Cultural, Social, Environmental and Digital Challenges and Pitfalls
In this chapter, you will find out more about cultural, social, environmental, digital and ethical challenges in using digital methods for cultural exchange and what you need to pay attention to when you start preparing them.
Lesson 1: Cultural challenges
By presenting certain realities of the Global South, where groups are sharing their Home stories and their immediate environment, we have to be mindful of the fact that context of such stories is equally important in order to avoid stereotyping certain countries or indeed entire regions. From such stereotyping, further negative prejudice, which we are in fact trying to overcome with the help of cultural peer-to-peer learning, can form. As educators we have to have good intercultural skills to challenge such prejudice if they arise in the workshops. It is crucial that we perform some introductory activities aimed at raising awareness as to what culture is, what are the different assumptions we make on other people based on their cultural background and helping students be more conscious on what culture and cultural differences really are and how we can all incorporate them in our day-to-day lives. Look for differences and similarities between different groups to show that while cultures are different there are also many connections between them.
An important factor to consider is also the time difference: when cooperating with groups from the Global South, for instance from South America, at the time of morning school classrooms in Europe it will still be night in South America. Thus, live virtual exchanges would have to be organized accordingly in order to allow the groups to be able to participate at normal day hours.
Be flexible in terms of time! Sometimes the electricity in partner countries is limited and questionable, whether the cuts will happen at that particular moment when you are planning the workshop. Have a backup.
Lesson 2: Cultural exchange vs. cultural appropriation
Cultural exchanges are important to share ideas and knowledge and built mutual understanding. Looking at ideas, arts, traditions, symbols, knowledge from other cultures in a classroom is a great way to learn and combat stereotypes but it can also lead to cultural insensitivity and cultural appropriation. The word appropriation comes from the Latin word proprium meaning “to make one’s own”. Cultural appropriation thus means that one cultural group makes use of or imitates cultural elements from another group, without consent and by removing it from its origins and heritage. The question of power relations between these cultural groups is very important and you should reflect on the historical and present power relations between them. Cultural appropriation has negative effects on indigenous cultures and indeed their artists, it enables reinforcement of stereotypes that are the source of discrimination, it allows for misrepresentation of indigenous peoples and their cultural expressions, undermining efforts to educate the public about their histories and cultures. Cultural appropriation is not always easy to notice so as educators you have responsibility to be sensitive to this issue and have discussions with your students. Ask them questions such as: what kind of cultural significance does this image or object have for this cultural group? How does removing the context (origins and tradition) change its meaning? Is the way we are using these symbols, images or objects insensitive or offensive? You can also try to get someone to talk about this issue from his or her direct experience. You can also check the guide “Think before you appropriate” by Simon Fraser University from Vancouver, Canada.
Some of the masquerade costumes are some of the examples of cultural appropriation. Look at the posters that students at Ohio University in the USA made to raise awareness about this issue in their 2013 “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” Campaign. Read more about it here.
Lesson 3: Social challenges
Social differences may become visible in the home stories shared by the groups from Global South and Global North. This may refer to places where children live, toys and technology they possess or the easiness of access to schools, school material etc. Note down some of these issues and address them after the exchange. Discuss the roots of these differences. It is important to show that social differences are not consequences of one’s own actions but part of systematic inequality. They are also not culturally based - people are not poor or deprived because they come from a certain country or culture. Social differences between regions are the result of historical process of colonization and on-going exploitation of the people and resources in the Global South.
Have in mind the financial aspect of virtual exchanges: consider the costs for Global South partners as you would with any other partner from your country. The obstacles will be different from one group to another but some may have to rent a room to gather as a group or will need more funds to pay for a better internet connection or comply with video requirements of a workshop.
Lesson 4: Environmental challenges
Virtual workshops allow for a greater environmental sustainability by creating an online exchange between groups of the Global South and North that would usually travel to a certain country of destination just for these workshops. Thus, we not only avoiding exclusion of persons with less opportunities to travel, but are also protecting the environment by reducing pollution of cross-continental travel.
However, virtual workshops and online activities also have an important environmental footprint: the energy consumption, smart devices being produced under exploitative and environmentally harmful conditions, and at the end of their lives, end up as toxic electronic waste. The short study “Climate protection through digital technologies” from the Borderstep Institute compares various studies and comes to the conclusion that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the production, operation and disposal of digital end devices and infrastructures are between 1.8 and 3.2 percent of global emissions (as of 2020). One of the biggest causes of the internet’s huge power consumption is in fact music and video streaming.
Lesson 5: Digital challenges
Digital divide is a very real factor contributing to a further inequality in access to education, information and (easier) realization of many human rights. It is defined as the gap between people who have access to affordable, reliable internet service (and the skills and gadgets necessary to take advantage of that access) and those who lack it. In our workshops, we have to be aware of the possibilities of such a divide not only on the local scale (among our students, if they have to participate in the virtual sessions from home), but also globally, involving groups from the Global South.
Internet connection: it is also important to have in mind that precisely because of digital divide not everyone has access to good internet connection. This can cause difficulties in communication (delays, break-ups). Discuss this issue with the group before implementing the workshop. Think also about material you will use such as videos or films as this may even further slowdown already bad internet connection.
Video requirements: check with the group you meeting virtually if all the requirements for video streaming are in place. Best is to make a test before to see if picture and the sound work.
Lesson 6: Ethical challenges
When making photos and videos of the groups from the Global South, think about the messages the material produces. Often, photos and videos in the countries of the Global North show places in the Global South merely through poverty, disaster and conflict. This can (re)produce stereotypes of helpless victims in the South, which “white savours” from the North need to save. It is important to use material in a way that shows places and people in a broader context and not just through one, single story. When making/using videos think about who is the one telling the story.
It is especially important to be aware of these issues when making and using photos of children: ask yourself how they are portrayed, who is the one portraying them, do you know if their families gave consent to be used in photos? Pay attention to child rights, which apply for all the children around the world. Children from Global South have often been used in photos for awareness raising or fundraising purposes, especially by humanitarian organizations, having their faces on posters or social media. Be mindful of the problem this may cause and respect the right of the child not to be visible or exposed.
Watch this short video from Médecins sans frontiers / Doctors without borders, one of the leading humanitarian organizations, that explains the importance of messages in photos and videos used and apologises for their history of previous campaigns using “white saviour” images.
You may also want to see this inspiring video of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi titled “The danger of a single story”.