It was questions like these that prompted internationally acclaimed photographer and author, Phil Borges, to begin his quest for a way to fill in the gap in education that, for the most part, leaves our children, and those of other nations, bereft of cross-cultural understanding. As an advocate for the welfare of indigenous and tribal people around the world for more than 25 years, Phil was acutely aware of the chasm that was widening between our country and much of the rest of the world. Building on his professional background, he sought to find a way to work within school systems to ameliorate the problems that arise globally from the lack of cross-cultural understanding and replace it with respect and compassion.
Bridges To Understanding was founded two years ago and
is based on the belief that breaking through preconceived ideas about
ourselves and each other can lead to a healthier global community, one
that will honor and respect diversity rather than associate difference
with fear. Bridges is an online classroom program that provides a platform
for cross-cultural exchange. Working with young people, the program provides
the tools and experiences to problem-solve across geopolitical, economic
and religious boundaries;
Students create visual stories about themselves and their communities and share them via the Internet. Schools are partnered, one each from an indigenous community and an urban American community. Implementing an engaging curriculum in the classroom provides a hands-on cultural learning experience that teaches multi-media storytelling and documentary skills. Bridges’ trained mentors instruct the teachers and students on the use of digital photographic equipment and audio flash equipment, as well as navigation of the Internet. The school partnerships allow participants to gain deeper understanding of ways in which culture effects relationships, family, tradition and the environment in which we live.
The visual stories are shared on the Bridges website, its platform for equal exchange. Thus far, four indigenous and four urban communities have been paired: Navajo Nation in Arizona with Walter Reed Middle School in Los Angeles; Arctic Village School, Alaska with Exploris Middle School in Raleigh; Ollantaytambo Middle School in Peru with Hamilton Middle School in Seattle; and Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharmsala, India with Spring Street School in Friday Harbor, WA.
The indigenous schools were chosen for their strength of cultural traditions, and the urban schools for their commitment to an international curriculum. The results of the program thus far have exceeded expectations. The children have become very engaged in creating digital stories and sharing them online with their distant partner schools. Perhaps the efficacy of the program is best reflected in the feelings of its participants:
I haven’t seen any Tibetan photographer doing
a story on Tibet. I believe if some Tibetan could do a story on Tibet,
he knows what’s happening. He feels it. That’s how it should
be done. It is my wish that one of my (Bridges) students, even one of
them, becomes a good photographer and does a story on Tibet. I would consider
it my mission accomplished. That is my dream actually.
When people have conflicts a lot of time it is due
to culture. When you don’t know another’s culture, when you
don’t see them as you, then that can cause conflict. If we could
just all learn about each other and talk out our problems and differences,
that could stop war and killing.
Bridges is like a tool. We are teaching the kids
how to use the machines to show the world the beauty that we have here.
At the same time, we are trying to strengthen this culture, return again
to the past. We can build the future as well.
The kids in Peru don’t understand why we are
not all having threesomes and running around in negligees, like in the
soap operas, because they think that’s what we’re like…and
it’s not. It’s deceiving is what it is.
Bridges, it’s working.
Students from Arctic Village School, Alaska