Interview with Jennier Sly of YouthAssets (N2Y2 Featured Project)

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Today's interview is with Jennifer Sly, the Founder of YouthAssets. YouthAssets was one of the 21 Featured Projects at the NetSquared Conference in May 2007.

You can hear the audio recording of the interview on the NetSquared Podcast. A recording of YouthAssets' 5-minute pitch at the Conference is also available.

Jennifer Sly: Hello, my name is Jennifer Sly, and I'm the Founder of YouthAssets, a new organization dedicated to connect orphans and other vulnerable youth in southern Africa with the resources and support that they need. YouthAssets engages youth in the international development process in southern Africa by using interactive content accessible by mobile technology. Youth can then receive the most relevant information when they need it.

Plus, the information collected through these mobile devices is aggregated and used by local and international development agencies, as well as by individuals interested in supporting youth.

YouthAssets does this within a youth development framework, with the goal of building on the strengths of youth, to contribute to their own and to their communities' development.

We are in the process, right now, of identifying 20 critical assets, chosen by the youth themselves, that will help them reach their full potential. Examples of these assets are access to clean drinking water, knowledge on care taking of younger siblings, and contact with a doctor. These assets then serve as a focus for collaboration, and a guide to measure progress for supporting youth.

Britt Bravo: Where did the idea for YouthAssets come from?

JS: The idea came to me while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural school in Swaziland in 1994 -- just about the time the Internet was really taking off. The school that I was at had a library -- which was really just a small closet -- that had books that people had sent from the US to donate, but most of them were over 30 years old.

The issue really hit home for me when I was asked by the neighboring classroom teacher, while I was teaching, to be a guest lecturer in the class on ships, since I came from overseas. But they didn't know that I was from Minnesota, which is about as far away from the ocean as you can actually get, and I'd never even been on a ship. [laughs]

They wouldn't take no for an answer -- I told them that I really wasn't comfortable -- and as they were escorting me to the classroom, I tried to figure out the best way to present this information. I couldn't find -- I had like two minutes to prepare -- I couldn't find a single picture of a ship.

So my lecture consisted of, "Ships are very big, some over 20 stories high." And their blank faces told me that I wasn't really making a connection with them. "20 stories" is kind of technical. So I said, "Ships are very big, some with many floors." But since there wasn't a two-story building anywhere nearby, I realized this was really not connecting with their day-to-day reality. So I finally said, "Ships are very big, some bigger than this room" and everybody gasped. They couldn't imagine a ship bigger than the room.

So I thought of the potential of what I could do if I had a simple Internet connection at that moment, to show them ships online -- and this was even before the 360-degree virtual tours of ships that would be available online. So I really thought that there was a potential here, and an interest for kids to really learn about new things. To connect them to all this information would be really powerful.

So for the past four years, I have been the director of technology at a community technology center in a low income area in New York City, and I watched how youth learned, adapted, and created their own online content -- just learning by themselves. Technology came really naturally to them. And they didn't even realize it, but when they were creating MySpace pages, they actually were teaching themselves HTML coding, and would share HTML clips with each other. And this was something that they just taught themselves.

I saw them using interactive tools, and one of them is called MyRoad, which was an inspiration for me. It's developed by the College Board, and what kids could do is take interactive quizzes. They would provide information on their interests, and then the MyRoad software would suggest careers and colleges that could help them achieve that. So for me that was an inspiration to say, "Wow, what if we had some tool like this for kids in southern Africa?"

So today, both of these worlds now have collided. Right now, Swaziland actually has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, and now the students that I taught before, many of them are orphans. There is actually an unprecedented number of orphans in Swaziland.

And then at the same time, there is actually new connectivity and hardware tools that have been developed, so now it is actually feasible to connect people in the most rural areas. In just the past few years, Swaziland has developed its cell phone network so that now 90% of the population in Swaziland has coverage. And now there are rugged, and smaller, and cheaper mobile devices, that are available with off-the-grid re-chargers, so it's easy to get technology out to the rural areas.

So, two years ago, I proposed the idea of connecting rural African youth to the Reuters Digital Vision project, and was accepted, but at the time, I was unable to pursue the opportunity. So then I proposed it to NetSquared, and we were selected. So we are now full force, full steam ahead, trying to get rural youth access to the information that they need to not only survive, but to thrive.

BB: Can you give an example, or tell a story, of how YouthAssets has, or will, create positive change?

