RANWA YEHIA

Lebanon,

Ranwa Yehia seeks to empower Arab youth by instilling critical thinking, self-confidence, and self-expression skills that engage them as active participants in building and contributing to virtual and real communities. By creating a digital “camp” environment unlike anything they have experienced—to explore their ideas and reflect on their culture and identity—she hopes to break the cultural code of silence.

This profile below was prepared when Ranwa Yehia was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.

INTRODUCTION

Ranwa Yehia seeks to empower Arab youth by instilling critical thinking, self-confidence, and self-expression skills that engage them as active participants in building and contributing to virtual and real communities. By creating a digital “camp” environment unlike anything they have experienced—to explore their ideas and reflect on their culture and identity—she hopes to break the cultural code of silence.




THE NEW IDEA

Ranwa’s is empowering Arab youth with two vital skills that their family or social circumstances typically can not afford, discourage, or prohibit: Digital know-how and critical thinking. Ranwa believes the two are powerfully linked, and has framed her idea around one fundamental principle: To create a safe, “cool” space where young people may freely express themselves without inhibition or judgment. This offers the best opportunity for Arab youth to discover their intellectual resources and creative capacity to think critically.

Using camps to address the challenges of repression and lack of access to new technologies, Ranwa uses three methods: First, youth are exposed to and trained in the latest state-of-the-art digital technology. Next, Ranwa adopts participatory techniques to foster youth’s self-confidence, to enhance belief in their abilities, and to demonstrate that their opinions and contributions matter. Last, coaching from experts is followed by post-camp youth-led community projects which continue to ensure an environment for these young adults that provides free incentives to encourage critical thinking, initiative, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Ranwa’s believes uninhibited expression is the foundation to develop leadership and intellectual skills. It is the basis on which to demonstrate to youth that their opinions and feelings are valid and valuable to society. Encouraging youth to express their opinions and feelings increases their self-confidence, their willingness to be expressive, and their tendency to think freely, as creative and unique thought is accepted, valued, and rewarded. Thus, youth participants will possess the confidence to question their circumstances and the flexibility to offer creative solutions to real challenges.




THE PROBLEM

Youth in the Arab World often lack effective access to the digital world: They are rarely exposed to new and creative information and are discouraged from contributing their innovative ideas. However, the digital nature of communication today makes new ideas and information theoretically accessible all over the world.

According to a United Nations Human Development Report, the Arab region is in the lower range of the digital divide. For the most part, within the Arab World access to and proficiency with information and communications technologies (ICTs) are limited to the privileged. At issue, lack of effective access (meaning access that not only exposes people to new and creative information, but encourages contributing original and constructive ideas) to the digital world is due to numerous political and social constraints.

The concern is not only with the lack of technological skills of many Arab children, but also with the way they use technology. In the Arab World, it becomes an issue of the sort of information people, including youth, are exposed to (little content is available in local languages for younger generations, particularly in the Arab region), and their ability to critically express themselves and as members of a group at the local and regional level. Most youth in this region are not taught to value their creative ideas; more significantly, they are discouraged from expressing them.

Moreover, there is little appreciation for fact that digital media represents a tremendous opportunity for people to learn, grow, and participate in their societies. Arab youth—unlike their counterparts in so much of the world—have not begun to grasp the mix of applications and opportunities that exist for them in the digital world, particularly those of Web 2.0: Collaborative platforms such as Wikipedia and YouTube, blogs and citizen journalism websites, and countless other sites—including those of major media—feature user-generated content with authority and impact.

There have been some efforts by citizen organizations (COs) and intergovernmental organizations to address these issues, but programs have not been implemented at the regional level, or specifically geared toward Arab youth. Additionally, no other program embodies the goal of initiating a cultural shift in the way all persons in the Arab world critically contribute to global information and their society. For example, the UNDP, in partnership with the Egyptian government, created the Smart School Network to provide IT training to children and youth in schools. This initiative in no way promotes free expression or critical thinking, rather, it provides youth with an opportunity to learn the basic skills to use IT equipment.

Although some COs encourage digital youth expression, it is viewed only as an outlet for them to vent frustration about violations of their human rights, instead of exploring their ideas.




THE STRATEGY

Ranwa’s strategy has challenged the critical thinking gap that exists in the Arab world, particularly given her career as a journalist. Between November 2005 and February 2006, Ranwa met with friends and peers to discuss their experiences and ideas regarding expression in the Arab world. She solicited ideas from writers, cartoonists, film directors, artists, professors, and political activists; all of whom provided insight about a core problem in the Arab world: Youth are not provided a forum for free and critical expression in today’s digital world.

Ranwa determined the way to rectify this problem was through what she calls Arab Digital Expression Camps. She presented the strategy to board members of Team Engineering and Management Consultants, a training consultancy firm based in Cairo, Egypt—the same company that developed Arab Computer Camps. With their support, she went to Beirut to research freedom of expression among Arab youth and their digital access to the world.

Ranwa created a global platform for Arab youth from every stratum of society to freely express their ideas and generate information through a variety of outlets; encouraging critical thought on any issue. Ranwa’s residential camps include multiple elements that when combined, create a large social, cultural, artistic, and technological network that will continue to grow. As the Arab world continues to fall further behind in terms of meaningful information contribution, Ranwa’s Arab Digital Expression Camps help to bridge this critical digital divide.

