Taylor. “The Club Tech program is an important part of the Microsoft Unlimited Potential objective to reach the next billion people with technology by 2015. This is where we believe Microsoft can have the greatest impact in creating a sustainable cycle of social and economic development.”

Enabling New Opportunities

According to Club directors around the country, many of the young people who participate in Club Tech would not have access to computers without the program, or would only have access in a shared environment through the school system. Programs such as Club Tech give kids an advantage that otherwise would not be there.

In the greater Kansas City organization, for example, Coleman estimates that as many as 95 percent of her 8,000 youth participants do not have computers at home. School computer labs help, but especially in rural or inner-city areas, few school districts have enough technology resources. Club Tech helps kids understand that there’s more to computing than playing games, giving them ways to communicate and share their ideas and helping them engage with the technology.

“With the school district, the majority of time spent in the computer lab is working with reading programs and math programs,” Coleman says. “It’s really not showing kids how to use the computer, nothing that’s hands-on the way we have our program here.”

In this way, according to Taylor, the mission of Boys & Girls Clubs of America aligns closely with that of Microsoft — The Clubs want to help young people realize their potential.

“How do you provide one billion people with access to technology and associated benefits?” asks Taylor. “One community at a time. Reaching underserved communities requires a deep commitment to partnerships such as this one with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which work across all demographic divisions — economy, race, rural, urban.”

Digital Arts Festivals: Focal Point for Creativity and Technology

Jointly sponsored by Microsoft and Best Buy Children’s Foundation, the Digital Arts Festivals were created to give youth a reason for applying their new skills toward something creative, and to give them recognition for their hard work along the way.

The festivals create project environments to engage kids in learning technology applications, while at the same time gaining valuable skills in collaboration, storytelling, and how to bring different elements together into a project. About a third of the nation’s Clubs participate in the festivals annually.

“Once these young people understand the technology, they use it in ways that adults would never think of,” says Taylor. “They use a lot of the advanced techniques and they capture real meaning in what they do.”

One of the projects to emerge as a national winner this year was a photo-collage created by 10-year-old Brianna Hill in Coleman’s Kansas City region. This year’s theme was “In the News,” and Hill used Microsoft photo-editing software to create an image portraying her interpretation of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

“I did Hurricane Katrina because it made me express my feelings about those people trapped in the flooding,” she says. “It made me think about if I was with them. It would be horrible for the people. I just wanted other people to know, and to think of the people who were there, and to realize that you could be one of those people at any time.”

Hill used the Microsoft Digital Image Suite to bring several different images together and convey her sense of the disaster.

“There was a person who had wrinkled hands, an old woman’s hands,” she says. “That was about how long they’ve been there. There was a man who was holding a baby, which made me feel that babies were even there. There was chaos in how the people were mad at each other. There was a house that had words on it that said people were alive. And the last one, there was a man and his daughter and she was crying on his shoulder.”

According to Katie Kimple, senior director of Club Tech for BGCA, such sophisticated concepts from a 10-year-old reflect an evolution in the quality of the work submitted to the Digital Arts Festivals year over year. This is a factor, she says, of increased participation, as well as improved skills on the part of both youth participants and Club staffers.

“The organizations are learning along with the kids and providing more support to them each year,” says Kimple. “What excites us year after year is that our younger kids produce work that is equally impressive as our 16-18 year olds. The technology not only levels the playing field socio-economically, but across age groups. And they’re taking those experiences and channeling the same energy and enthusiasm into other areas of their life.”

The reverse is true as well, with kids taking their passions outside the Club and expressing those with creative uses of technology. Cristina Rivera, a 17-year-old in Pharr, Texas, a tiny town minutes away from the Mexican border, won her national award for a song entitled “Spanish Flavor.”

“When I was growing up I listened to a lot of Spanish music, so it inspired me to do a song with the music making program,” says Rivera. “I thought it was cool hearing different kinds of beats and sounds together. Without my Boys & Girls Club I probably wouldn’t have done this. It was sort of easy, but hard at the same time. It was worth it.”

Besides making music, Rivera has also learned Word, PowerPoint and has begun to dabble with Windows Movie Maker through the Club Tech program.

Rewards for a Job Well Done

This week all of the national winners are rewarded with a trip to Seattle — as recognition for developing their digital literacy skills, and as an opportunity to introduce the kids to the work force those skills can engender.

While a trip to the great Northwest is a big reward for their work, the kids also reap several benefits just from participating in the Digital Arts Festivals. Many of the contest judges are experts in their fields, and they provide feedback to the kids for areas of improvement as well as positive reinforcement, to encourage kids to take their skills even further. This year two Microsoft employees participated as judges in the Digital Arts Festivals as well: Group Program Manager Alex Weinert judged entries in the Web Design category, and Collette Stallbaumer, a senior marketing manager at Microsoft, judged the Graphic Design contest.

“Last year one judge was so impressed by the work she saw created by such young kids, she expressed her interest in becoming more involved in the program and offered internships to local winners,” says Kimple. “So it opens up a lot of opportunities, not only for kids to get their artwork in front of people, but job wise as well.”

Indeed, one of the biggest rewards for gaining digital literacy is employability. In some of the communities where Boys & Girls Clubs operate, there are kids who need jobs at 14 or 15 years old to help with their family’s economic situation, according to Coleman.

“Even jobs like McDonald’s, Burger King — everything is computerized,” says Coleman. “We put computers into each of our five core program areas – character and leadership development; education; career and life skills; arts; and sports, recreation and fitness — to ensure our young people have those skills. I just thank Microsoft and Best Buy Children’s Foundation for choosing to assist our young people in getting into the world of technology.”

And for Boys & Girls Club staffers, of course, the program’s rewards show up in other ways. There are hundreds of success stories across the country of kids improving their lives through the program.

“I had a number of kids who had trouble with attention deficit disorder, had trouble focusing in class, or had trouble keeping on top of regular classroom academic progress,” says Kimple. “But in front of the computer, the world became an equal playing field, and they were suddenly more engaged, more focused, had the ability to accomplish tasks that they weren’t able to accomplish in a more traditional classroom setting.”

According to Taylor, that kind of transformative experience reflects a fundamental belief at Microsoft that technology has the power to help anyone do great things.

“We believe that by empowering and connecting communities around the world through technology, we can give everyone an opportunity to achieve their full potential,” she says. “By combining technology, training and partnerships such as this one, we are working toward a continuous cycle of social and economic growth for everyone.”


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