Our September "Star Spotlight"! - Professor Allissa Richardson -Teaching MOJO in Sowet: The Story the iPod Told

We used to tell ourselves stories in order to live, according to famed author Joan Didion, who offers us this classic line Professor AllissaRichardsonin her seminal book of essays, The White Album. But in the digital age, with the help of mobile devices, we tell our stories in order to rebel—and the cellular chant is rising.

I confess. This summer I committed a radical act: I put iPods in the hands of 10 HIV-positive, South African girls and dared them to become journalists. The girls ranged in age from 15 to 23, and none of them even owned a computer at home. It seemed a lofty request. Some of the girls were enrolled in school, and occasionally competed for screen time in overcrowded classrooms with their peers. Others dropped out of school when they realized they were HIV-positive. Some girls relied on expensive, yet spotty Internet connections from their mobile telephones. Other girls lived in neighborhoods without plumbing or electricity, and did not yet own such gadgets.

Some of these girls were mothers already. Others would never give life, as they had been raped at early ages and, consequently, infected with HIV. These stories, I learned, did not mirror Joan Didion’s 1979 list of commonly told tales: “The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy; will lead the children into the sea.” In the worlds of the Zulu princesses I taught, many of the girls were trapped instead in cycles of violence, self-doubt and the urge to cry out—even when no one was listening. Then, along came the digital age, and a tiny device gave them a voice. It all started with a $25,000 grant and a meeting of two feminist minds.

In the spring of 2010, I won a national competition called New Voices, which awarded seed money to community newsrooms that promised to give voice to the disenfranchised. When I heard of the contest, I immediately thought Baltimore could benefit from such a news experiment after its stinging depiction in the HBO drama series, The Wire. Although its creator, David Simon, won a MacArthur “Genius” award for his colorful narratives, I found it unfortunate that the city had earned notoriety, in the process. I thought Morgan State University, as Maryland’s largest public, urban institution of higher learning could help balance this tale.

I then began to think of how