JS: Right now we're in the research and development phase. We're a brand new organization, but we're already -- I can say we have some successes, because we have already assembled a global team from diverse fields, and we're working together to connect youth in southern Africa. There are already interested people, and we've already used connectivity tools to collaborate. We've had a global Skype conference with people in Swaziland and around the world, to discuss some of these ideas, so that was exciting.

But what we would eventually like to see is an orphan -- many of the orphans are actually family heads of household, who are actually care taking for their siblings, because there just aren't enough adults around -- and for them to have access to a mobile technology device; be able to interact with online content that's developed around the things, the information, that they've already asked for; and then their responses are recorded, and shared with international development people.

So, for instance, water might be an issue. So they could interact with their mobile device on water. The questions might be, "Do you have access to a borehole? Yes or no?"

They say, "Yes, I have access to a borehole."

Well, great! They have great water. But let's say they don't have access to a borehole, and then the next question is, "Do you have access to a river?"

"Well, yes, I do have access to a river."

"OK, if you have access to a river, then make sure you collect from the moving part of the stream, and then heat the water for at least ten minutes."

And then their responses are recorded so that people in the US, or even local development agencies, will say, "Wow! 100% of our kids have access to water!"

But I have a feeling that that might not be the case. So it might be: 20% have access to a borehole, which is like a well, and 20% might have access to a river, and 30% don't have access to anything. So you can record some of these things, and aggregate their responses, to get a picture of what the situation is like on the ground, and what resources are really needed to help the local youth.

BB: What is the next step for YouthAssets? What are its goals and challenges?

JS: Well, one of our first steps, which is really exciting for us, is we have partnered right now,with the Search Institute. They have a model of youth development called, "The 40 Developmental Assets" so we're working with them right now to adapt their model to the needs of youth in southern Africa. We are going to work together to ask the youth themselves, and local organizations on the ground, and community leaders, what kind of things they feel youth in the community need for them to thrive. So we'll be conducting a needs assessment in Swaziland, which is our pilot country.

Second, we are working to develop the capacity of the organization, since we're brand new, so we've just incorporated as a not-for-profit organization. I also just received a scholarship to attend the BoardSource Leadership Training in San Francisco in October. So I'll be attending that, in terms of developing the capacity of your board. And we're also working on fundraising. If we can get pledges of $30,000, we can probably accelerate our work by about a year, because we'll be able to get a fiscal sponsor. So we're looking for about $30,000 in seed funding.

BB: What was the positive impact for YouthAssets of going to the NetSquared Conference?

JS: First, we were one of the newest organizations featured at the NetSquared Conference, so the feedback for us from all of the experts in the field was absolutely invaluable in developing our strategic plan. We received challenging questions from everybody in the presentations, and we also received great suggestions from people, which really assisted us in developing our concepts and our technical solutions.

We had some strong advocates coming out of the conference. One of the moderators who asked us some of our toughest questions, Joaquin Alvarado, who is the Director of San Francisco State's Institute for Next Generation Internet, was one of our champions. He invited us, just that week, to sit with him for an afternoon and brainstorm and discuss our project, which was absolutely great. He is one of our advisors on our project.

Another thing is, networking with the other Featured Projects was really valuable to us, because we were able to get a level of support from people who are dealing with some of the similar opportunities and challenges, so that we can learn from them. That was really great, to meet other people doing similar things.

We also appreciated the funding that we received, that really propelled us forward in terms of our organizational development, to help cover some of our startup costs. We really appreciated that from NetSquared.

BB: How can listeners help to move your work forward?

JS: Right now, we're looking for technical advisors to help us as we spec out both the online portion of our website and the mobile technology application. We're looking for people who have developed social networking sites; those who have used Google Earth or other online mapping tools; and anyone trying out the new OpenMoko phones, which I think would be an interesting approach for us.

BB: Is there anything else that you want people to know about YouthAssets?

JS: Well, we appreciate all the support that we've received from the NetSquared community. And we really believe that this is the time and the opportunity for us to get youth in rural, remote areas, with some very large needs, access to mobile technology; and believe that this issue of the number of orphans that are now in southern Africa is a global problem, needing a global solution. And we believe that Web 2.0 offers solutions for us to work together; and for us to hear those who are most affected by some of these issues, the youth; for us to be able to amplify their voices in the development conversations that people are having globally.