Elijah Knight is seven years old, and he has just spent ten minutes freestyle rapping. He now leans into a brand new iMac and opens a program.
“Keef told me he was going to show me how to make a beat,” he said. “We could do a Garageband band here, you know.”
Knight slowly learns how to produce the beat he wants on Garageband, as Keef Ward, the Multimedia Director and Staff Member at the Bushwick-Hylan Houses Community Center, looks over his shoulder and carefully explains the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 timing and why some baselines sound better than others.
To their left sit another six new iMacs, which arrived at the Center only a few days earlier. Throughout the afternoon, children come and go from the room at allotted times, using the computers to make music, take photos, research interests, watch videos and play games.
Thanks largely to the arrival of Ward at the Center in March along with a concerted effort by Center Director Jackie Sanchez, the Center has undergone a rapid technological development. Ward has made it his job to get the digital face of the organization up to speed and to help build the computer skills and artistic output of the students.
Ward has led a rebranding of the Center, which will be called CS1 and has established a Facebook group and YouTube channel to display the children’s work. And now he has orchestrated the delivery of the seven brand new iMac computers.
The changes are not merely about flashy output and digital upgrades. There has been a concerted effort among the staff to develop high quality content and an interesting portfolio of work to help the children–and to persuade financial backers to invest more heavily in the center.
“Altogether, by December this year our budget will have dropped around $100,000 from previous levels,” said Sanchez, who oversees all of the programs at the Center. “So we are putting the effort in to try to get some new investors.”
The Center operates primarily by winning grants from various organizations. It currently receives funding from the Extended School Day grants, Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants and the Grand Street Settlement, which provide the main source of income.
As the Center Director, Sanchez communicates with these funders on a regular basis and makes suggestions as to where funding their dollars should be directed.
“Originally I thought we could get some production equipment,” she said. “Stuff for making CDs, documentaries. But it was all expensive and complicated. It was Keef who introduced me to Macs. He told me that we can do all this – and cheap.”
Despite the budget being quite tight, Sanchez approached the Grand Street Settlement, the program’s main backer, to ask for the new computers.
It took six months, but Sanchez was able to replace some aging PCs with seven new iMacs. The arrival of the computers and the reactions of the children has been so successful that they are now going to ask for another ten new iMacs.
For Ward, the focus has been on helping the students achieve their goals.
“They all want to be rap stars or sports stars,” he said. “I do the best that I can to feature them and the center, and we hope to leave it better through the new networking.”
By letting the kids showcase their skills on Facebook and YouTube, Sanchez and Ward hope that funders will see the potential and attraction of providing more money. “One of the hopes is that if one of these videos does blow up, it will interest funders,” said Ward. “And now we want to do more advanced projects featuring their skills.”
Ward is very aware of the benefits a digital upgrade can bring to an organization. Prior to arriving in New York in January, he oversaw the rebranding and digital development of Buena Vista Child Care in his native San Francisco. The management at Grand Street Settlement has already communicated to him that the upgrade can raise the profile of the organization.
“It is a great showcase for Grand Street and we want it to lead to funding,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but we are getting plenty of compliments from the top.”
But it is not only the representatives from Grand Street Settlement who are happy to see the development of the online work. As Ward teaches the kids how to use programs like iMovie, Garageband, and even a new online slideshow developer called Animoto, they too are noticing a more exciting environment developing at the Center.
There is Saniya Francis, who is eight and attends P.S. 257 across the road from the Community Center.
“When I grow up, I want to be a fashion designer,” she said. “So I use games on the computers to do that. It’s like technology and knowledge. The computers help a lot of kids and they make kids smarter.”
Ijaniya Thornhill, who is seven, likes hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj and also enjoys taking photos. With the new computers she has been able to create music and pictures, which is something she has never had the chance to do before.
“I don’t listen to music, I just make it. It is just like beats,” she said, sounding far older than her meager years.
Ward hopes to have a blog and website operating by Christmas to round out the Center’s presence online, and Sanchez would like to host some events to showcase the new output.
“By the end of the year we are hoping to run a film festival and a music festival,” she said. “Hopefully this will help us garner some more interest.”
Judging by the way Knight is mixing beats and thinking about his next rhyme, the interest might not be too far away.
More videos will be made available soon as NYC in Focus follows the children for a story on hip hop in the housing developments.
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