Using New Tools: An Interview with Erica Kermani

What is an alternative pedagogy? What is it an alternative to? Put another way: How does one learn to teach differently, that is, how does one learn to teach with and through difference or even despite of difference? I have been considering these questions, in part because I find myself in the situation of navigating my racialized experience and those of my students locally in the classroom and broadly in the university.  A situation that has me operating under, what feels at times to be, competing expectation from my students, colleagues, and administration. Beyond the institutional and professional negotiations that take place for many faculty of color in all white or nearly all white institutions, is the classroom space, a repository of sorts that offers itself as an opportunity to challenge, dismantle, or even rebuild the institution. In order to do this, to build this imaginative space for students, we must continually unlearn internalized logics and relearn new ways of being and teaching. Too often we take for granted that all of our students have equal access to the classroom, workshop, or learning space and the ideas that are produced there. We must be intentional in our pursuit, deliberate in our inquiry, to accommodate the multiplicity of bodies, histories, and learning styles that make up this space. This series, while it presents on the topic of teaching, is very much about learning in public. I have asked my colleagues to share stories and tactics from their teaching practices in an effort to learn from them. We do this publicly, so that others wrestling with similar questions might join us.

Anthony Romero

For this series on alternative pedagogy I have been thinking about the role of intuition in learning. Specifically, how intuition is something that is undervalued or invisible when considering education. As a concept, intuition is difficult to pin down. What exactly is it? Is it to be trusted? If so, then in what contexts? As I parsed out the definition of intuition, I realized what I was actually wanting to do was resist two things: First, the dichotomy between conscious and unconscious reasoning; the body-mind separation. Reason felt like not only a practice of the mind, but also inherent and living in the entirety of a person’s body. Second, I wanted to resist the value we place on immediacy, on “getting it” in learning, especially within the structure of the school day or workshop where time is often limited. Instead, I wanted to consider pedagogical experiences that exist outside of traditional expected models of passing information along based on productivity and think about slowness and unsolving and “not getting it” in learning.

To help me parse out these ideas in relationship to arts organizing, I interviewed Erica Kermani former Director of Community Engagement at Eyebeam, a collaborative studio with a focus on technology, experimentation, and education. Erica has since begun graduate studies at Parsons Design and Technology Program. The timing of the interview was strategic because it allowed us to discuss her role at Eyebeam as well as the practicalities and challenges of existing as an artist, organizer, and arts administrator as many of us are right now.  From that initial conversation, a group of specific questions were developed. The following is the continuation of that conversation.

J. Soto: What is the Community Engagement program at Eyebeam and can you describe your role within it?

Erica Kermani: Community Engagement at Eyebeam are a series of public programs—from youth development and digital media learning to adult workshops and conferences—that address social injustice and encourage criticality around technology for creative expression.  Around the frameworks of radical pedagogy, openness, and sharing, Eyebeam’s programs push tech to be more accessible and to be utilized beyond its perceived limits.  As Director of Community Engagement, I work with Eyebeam’s current or former residents to develop their artistic practice and activism into these community programs, curriculum, and toolkits, thus expanding their impact exponentially.

JS: In an earlier conversation we were discussing the importance of HIVE and the addition of Art to the acronym STEM. Can you describe what HIVE is and why STEM became STEAM?

EK: Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network, or Hive NYC, is a network of organizations (nonprofits, libraries, museums) and individuals (educators, technologists, artists, mentors) that design experiences for youth through leadership development programs and digital media learning.  Supported by the Mozilla Foundation, Hive chapters exist all over the world. Eyebeam is a member of Hive NYC.  

In Hive NYC we invest in what is called 21st Century skills which are digital/tech skills but also the connected learning framework which emphasizes youth-interest driven learning, collaboration, project-based learning, intergenerational support and mentorship, and a network or trajectory for continued learning and development. This is the foundation for Eyebeam’s youth programs. It is the basis for many of the key Hive member organizations like Global Action Project, Global Kids, Girls Write Now, MOUSE, and DreamYard.

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Art was added to STEM to emphasize the importance of creativity, taking risks, criticality, iteration, and expression. Art is imagining the possible, questioning the status quo, highlighting the dishonorable, making conclusions about the world around us. Art is also an access point for many to enter into STEM subjects whether in learning environments or as artists and practitioners.  It is important to begin with youth interests to engage their participation and ensure their advancement.

JS:  I think my feelings about intuition tie into some of the youth lesson plans at Eyebeam, which is why I wanted to have a conversation with you. I specifically love the idea of breaking something to become more acquainted with its component parts and their expanded possibilities. Can you share some thoughts on these connected ideas and provide examples?

