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Phil Borges Builds Digital Bridges

Dentist, photographer, and now (at 60+) cross-cultural mentor.

WHO KNOWS WHERE Phil Borges would be today if his high school math teacher hadn’t buttonholed him in the hall?

Growing up in a rough San Francisco neighborhood, Borges hustled illegal firecrackers from age 8 and by middle school was well acquainted with the police. In desperation, his widowed mother scraped together enough money to move to an upscale community so her son could attend a better high school.

"By sophomore year, I was getting D’s and F’s in my classes when Mr. Campbell stopped me," says Borges, 65, of Mercer Island, WA. The teacher had noticed Borges breezing through his homework five minutes before class while his classmates struggled for hours each night. "’ If you really applied yourself’ he told me, ‘you’d be surprised at what would happen,’" Borges recalls.

That long-ago passing comment from a teacher he has lost touch with led to a cascade of surprises. The failing student buckled down to earn straight-A’s and went on to college and dental school. But that’s just part of his story.

Community College Makeover. At age 45, Borges took a community college course that reignited his passion for photography. He abandoned his lucrative orthodontic practice in San Francisco, moved his family to Seattle, and began photographing indigenous people in remote areas of Ecuador, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, and beyond. "When I arrived in villages, the first people I met would be the kids," Borges says. Snapping Polaroids was a quick way to bond with families and bands of children would vie to help carry his equipment.

The award-winning photographer gave cameras to Seattle gang members and asked them to chronicle their lives for a gallery exhibition. "Kids everywhere are fascinated by technology," he says. "They’re dying to get their hands on it and they learn really fast."

In the course of producing four books of portrait photography (see sidebar for links), many gallery shows, and a couple of Discovery Channel television productions on remote peoples, Borges started thinking about ways to develop cross-cultural understanding among young people. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, he’d seen children with burns on their arms from U.S. planes spraying defoliants during the war on drugs and heard of oil spills larger than the Exxon Valdez that went unreported in American media.

"I started thinking what if these kids were communicating with kids back in the States about their lives," he told Live & Learn. "Maybe we’d learn how our consumption habits are playing out in these remote regions."

His Tipping Point. A week before September 11, 2001, Borges and his son had been photographing in the Hindu Kush, the mountainous area of Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden is now thought to be hiding. That was the tipping point. He suspended his photography to develop Bridges to Understanding, a program that uses interactive digital storytelling to connect students in U.S. schools with their counterparts in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

Here’s how it works: Teachers and volunteer mentors attend workshops in Seattle or at international sites to learn Photoshop software, digital photography, and mentoring techniques. Borges then leads groups to remote villages where his team passes out point-and-shoot cameras and teaches local students how to create photo-stories and videos that are then posted on the Bridges website.

The videos are personal and intense: A young Guatemalan boy tells of his fears that his family was lost in a hurricane and his joy when he finds them alive in their village. A Navajo boy in Arizona describes how heavy-metal music helps him cope with the devastating effect of alcoholism in his family. A teen mother in a Cape Town, South Africa township recounts the peer pressure that leads to pregnancy.

Volunteer mentors like Iris Fodor, a New York University psychology professor, help the students choose the story, edit photos, and add music and narration for the final product. "It’s like training a new generation of photojournalists," says Fodor, an amateur photographer. "But instead of sending a National Geographic photographer to tell the story, the children are photographing their own culture."

Digital Journals as Curriculum. Such personal storytelling has a powerful impact in U.S. classrooms, says Wendy Ewbank, a 7th grade humanities teacher at Seattle Girls' School, who partners with a classroom at a Cape Town high school. "If you put a human face on a population on the other side of the world, students can connect in a way that goes beyond a textbook or a magazine articles," she says. "The kids develop empathy with a completely different place, people, and lifestyle." The Bridges program doesn't use a pen-pal approach, she adds. The two classrooms exchange group e-mails on topical subjects like climate changes, women's rights, and conflict resolution. The teachers use the comments as starting points for class discussions.

Those conversations can be eye-opening. Ewbank’s students collected data on their carbon footprint (the impact their activities have on the environment in producing greenhouse gases) and e-mailed a spreadsheet to the South African students. When the Cape Town school sent back their data, Ewbank’s class was astonished to learn that on average students walked more than four miles a day. One boy walked 20 kilometers daily. "That’s nearly 12 miles," says Jessica Markowitz, 12, a student in Ewbank’s class. "We all thought oh, my gosh, we really have to cut back, save water, and walk more. We can never come close to them, the way they live."

Part of the Bridges philosophy is that students in the U.S. have as much to gain from the cross-cultural exchange as students in developing countries. "Nobody’s in a higher position," says Ewbank. "We look at what makes us similar and what makes us different. It’s the repeated contact and multiple voices that work the magic."

A Place for the Face-to-Face. Bridges also tries to bring students and teachers face-to-face, an endeavor that requires many bake sales and enlisting of homestay families. Ewbank first met the township schools vice-principal and some students at a Bridges workshop last summer in Seattle and started to work toward bringing at least a few township students for another visit. In May 2007, Jessica Markowitz attended the Cape Town workshop and helped produce the digital story about teen pregnancy. "My favorite part was the little kids all wanted to follow me, hold my hand, and take pictures," she says. 

So far, more than 4,000 students in 30 countries have participated. Borges, who recently won a $10,000 Civic Ventures Purpose Prize award honoring 60-plus social innovators, wants to develop more school-to-school partnerships. "America is just too insular," he says. "A recent study showed 50 percent of college students couldn’t find India on a map and 60 percent couldn’t find Iraq."

Can Bridges to Understanding spark interest in a student’s mind in subjects international? Just ask Jessie Markowitz about her career goals: "Well, I thought maybe Secretary General of the United Nations," she says.

As Mr. Campbell would say—you might be surprised.

Elizabeth Pope often covers lifelong learning and retirement issues for NRTA Live & Learn.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a lifestyle.

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