Barry directed the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids, Inc. from 2000 – 2012, helping youth to acquire leadership skills and engage in efforts to address global issues through the production of digital media. Global Kids puts youth voices on both a local and global stage: youth-led online dialogues, video games as a form of youth media (he co-founded Games For Change), the application of social networks for social good, the educational potential of virtual worlds like Second Life, the educational application of mobile phones and alternative assessments models, and more.
Starting in October, 2012, Barry began work at the American Museum of Natural History as the Associate Director For Digital Learning, allowing him to bring his dozen years working in youth development and nearly twenty years working in new media to support the AMNH to advance its mission (which includes, in part, connecting people with the universe…).
I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about your work, just to give me an overview of what you do and your aims.
In 2000, I started working with Global Kids. Global Kids is one of the founding Hive members in New York City. At Global Kids, I was the Director of Online Leadership — it was a youth leadership organization.
In 2006, we got our first grant from the MacArthur Foundation. We eventually received or were included within nine different grants from MacArthur. It began with bringing out youth voice, through Teen Second Life (which was barely months old at that point) into what was at the time MacArthur’s research investigators into Digital Media and Learning (DML) work.
We were then invited to participate in the first New Youth City design charrette, which was the beginning of Hive, and then Global Kids received funds through the first three grants – not directly, but in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, where I am working now (and which was one of the first two grantees). This project was in partnership with the Bronx Zoo and developed a digital badging program.
I worked with Global Kids for 12 years, until 2012. I was involved in many, MacArther-funded and many Hive- and New York Community Trust-funded projects within Hive. Sometimes as the lead, sometimes as partners with others.
We were part of the creation of Emoti-Con, as part of Hive, alongside many Hive members (like MOUSE and the NYPL), with no funding, then received funding by Hive for many years. We did partnerships with the New York Public library and the Brooklyn Public Library, a lot of stuff with games. Mobile games, digital games, and such.
In 2012 I left to come to the Museum of Natural History, where I brought over what I was doing with young people on global issues and adapted it for working with youth in an informal science setting. For four years, I worked with young people through a similar co-design process where youth would: help to make tabletop games that were based on exhibits (which were sold in exhibit stores and distributed for free online); mobile games that people can play in the hall using augmented reality; augmented reality activity sheets for cultural halls. All sorts of good stuff like that.
Then, after doing that for four years (that is, developing a digital learning pedagogy, bringing over the design practices and the youth development and leadership practices, having produced a number of successful public-facing educational tools that we developed with youth) I moved over to the new area I’m in now, which is the Science Visualization Group. SVG is focused on experimenting and prototyping with the public different AR and VR experiences to educate them about and excite them about the increasing role that digital data’s playing among scientists.
Super cool. That’s a very rich background, which might make my next question a little challenging. Can you tell me about a time where you felt a real sense of success in your work?
At the end of every program with youth — which ends with a presentation where they show what they made. They feel a sense of ownership over it. Ownership over the design process, viewing themselves not just as consumers and as learners, but as media producers and educators.
I feel like we’ve transformed and enhanced their identity as contributors to society and helped them connect their passions with learning, giving them increased foundations for them to more effectively and strategically plan for an awarding future for themselves.
How about an example of a challenge that you face?
Youth contribution to the media production cycle can be seen in a negative way to people who have spent years and a lot of money getting trained in those skills. Integrating those two resources together can be a challenge.
Some media groups just let youth do it on their own, with light mentorship. Their goal is to provide youth with access to tools, develop their skill sets, be available as a mentor, but let them do their own thing with gentle guidance as an adult mentor.
That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in youth getting full access to the expertise in the adult sense and to work with them as partners. Of course, I’m not interested in the opposite either, which is just using youth as a token.
So to make it work it means that people who are paid to develop and use their significant expertise have to also be able to learn to understand what skilled amateurs can bring to the process in a meaningful way. That’s what young people can do. They have expertise in other areas, partially, that adds to it, their youth voice, their youth perspective. But the argument can then be made, “We’ll just use them as a focus group, not as creative contributors.” But my argument is that that strength can go into their creative contributions and make a big difference.
How have you addressed this challenge? I mean, you started to lay out the beginnings of the argument, but what does that look like?
The end of the day, there’s nothing you can say. You just have to do it. You have to work it through and you have to build trust and you have to show, you have to demonstrate, youth capabilities by having them actually do it.
So that’s meant for me, initially, doing it under the radar. I worked in the education department’s area that was about youth programs. We made education programs, whose goal was to meet educational goals and the needs of educational learners.
Another division’s goal, outside the one where I say, is to make educational products: products for teachers and families that visit the museum. So one dept is focused on a programmatic process, and the other on a product development process.
When I was working with young people in education, doing education, having them do products, that was now under the radar. That’s not what was supposed to happen. We were able to start by doing stuff under the radar, demonstrate it was possible, show that other people who bought into it were interested, and make the success of what was produced undeniable. So they could say, “Oh, there’s something interesting here.”
Right. Because you had something to show them that was tangible.
It sounds like you also have really great facilitation skills and sensitivities to how people are feeling and were able to lean into that to do that trust building and to do it.
I like people. I see disruption as a plus, a pleasure. I like helping people work their way through it.
Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, the open internet, if you will. What is for you the open internet?
I think, to me, it just starts with a conceptual concept that the internet was created by the US government with an academic partnership, but over time, it’s been claimed for the people as a utility. As utility, the internet needs to be openly accessible and fair for all. That the commercial interests that now control it should let the public interest drive what happens with it, not the commercial interest.
That means putting things in place to protect the public’s access to it, which means public policy. Which means public awareness of what values we should associate with the internet. It means helping people be safe online. Helping it be a safe environment without it being a digital police state.
As Henry Jenkins says, “to watch their backs and not snoop over their shoulders.” That’s a big truth for all of us. That’s not true just for young people, but it means that would be the expectation for all public spaces online.
Have you ever felt a sense of this openness? Has it been important to you?
I was on BBSs starting when I was 12 years old in the mid ’80s.
I was in discussion spaces and text-based games and learned all about that stuff. That was a prelude to what was going to happen when everyone had access. The kind of leadership opportunities and abilities to connect with other people, ways to have fun in digital spaces that 10 years later was accessible to so many more.
That’s where it started. Then the late ’90s, I worked at WebLab, which was one of the first organizations that gave out grants for people to make websites (because, if you can believe it, back then, you needed money to make websites) that were about people who were wanting to talk about personal issues from their own perspective or just social issues.
Many of those sites were about forming dialog across differences. Again, looking back, this was during the Clinton impeachment process, right? Having online dialog to get people who were for and against the impeachment to have civic and civil dialog with each other about public issues. Or getting Vietnam era vets together with anti-Vietnam activists or people who had survived, people who had committed suicide. Or people who were some part of the adoption triangle. They’d been given up for adoption, they adopted somebody, they themselves were adopted.
Those spaces online brought people together and opened dialog that were supported by a technical infrastructure. It was the software. It was the code. The code determined the culture, allowing for remarkable dialog to happen, again, amongst people with very different beliefs.
That really represented some of the best in democratic discourse. It evolved in a number of ways. Eventually, that technique was actually used post 9/11 as well in some of the New York City downtown recovery process.
You’ve been involved in this for so long and have seen so many different iterations, I’m sure, of what people are using, and platforms. Do you see an evolution that is more closed, or do you think there are still the same types of opportunities that you’ve seen all along?
Good question. I think everything that was suggested from my times in BBS to the early days of the mid-90s, online discussions, to now, we’ve always been creating opportunities to explore their promise. We haven’t been proven wrong. That promise is still there, it’s increasing people to be able to connect with one another.
I think in spite of social media, it’s one of the main ways that those kind of things has been taken to scale. At the same time, we’ve also seen an increase to the downside of all this stuff. Cyberbullying, the abilities to bully, the inappropriate sexual contact, and exchange of misinformation, for some people the ability to do illegal transactions online, access to insidious information and abilities for terrorists like ISIS or the alt right to recruit and organize online.
It’s clear what the problems are. We’ve increased the abilities of people to connect to each other. That’s only as good or bad as offline people connecting with each other.
There’s amazing ways people can connect now and do more incredible things than they could have done before. There’s also awful things they could do. In that context, as more and more people come on board, the potential for great is there, and the potential for evil has increased also. It’s really a question of what we’re going to do about it.
Whether we need to get our forces to try and close it down completely, so we can have both possibilities or to keep it an open space, we need to both keep it open but also pro-social, and have some things in place that allow the good stuff to thrive, but also learn to both technically prevent the bad stuff where we can, and have a culture that knows how to police and watch out for it.
I don’t think we know yet the best ways to respond to both the promises and the threats, at the same time. So it’s still an open question.
Have you seen anything that you would say, “Yeah, that comes from Mozilla,” a tool, a convening, or even a set of values, that has had some kind of impact on your work or your organization?
Let me invert that. What has had the biggest impact on the work in this area?
McArthur’s DML is the thing that has defined our understanding of digital pedagogy, public policy required to support it, and the institutional, social challenges, political challenges in the way, as well as digital tools that can be used to address it, and formalized and informal associations that can support it, like Learning Labs, like Hive.
Mark and Connie gave the flash talk at DML a few years ago: What the Fuck are Mozilla and McArthur doing together? That’s the title, “Hey, we’re bringing you together now!” I saw that in part as Mozilla picking up that DML mantle, and I saw McArthur saying that there is something that we are not doing on the ground.
Mozilla was brings some heft to it, the ability to work with the volunteers around the world, and distribute development and open source, and all that. It’s the open source values, the open source community that McArthur wanted to adapt, which I think was good for McArthur.
One of the people I’ve spoken to has actually said straight out, “The fact that I could stay at Hive was a plus” in his new position.
My argument has been, “What’s the impact of Hive on us?” It’s broadened our definition of who our professional community is and has allowed us to move among institutions and feel like we’re in the same field.
Ariam went from a museum to an after school program. I went from an after school program to a museum. Chris, went from a museum to Hive. Jack went from New York Public Library to Global Kids. Juan went from Global Kids to the Seattle Library.
Before, I would have thought these are all different spaces. Different types of institutions. But with Hive, they’re all the same to me now — that’s the broadest impact that Hive has had. They call us, “Hive hoppers.”