EK: I think the act of breaking is intrinsic to radical pedagogy and STEAM, respectively, but also how can we combine those ways of thinking and learning.  

Eyebeam’s youth programs employ the idea of breaking something because that is how one learns about the technologies.  Students learn they have the agency to make decisions about the tools, to make something new and give purpose to their ideas.  In most contexts it is unacceptable to break things.  So we have to instruct them to do so, and then we give room for their intuition to come through.  (Fortunately, hacking has become more accepted in STEAM learning).

Playable Fashion is Eyebeam’s signature youth program.  The main goal of the program, which was developed by former Eyebeam Research Residents and current Impact Residents Kaho Abe and Ramsey Nasser, is to turn consumers and passive users of fashion, gaming, and technology, into active producers.  The curriculum is modular (this is attributed to the open source framework of the curriculum, to be adopted by other educators). One of the core modules of Playable Fashion is called Abstract Electronic Toys.  Part of the lesson plan for Abstract Electronic Toys is literally to break the box.  These boxes are put together by Kaho and Ramsey and are made up of a big red or green button; when the button is pushed, the box makes a sound.  So in breaking the box at first, the student finds that it is made up of circuits, as simple switches and buttons, as are most of the electronics we use.  

Applying the pedagogy of the oppressed, we need to breakdown what we are taught to believe and the learning environments as well.  We create the ways we organize ourselves and teach one another and share resources and knowledge.  We can form a collective power with collective resources to expand the possibilities and to create the solutions. So if we define technology as the tools for survival, then we have now combined the roles of artist and scientist and artist and organizer.  A student breaks the systems at hand to produce something new.  

To me, that box is a symbol of the electronics the we use on a daily basis.  We’re not supposed to know how they work or use them in any other way then they way they come out of packaging, as intended by the developer or company.  How do we break it and turn it into something completely new?  How do you make an interactive game out of that using a handful of craft materials and your collective ideas?

Rap Research Lab, another Eyebeam youth program, does this as well. Eyebeam alum and current Impact Resident Tahir Hemphill founded the program based on his Rap Almanac, a database of hip hop lyrics since 1979.  He emphasises the need to break what data is. Hip hop is data. It is the language of youth, of youth of color especially.  It is a language of activism and a measure of culture.  This program is also about breaking down the language and its meaning and how we can use it to talk about ourselves and our experiences, about politics and media.

JS: I love the idea of hip hop as the language of youth and a measure of culture; I couldn’t agree more. You mentioned that it was important to think outside of the school day? Can you talk a little bit more about the structure and content of the school day and how the education programs at Eyebeam challenge or engage that structure?

EK: Schools in the 21st century, at least in NYC, are designed more as regulated spaces for both students and educators rather than places for open minds, critical thinking, problem solving and holistic development.  Due to federal and state funding structures, classroom teachers have to teach to state and federal testing. Schools are equipped with more technology in terms of security (metal detectors and scanners) than they are with up-to-date computers and labs. The extreme cutbacks in arts education has forced schools to rely on private partnerships for that kind of rich and deeply crucial curriculum.

There are public school teachers and principals who have figured out ways to work around these systems and limitations to apply radical pedagogy and political education, restorative justice, arts, game design, and new media to their classrooms and schools.  I humbly admire them because it is tireless, thankless work that they do day in and day out.

Eyebeam prides itself in the artist as educator, the professional practitioner applying sophisticated practices in accessible ways. Eyebeam programs are meant to draw in the student that usually does not fit in at school.  Students are encouraged to express themselves, and there are no wrong answers.  The process of understanding and learning through doing is most valued over a finished product. Slowness is valued at Eyebeam, for residents and for students. I have seen teens transform into people with more confidence and agency, and it is the most fulfilling part of my work at Eyebeam.

JS: On the same note, how do you think working artists and organizers might think and organize outside of their own work day together?

EK: I still am not sure how to answer this question. I am hoping to figure that out as I take the time to work on my arts practice in grad school.  I have been working within arts nonprofits for so long that I am so used putting my own work on the backburner or secondary to paid work.  

JS: Thanks for that. This is a question we have bounced around a lot in this conversation and that I struggle with myself. I realized in going over these questions that by even posing the question, I was suggesting that there must always be a separation between your arts-organizing practice and your paid work. That’s a pattern I feel like many of us deal with and try to strategize around.

What are some practices either concrete and tested or imagined and seemingly out of reach for creating radical learning environments? Does what feels radical always need to be within our resource limits?

