Finding Community Through Digital Literacy

Maria de la Luz and her daughter.

“Que viva la mujer! Que viva Whittier!” exclaims Maria de la Luz while speaking about her photo featuring a group of women who have bonded over hikes in Turnbull Canyon.  “We leave our troubles on the trail and we like to laugh, sometimes we cry” says Maria de la Luz.  Her name means Maria of the light and she shined this past Friday night during the opening reception of our community photography exhibit at Whittier Public Library.

“Nuestro Arte: Community & Photography” is a project that began from a series of workshops on learning about digital literacy.  Stephanie Carmona who directs and facilitates the Community Education Parent Initiative (CEPI) program at the Fifth Dimension lab located at the Boys & Girls Club of Whittier and I have worked together for the last year with a group of women  who regularly join our workshops on using computers and learning to navigate the internet.  These women are busy –they are active in their communities helping at local schools and churches, some attend English classes and others find the time between work and home obligations to join our conversations on how we engage as digital citizens.

“Que es Snapchat?” asked one of the women from our earlier workshops.  She had heard her children talk about various social media applications but didn’t know much about them.  Stephanie and I then created a series of workshops on children and internet safety.   

Our conversations grew into discussions of how our children are learning on mobile devices and how we come together as a community of parents who want to learn to be better teachers at home.

“My mother is my hero” says Maria de la Luz’s daughter while she translates for her mother at the photography exhibition.  “She does back-breaking work during the day working in recycling and then she comes home to take care of my brother and I.”  Clearly, Maria de la Luz doesn’t need workshops to be a great teacher to her children.  Her photo is among a group of 12 in the exhibit that share multiple perspectives.

Working on digital photo archives in the computer lab at CEPI.

Back in August I called Stephanie with an idea I had for an assignment that would kick off our new series of workshops.  The last time I met with our CEPI group they requested to learn about managing the vast amounts of photos that we take on our phones. What happens to the photos when they are stored on our devices?  When the phone dies, breaks or is lost and the photos are not backed up we lose precious pieces of our history and memories we were trying to preserve.  Stephanie and I then designed a workshop series that would help participants create photo archives using the site  This opened up opportunities to discuss topics such as web applications and privacy, data and photo management and how to use tags when uploading photos.  

I often think about what it means to be digital literate.  Can digital literacies be taught or is it that they are taught to be learned?  This photo archive project is important because I wanted to include an assignment for our participants that would focus on the intersection of their interest and issues that matter to them.  Developing literacies around creativity and issues people care about is helpful to get buy-in.

To learn more about digital photo archives, I asked participants to take three photos of their community–the same community they all inhabit but perhaps see in different ways. We spoke about the reasons we take photos: to capture something that is beautiful like a blooming flower or a sunset. We take pictures of our children and events we are proud of.  But photography can also serve as an advocacy tool.  We can take photos of the challenges we see within our community to seek solutions.   

During our workshops we agreed as a group to choose one photo from each participant to highlight with a personal statement.  The women in our group were also learning to use computer software to practice their typing skills.

 And then we had a wild idea: what if we create a photo exhibit out of this assignment?  

I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  On a whim, I contacted some librarians at our local public library, I explained the project and I asked if space could be made available to exhibit the photographs that the 12 women in our group would be sharing.  The response I got was yes, yes, and what more can we help with!


Opening reception photos by Regina Valencia.

So last Friday, December 9, 2016 we held our opening reception to our first ever community photography exhibit featuring women who are not professional photographers. They are brave community members with simple cameras on their phones who created touching photos covering issues of mental health, being homeless, mentorship, the environment, activism, and love.

The lessons we learned went far beyond our classroom.  Stephanie and I like to call the women in our group “artistas”–translated somewhere in between artists and rock stars.

Opening reception photos by Regina Valencia.

We did a toast at the end of our night to celebrate our accomplishments—a toast to changing the world, for the better, starting locally.

The photography exhibit will be up until December 31, 2016 at Whittier Public Library. See the opening reception slideshow here.

A special thank you to:
Whittier Public Library for providing a space to exhibit our photos and for the multiple ways they support our community in literacy and learning.
(CEPI) The Community Education Parent Initiative
The Boys & Girls Club of Whittier
The Fifth Dimension Students from Whittier College
The Digital Liberal Arts (DigLibArts) program at Whittier College
The Whittier Library Foundation
And to Alicia, Alma, Anabel, Elizabeth, Hicela, Lucy, Maria de la Luz, Norma, Olga, Rosa, Veronica, and Rosalia for sharing their stories and photography with us.


Photos by Regina Valencia.
Photos by Regina Valencia.