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Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.




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Whites-Only Whoppers

May 13, 2013 — 1 Comment

A news item on Yahoo caught my eye that Burger King had entered the South African market. So I checked out the Burger King ZA website — and was stunned to see not one black person pictured on the entire web site. There’s one Indian guy…. and a whole lotta whites. Believe me, I checked every page thinking there had to be one somewhere. Nope.

WTF?! Is it apartheid 2.0 at Burger King? Does “Have It Your Way” mean the white way? Instead of paper crowns, maybe the kids pictured at the BK birthday parties should be wearing klan hoods.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like common sense and second nature to show diversity in marketing, media, everywhere. It’s not difficult. When I edit textbooks and some author names all the case study characters out of the 1952 social register — I change some names to reflect the broad diversity of America. It may seem like a little thing, but it matters to see yourself, or people like you, represented in media.

South Africa is supposed to be The Rainbow Nation. And blacks are a majority by far. Yet Burger King’s South African website is 99.9 percent white? Maybe they should just write the site in Afrikaans. In a country where blacks are still marginalized and lacking opportunity, twenty years after the end of apartheid, to not show them enjoying life and a burger on a web site (ahem, from a US-headquartered corporation) well it just sickens me — even more than the last time I ate a Whopper about eight years ago.

There’s better fast food burgers from local companies in South Africa anyway. Better fast food in general, based on my time there with Mtuseni. Here’s hoping the lily-white King flops in ZA.

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I saw this CNN Heroes story recently about a retired school guidance counselor who is using her retirement savings to run a mobile computer learning lab in Florida. She understands the long-term risks kids face from being on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, so she outfitted Estella’s Brilliant Bus with computers connected via satellite to the Internet.

On the bus, kids of all ages get instruction in core academics, SAT and GED prep and Internet skills. Even adults benefit from software training and job search preparation. Running this program… at age 76? Estella truly is a hero.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

One thing that struck me was her comment that the kids she serves don’t have access to computers at home, which leads them to fall behind more affluent peers in terms of computer experience. Her program builds upon the limited computer time these kids receive at school.

By comparison, Mtuseni’s little brother and sister have no access to computers at home or at school. The St. Ansgars K-12 public school they attend — which Mtuseni calls a farm school — has no computers, no library, and no heat. Mtuseni graduated from St. A’s, and his lack of computer savvy or familiarity with software and the Web has shocked me. He’s gotten better over the last few years, but an American fourth grader can probably run circles around him on a computer.

I hope that mobile computer lab programs like this exist in South Africa. I will have to look into it more… and am considering helping to bridge the digital divide in South Africa as a potential new career path for myself — once Mtuseni is finished with college and settled into a job.

I’ve been known to rail against the saturation of technology in the US these days — with TV commercials showing family members in separate rooms blissfully staring into their devices and having no direct interaction. Society will pay over time for this growing personal disconnect, if it isn’t already. But on the flip side, Musa and Bongeka and all the kids in Mtuseni’s settlement — and so many others — are missing out on knowledge and skills that can help them to rise out of poverty. As always, the key is balance — and access to digital technology across the world is way out of whack.

I think of how Rosa Parks and a bus opened doors for African Americans decades ago. Now Estella and her Brilliant Bus are helping new generations forge pathways to opportunity. I only hope that I can make a similar impact for South African kids someday.

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Media Blackout

April 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

From the beginning, there have been some strange similarities between Mtuseni and me that make us believe we were destined to meet. One of the strongest is our interest in communications and media. I studied mass communication and TV production at Emerson College in Boston. Mtuseni is studying media, with a concentration in radio — and at a college called Boston. Weird.

He’s been enjoying his studies. Mtuseni’s a curious kid, and the breadth of his classes provide windows into the world from various perspectives: from radio and TV to marketing and journalism. But now that he’s been in school for over a year, he’s recognizing the limits placed on him by his circumstances. The other day he texted that “I’m living in a media world but outside of it.” What he meant is that what happens in the media is discussed all the time in class, and on campus in general. He’s right to see that, unlike some subjects, media isn’t only theories in books — it’s happening all around us in real time. But with no electricity at home (or now in his community) and no laptop and minimal computer access, Mtuseni is not getting the same exposure. Many students at his school live in the townships, which are poor and crowded but at least have electricity. Mtuseni’s settlement is at the bottom of the economic hierarchy in Johannesburg.

In the US, we are awash in messages from television and radio and the Internet. Much of it is garbage, but it’s all part of life in the 21st century. But someone who doesn’t have electricity or Internet access is locked out of that experience, and can’t fully participate in the conversation. Having only a basic cable TV package, I get frustrated not being able to discuss the new season of Mad Men, and I flee when people want to give away spoilers before it’s released on DVD. But Mtuseni is in a virtual media blackout — while studying for a media diploma. If students are discussing a TV documentary or the value of marketing via YouTube, he can only listen and learn, but not put his two cents in. (And he has plenty of cents to put in about everything!)

Even when Mtuseni’s community had electricity, there was only a small TV showing limited channels at the creche. The public library near his college only has two computers for public use — a fact that boggles my mind given the corporate wealth that surrounds it. I’ve debated for a long time about getting him a laptop, but he has a problem with losing things and is not very computer-savvy. (Mastering his Blackberry is one thing, a laptop is a completely different level.)

This new lack of electricity and water bothers me from a health perspective — for his whole family. But studying media in a “media world” from behind a firewall impacts his success at school. And I don’t have a solution. The typical raising-a-teenager frustrations with Mtuseni I can handle. It’s the systemic issues that give me sleepless nights.

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