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Student spends summer giving voice to youth in developing world

HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER HOLIDAYS: Student Wojciech Gryc, pictured on the U of T Scarborough campus, went to Africa's biggest slum to teach media literacy in the developing world.(Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

A University of Toronto Scarborough student spent his summer, not at a holiday destination, but in Africa’s biggest slum.

The poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Kibera, outside of Nairobi, Kenya, was the site at which third-year student Wojciech Gryc spent seven weeks of his time as a volunteer, helping to bring a media voice to the developing world.

Gryc, a student in International Development Studies (IDS) and mathematics, worked to provide training to help local young people learn to use free and accessible computer software to produce a local newspaper, Spotlight on Kibera.

He and another student volunteer, Hannah Renglich of York University, ran journalism and technology workshops to help develop writing and desktop publishing skills among Kibera youth between 18 and 25 years of age. The first issue of the newspaper is due out in October. Gryc handled the technical training, imparting skills in basic text editing, graphic design, digital photography and programming, while Renglich taught concepts of journalism, English grammar and editing.

“If you’re from the slum and you don’t have an education, chances are that there’s no formal job that you can find,” says Gryc, 21. “Many people don’t have postsecondary education, and they say that 75 per cent of Kenya’s population is youth, so unemployment is high and there’s a big labour surplus. Workshops like these are very helpful because people can gain some skills informally, and if that means that they later start a business of their own, or if they work on this newsletter and it is sold and then generates some income for them, then that’s wonderful.”

The Canadian pair was discouraged from going to Kibera, since the United Nations warns of safety and security issues in the slum of 1.5 million people. However, the Canadians were working with a local grassroots organization, Shining Hope for the Community (SHOFCO), whose volunteers were known in the community, so the visitors were welcomed with open arms.

“We had the advantage of being invited, and of staying for a relatively long time, and people knew what we were doing there,” said Gryc. “This was SHOFCO’s project, and we were there to help, so we were well received. They often have visitors for a few days, but visitors who stay for seven weeks are pretty rare.”

Gryc said he felt humbled by the experience, as well as a sense of pride. “I am so proud of how much these young people accomplished. They know they need skills and to develop themselves, and the amount they learned was amazing. “Before the workshops, some of them had never used a computer, so they learned everything from how to use a mouse and keyboard to how to organize a newspaper layout and insert photos. I also feel proud of how much SHOFCO did, and how much we did. Now they can write articles about Kibera and post them on a blog, without having an international institution doing it for them.”

The biggest challenges were security and logistics, Gryc said. Theft is commonplace in Kibera, and a stolen laptop could feed a family and provide income for a year, he said, but the community support helped to thwart any theft. The logistics were also challenging, with 20 people taking workshops on only four computers, along with the difficulties for students who had English as a second language.

Helping to promote a media voice for young people in Kibera is important because the skills are transferable, Gryc said. “As well, the newsletter helps to share information and resources, and it also makes steps toward promoting accountability and raising awareness of social and political issues.” It contains

information about rights and politics in Kenya, and details on everything from the date and location of free local eye check-up clinics to the laws related to obtaining a passport.

The summer 2007 visit to Kenya was not Gryc’s first trip to Africa. He was in Chad in December 2006, also running workshops that helped French-language youth to produce a newspaper, called Rafigui, which is now also online.

Someone who seems destined to go places, Gryc at the age of 17 founded an online magazine and organization that promotes human rights and international issues among the world’s youth. Following the sudden death of his sister Magda, who was hit and killed by a car at the age of 23, Gryc said the loss taught him “a lot about the importance of life. If you’re into math and computers and programming, you can really start to live in your own little bubble, and that was happening to me, until this tragedy occurred in our family.”

Around the time of his sister’s death, the U.S. war in Iraq had begun. The Polish-born Gryc had always been interested in international issues and politics. “When I started hearing about the war and so many people dying, I saw that it was more than just numbers. Every single family was losing someone the way I had, but on a much bigger scale. In some cases, entire families were killed. That got me started on my blog about the war in Iraq and about human rights. People in my high school started reading it, and they started contributing. Then students from other schools did too. If you were a high school student in Toronto at the time and you wanted your voice to be heard, there was really nowhere to go to share your views and feelings on these issues.”

Young people who believed there was an absence of youth voice in the media banded together with Gryc, who started an organization called Five Minutes to Midnight (FMM), a reference to the “doomsday clock” marking the time left prior to a nuclear disaster and the failure of diplomacy during the Cold War. The FMM has evolved to include other human rights topics, and soon writers, volunteers and subscribers from 20 different countries were involved. For his efforts, Gryc was short listed as one of the “Top 20 Under 20” two years ago by the Youth in Motion Education Foundation, a mentoring organization similar to Top 40 Under 40.

Gryc’s Africa trips have been supported by FMM and the University of Toronto’s Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI), which operates Project Open Source Open Access. This software enables people in the developing world to gain access to free, non-proprietary software to produce newspapers or web sites. His Kenya trip was largely funded by the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation, from which Gryc has earned a scholarship.

Although conditions in Chad and Kenya were not ideal, even the young people with limited computer experience found it relatively easy to learn the software. “It was difficult to leave after seven weeks, because we were there for so long that it felt like home,” he said. “Although the young people who took our workshops were unemployed, they were volunteering their time, 40 to 50 hours a week, and they have a lot of hope for the future. Their kind of motivation is something you just don’t see here at home.”

And what’s next for this wunderkind? His combination of computer math skills and international development passion has landed him an internship at IBM Research in New York, where he will be working at the T.J. Watson Laboratory on a project on Social Network Analysis, a form of math research that uses Graph Theory to record and track peoples’ social networks and translates them into mathematical patterns for a variety of purposes.

Professor Leslie Chan of the social sciences department provided mentorship to the initiatives and supported Gryc’s efforts. “I’m very proud of Wojciech, because he comes from a mathematics background, but he also has a strong social conscience and wants to make a difference in peoples’ lives. He has combined his theoretical and mathematical knowledge with practical social outcomes. His accomplishments are outstanding, not just in terms of his academic skills, but also based on his global experience. Wojciech is an inspiration to all of us.”

Chan noted that he is also pleased that new technology is being used to enhance lives in the developing world. “These technologies can enable organizations around the world to collaborate and work together to achieve critical missions at low costs, provided that the people have the know-how. I’m pleased to see that our students like Wojciech have been providing that know-how."

For more information on the organizations, visit the following web sites:

University of Toronto Project Open Source Open Access: http//open.utoronto.ca

Five Minutes to Midnight: www.fiveminutestomidnight.org. To view the online magazine, click on “latest issue.”











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