In February 2006, Ranwa and twenty experts from the digital media, education, and free expression fields, did a two-day brainstorming workshop. The aim was to develop the original concept of the Arab Digital Expression Camps, as well as to discuss models for the camps to work. After the workshop, Ranwa continued to work to understand the problems in the region, with the support of additional expression experts. In January 2007, Ranwa organized a second workshop to bring together many of the same experts to discuss, write, and finalize the goals and details of the camp programs. These experts developed the curriculum of the camps: Designing programs with a focus on training youth to independently and collaboratively produce digital works. One primary aim of the curriculum is to create a generation of Arabs with the critical thinking skills necessary to become meaningful consumers and producers of information. Another aim is to instill confidence among youth that they are capable of critical expression and that their ideas are valuable. Ranwa educates and trains youth about the possibilities of information consumption and production that exist in the digital world.

Ranwa’s camps offer youth a number of on-the-job training modules and workshops on open-source software and other related advanced technology. This provides youth with the necessary skills, information, and know-how to enable them to participate as active producers of technology rather than passive consumers. Through a participatory training approach, youth learn about their agency in the continuous evolution of technology: They have the potential to affect and contribute to technology.

Looking beyond their summer camp experience, Ranwa works with youth to become future leaders. She has developed a number of workshops and techniques to give youth confidence and opportunities to practice free expression. Teams of Arab experts with extensive experience in producing critical works of expression have worked with her to develop the camps’ curriculum, programs and strategy of implementation. These experts are also mentors and coach groups of youth for the duration of the camps sessions and, afterward, in the participants’ communities. The mentors conduct debate and discussion experiments and sessions.

Upon completion of the camps, campers exhibit their digital projects on an online platform. Team Engineering and Management Consultants and the Arab Society for Training and Management Development have partnered with the Arab Digital Expression Camps to create a site, www.arabdigitalexpression.net for campers to create personal profiles and display their work, exchange ideas, and practice critical expression. Each camper is given a CD equipped with the Open Source operating system and various other software programs, including a 1 gigabyte memory stick (flash drive). This enables campers to continue to challenge themselves, even if they do not own a computer. Ranwa is creating partnerships with local and regional COs to provide continuous support to youth after completing the camps.

In the next five years, Ranwa will organize between four and six camps a year with approximately eighty to ninety-six youth per camp. She will also organize up to eight local workshops annually, partnering with local COs in various Arab countries. Each workshop will benefit approximately two hundred people. Additionally, Ranwa is developing partnerships with COs in other Arab countries; to train them in the models and concepts of the camp, to take the knowledge back to their area of operation, and to disseminate the information to their youth. This will ensure greater societal impact and help to create a cultural shift about critical thought.

Ranwa’s goal is to institutionalize her model of alternative digital education into educational systems throughout the region, including influencing governmental policies at the regional level and within the ever-growing network of educational professionals connected with different Arab education ministries. Given the nature of education, Ranwa believes it is necessary to change the system of learning into one that promotes creativity, individuality, and critical thinking. She wants to include the curriculum of the camps in schools so that all youth are encouraged and trained in critical expression through digital mediums.




THE PERSON

Ranwa’s early experiences helped her realize her passion for freedom and as an entrepreneur. When she was nine-years-old, her parents divorced and her father moved to Lagos, Nigeria to work as a specialized physician. The following year Ranwa’s mother—an Iraqi national—was forced to leave Lebanon because of the Israeli invasion. This forced migration meant Ranwa and her siblings were raised by their grandparents. During this time, Lebanon was engulfed by civil war and Ranwa’s family was forced to flee her village many times to take refuge from the battles.

While Ranwa was in high school (1988 to 1990), Beirut continued to be engulfed by civil war. Ranwa experienced periods of faction fighting and general instability which often resulted in bombings, explosions, and gun battles in the streets—forcing school closures. When Ranwa was forced to move with her older brother and younger sister to Lagos to live with their father, she quickly became frustrated with the educational system in Nigeria and wanted desperately to return to Beirut. The situation in Lebanon, however, remained unstable and Ranwa was unable to return before graduation.

Since most of her childhood was spent without her parents and in family relationships that were extremely difficult, Ranwa was supported intellectually and emotionally by her peers. That support nurtured Ranwa’s independent and fearless spirit, and helped her realize her desire to build a better life for herself and others.

Between the ages of nineteen to twenty-four, Ranwa studied the work of Arab artists and journalists in Beirut—appreciating the enduring social impact of art and journalism. Four years later she started her career as a reporter and began to affect society through her journalism while also developing her entrepreneurial spirit by reporting on socially and politically sensitive issues in the region, such as women’s and children’s rights, the rights of the disabled, and Lebanese detainees in Israeli. Ranwa volunteered with many organizations and COs that focused on these issues. She continued to work as a journalist in Beirut, covering daily events as well as writing weekly analytical articles for the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper. During her time as a journalist in Beirut, Ranwa recognized the lack of critical thought and expression in the Arab world.

In 2001, Ranwa moved to Cairo to live with her husband and began a Master’s degree at the American University in Cairo. She became involved working with people and organizations focused on the rights of refugees in Egypt. Ranwa’s professional work included acting as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Cairo Bureau, and as regional Editor for the German news agency Deutsche Presse Agentur.

Upon meeting many of the alumni from the widespread Arab Computer Camps from 1984 to 1994, Ranwa was amazed by the powerful impact the project had on the career paths of thousands of youth. Ranwa decided to revive this concept, but with a new direction and very different goals; utilizing the camp environment to foster a sense of community—free from parents—for the youth.

Ranwa is building and expanding the Arab Digital Expression Camps while also caring for her family: Her husband Ali, thirteen year-old step-son Nabeel, and one-year-old son Nadeem.




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