EK: I think radical has to be within our resources but not limited to our imaginations.  I think that’s where technology helps or invention helps, artfulness. Organizers, people of color, queers, trans/gender-nonconforming folks have always been resourceful  because of the need to survive.  We need to come together to think of what we have, not be captivated by technology for the sake of convenience.  In this sense, apps and gadgets are keeping us isolated, limited, divided, and marginalized.  We have to rethink what technology is and what tools we have. Reclaim them and their purposes as tools and methodologies for survival.

These tools are making money for others and taking advantage of us at the same time.  We need to create our own tools that serve us.  One way I imagine this happening is by creating platforms for our communities to map our resources and networks and to connect through safe and secure means.

JS: This makes me think about your collaborative project Red Phone and the idea of self-sustaining communities. Can you tell me a little more about that?

EK: My friend Miki Foster and I started Red Phone to create a sustainable grassroots network based on trust, accountability, and safety to distribute care and resources (both urgent and lasting) within the queer/gender-nonconforming community.   We are interested in building digital platforms that would map our own network of trusted folks and the resources we hold to provide emotional and logistical support for those of us facing perpetual precarity, violence and surveillance.  

I think things are getting so dire and urgent that there is a reclaiming of community as a supportive foundation for radical change.  How can we sustainably care for one another outside of formal structures and institutions like the Non Profit Industrial Complex? The Red Phone intends to create those structures around emergency housing, safe rides, and personal financial crisis.  But we want to start with emotional support.  It is exhausting for each of us to carry so much weight.  How can we spread that responsibility and accountability.  Our first goal is to create an app that would digitize a calling tree system for regular check-ins.

Furthermore, we are examining the digital platforms that queers are already using like closed groups on Facebook to ask for help or share resources.  But Facebook is built against us.  Artist Nick Briz said, those who make the technologies embed their politics in them.  I want to also examine how political uprisings like those in Iran and Egypt used social media, or used mesh networks to communicate.

JS: A recurring theme in artist-organizing circles is that of urgency among communities of color and queer and gender non-conforming peoples. How do we determine what is urgent? How does Community Engagement at Eyebeam make those determinations?

EK: We are in a state of emergency. It feels so terrifying and sad to be alive right now.  But perhaps this is the moment that will change everything.  It is difficult to determine or narrow down what is urgent because they are all interconnected and are meant to divide us; that’s essentially how imperialism functions.  Since Eyebeam focuses on work around technology, we can shape a critical lens around it.  Community Engagement programs are meant to close the digital divide particularly for youth and create spaces for alternative technologies and alternative dialogue.  Radical Networks for example is a conference that I organize with Eyebeam alums Sarah Grant and Amelia Marzec to address surveillance and privacy issues on the internet.  We want to encourage artists, activists, and educators to be able to create their own network infrastructure that is autonomous in order to share information and organize securely and on their own terms.

JS: Lately I have been considering my place in a queer/gender-nonconforming familial lineage. What are some historical tools and practices handed down by generations of our people that have helped them survive? What are some ways that you think we can teach those strategies and keep them relevant in light of new and emerging technologies?

EK: This is the main question I am interested in researching for my work around Red Phone as well as my interests in pursuing an MFA at Parsons’ Design and Technology program.  I would like to explore arts practice employing strategies of invisibility, oriented around mutual care, social justice and self-determination, and in opposition to surveillance.

I liked that in our first conversation you brought up intuition as femme or feminist. Witchiness, mysticism, and community healing are technologies for survival, tools we have received from our elders. As are community education and community organizing.  Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party called the Free Breakfast Program a tool for survival.  Hip hop and the Ballroom scene were tools for survival.  Intuition is key to survival.  Intuition spawns resources and resourcefulness.  It is what some people call street smarts, but they are strategies our people have employed for generations.

I love the idea that Lizzie Borden created Born in Flames as a futuristic sci-fi film, yet the circumstances are very relevant and realistic today.  I want the Women’s Army to be a real thing.  And its basis is real because that’s what qtpoc do. Black Lives Matter was launched by queer Black women. With a historical foundation in the Black Liberation movement, they organized BLM as a network of regional chapters, as the Black Panther Party did, not a movement.  I think there is also the notion that a movement refers to a historical moment in time.

It is the strength of the community and the network that needs to be sustainable. It is not a fleeting moment. The purpose is to change an entire system, to shut it down. When everything is shut down, we need to turn to our networks and communities to build our own lasting infrastructures, centering ourselves. In terms of technology, BLM and qtpoc are facing state-sanctioned surveillance.  So we must turn back to trust, accountability, and possibly secrecy and anonymity. Harriet Tubman organized networks of people utilizing the cryptosecurity of her time.  Now we have to use new tools.





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