April Smith calls herself a “hyperlocal citizen journalist”. The 23-year-old, Chicago-born videographer and photographer lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and covers that neighbourhood, as well as the next-door districts of Chinatown, Gastown, and Strathcona. Smith uses smartphones—the Nokia N95 and N77, and HTC Touch—to capture her footage.
In September, Smith cofounded AHA Media with Hendrik Beune and Al Tkatch. (The group’s name is derived from their first initials.) The trio was inspired by what they learned as participants in Fearless City Mobile, a project of the Downtown Eastside Community Arts Network. Since then, AHA Media has grown to six members, who report on their neighbourhood and teach local residents how to use new media to tell their own stories. Smith also works with the W2 Community Media Arts Centre, which is set to open in the redeveloped Woodward’s building this fall.
The Georgia Straight interviewed Smith in a Downtown Eastside coffee shop.
How did you get into new media?
I got into new media through Fearless City, and it was definitely on an event called Vision Division, which is a peer-led, three-day event where they taught people how to VJ—so, take pictures, learn how to remix them, learn how to repurpose them, and broadcast them on a big screen. Since it was my very first time—like, I had not even used a camera. We had to create our own content. So, they encouraged everyone to go outside and film. But this was about the time that Stephen Harper had cut about $60 million from the arts and culture budget. So, myself, along with others—my partners Al Tkatch and Hendrik Beune—we decided to make a parody film against Stephen Harper’s ideals of, “Oh, well, arts and culture aren’t important. Let’s just cut it up.”
So, we did sort of a four-part mockumentary. I dressed up as four very strong women of the Downtown Eastside. I had to go through a few costume changes. I dressed up as a businesswoman that just graduated from school. I dressed up as, I would say, a young elementary school girl. Like, “What are my options now? I’m in the Downtown Eastside. Do I go into a life of maybe crime or do I continue my education? What options are there for me?” I dressed up as a fitness trainer, so as a real business owner trying to make it in this area, because, as you see, there’s a lot of business owners trying to develop their shops here. Like, “What tax incentives do I have in this area?” Then the fourth one, I dressed up as a—it’s a parody—I dressed up as a dominatrix, and I kissed Mr. Harper. I have the video, and it’s buried on-line. But it’s just to show people what we can do.
What are you working on these days?
It seems like I have more events than I know what to do with. Well, I’d like to still continue doing the ongoing reporting of our area. Like, new business classes are opening up for people who want to transition. When I’m on Twitter, I see people who invite me to different events of theirs, whether it’s to showcase something. I just went the Strathcona BIA’s Sustainability 2.0 expo, and we had a lovely lady named Majora Carter talk about green and sustainability. That’s within our area.
So, I would like to do two things. I would like to still report on things that matter in our area. We really do—I consider—ground-level reporting. I consider myself part of the Downtown Eastside that lives and works in the Downtown Eastside. Again, showcase their work, to perhaps giving light perspectives to maybe the Vancouver social-media, new-media, and tech areas that people from the Downtown Eastside can do just as much as they can. Through the Fearless project, we’ve learned to really be multitasking in our way of thinking and doing. We know how to live stream. We know how to upload. We know how to make footage. We know how to get on-line. We know how to Twitter. We know how to blog. We know how to do everything.
So, I guess it’s increasing our capacity to learn and definitely making sure that we are needed, especially with the 2010 Olympics coming in and this area going through, under such a tight microscope. We want to be known as, “Hey, we can do our own media representation too.” There’s people that are coming on-line that want to have their say, and this is definitely not a community that should be overlooked. If I can do anything to help that get bigger and get better, then I know that I’ve done something great.
What is AHA Media?
AHA Media is definitely a community media group by Downtown Eastside residents. Our focus is on the issues of the community, whether they be the day-to-day lives of people, like snapshots/moments of their lives, to AHA Media hopefully developing into more of a social enterprise. Where, if people would like to have our type of media production, we can go and live stream, we can go and live Twitter, we can do footage on camera phones. Because we don’t have, unfortunately, the money to buy HD cams like some of our fellow peers.
Basically, if people want to engage with us, then we’ll definitely engage with them. So, I would like to see more of what we do get broadcast out there. So, I’m thankful for this opportunity to say, you know, we’re teaching people of the Eastside. We’re empowering them. We’re teaching them tools. I have a mobile media production studio, as you can see right here. I mean, just to even show people. All this came from Fearless and W2, and without them I wouldn’t be here right now.
What does citizen journalism mean to you?
I would say citizen journalism means that citizens in whatever community or whatever neighbourhood can be able to go out and report on any events, news, or any happenings of the area and be able to report it the way they see fit for themselves. So, I guess it’s definitely them being able to take that empowerment within themselves to say, “This is how I feel about it. This is my perspective. This is how I’ve put out my information, my footage to the world.”
I’m not sure that’s the definitive answer of being a citizen journalist. But being able to make your own media, produce your own content, and inform the rest of the world or at least maybe your neighbours or your friend down the street, you know, this is what’s happening.
Why have you spent many hours filming in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside?
I would say—because I am a Downtown Eastside community leader, advocate for this area—sitting inside a coffee shop like this I’m not going to meet real people that have real stories, that have very real things to say. It’s too bad that, unfortunately, there’s not enough media attention in the proper perspective, I’d say, to actually go and see what the person on the street is feeling, saying, thinking, or doing. So, when I’m walking around, I see people that are up and coming leaders, like people that lead their own organizations, their own groups.
If I go out and film, say in the alley, I would say, yeah, it’s a democrative term for me to say, “Yeah, I’m not afraid to go and find the real story, to see people as they are in their own element.” Basically, I want to approach them in a way that, “I’m here. I’m your friend. I’m from this area. What do you have to say? What are your thoughts?” Like, I’ll see someone sitting on the sidewalk, carving. Or, I’ll see someone sitting on the sidewalk, ranting. To me, to be able to tell a story in a digital fashion though on-line methods, through new media and social media, I get to broadcast their stories out.
How do you think mobile technology can help bridge digital divides?
I think that because of the fact that it’s portable, it’s highly functional, and it basically contains everything you need to communicate with the world, to tell your friends where you’re at—so, it’s a connectivity thing, it’s a sociable thing, it’s a security thing. It’s a way to stay in touch with employers. It’s a way to stay in touch with jobs that are available, to stay in touch with people that you really need to. I think because, if you have a cellphone with you, it’s all in your pocket. You don’t have to always necessarily be at a computer. You basically empower yourself so much that you can be your own independent media person.
So, my focus is encouraging others to learn more about cellphones and computers, so that you can broadcast to the world what’s happening in your life. Very much how Twitter is on-line, very up-to-the-minute, up-to-second broadcasting. I’m working with others in the Downtown Eastside. I have this vision of making maybe the Downtown Eastside computer club, social-media club, technology club.
What are your future hopes and plans?
If I can turn out more empowered, more knowledgeable, happy, positive people in this area, I’d like to be able to say that it’s a showcase, on my résumé, that I helped the community grow. Working with W2 and Fearless, if we can help bring together all communities to work and learn and grow from each other, that would be a wonderful, beautiful thing....
I’m hoping that, through collaborations on-line—through the on-line world—and off-line through coming together and meeting people face to face, I can learn to go and empower our community, empower each other, and ultimately empower myself as a young woman to learn about social media and new media. Because I’ve tried sort of outreaching ourselves to other people on-line and there still are barriers for us as “Downtown Eastsiders” to access technology, access the money, access equipment. Working with others, hopefully, we’ll be able to be recognized as do-gooders and people who want to do great things with social media and new media and technology.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.