Elementary school kids step into “digital world university”

IPSWICH — Lewis Lee comes from one of the toughest neighborhoods in America.

His 53206 ZIP code has the highest proportion of incarcerated black men in the country.

A former gang member and three-time felon, he acknowledges his area was “considered a pretty bad neighborhood.

But he was nervous on Wednesday afternoon. Lee had an appointment with a dozen pre-schoolers from Ipswich.

Now a community activist, Lee has spoken with people from all around the world. But he found the prospect of entertaining four- and five-year-olds was daunting.

Nevertheless, he showed the kids the view from his front door in Milwaukee (it’s cold and snowy there, too) and talked them through his big book of animal pictures.

The interaction is just one of many planned at the Winthrop Elementary School over the next couple of weeks through the Shared Studios video portal system.

With 40 meeting spaces around the world, it offers an immersive experience where participants step into a small room with a giant screen.

It is much different than a Skype call on a PC or phone, noted Karen Sekiguchi, Winthrop’s library media specialist. “You really feel like you are in the same room,” she said.

The portal, set up in the music room for two weeks, is an inflatable gold-colored room.

It was paid for a grant from the Institution for Savings, and conversations were arranged with Richmond, Va.; Mexico City; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Gaza; Stockholm; Afghanistan; Kigali, Rwanda; Honduras; Amman, Jordan; an Iraqi refugee camp; and Kashmir, India.

But one session with the Oakland International School had to be canceled because the teachers are on strike.

All sessions are facilitated by a representative from Shared Studios to keep the conversation moving and appropriate. C.J. Morse did the honors on Wednesday in Winthrop.

Often, no one is sure who will show up on the other side. “There’s an element of surprise,” Sekiguchi said.

One class, for example, connected with the Colorado portal. It is in a public place, and an architect wandered in, she explained. He told the kids he was designing a new school and asked them for ideas on what they would like to see, she added.

Another class studying the Aztecs talked to Mexico City. Two people on a bike tour — an American woman and Mexican man — explained that much of Mexico City is built on old Aztec ruins.

“Whether you’re talking to kids or not, there’s value in meeting people from other locals,” Sekiguchi said.

Lee agreed and credited Shared Studios with drawing attention to his neighborhood’s plight and eventually forcing the city of Milwaukee to provide more resources.

“It was finally a way to get people to see what was going on in this community,” he said.

The Shared Studios portal was only supposed to spend three months in Lee’s Amani neighborhood.

But it spent three years there and grew to become a community center and educational resource, he said. “The magic started to happen.”

Initially, Yale University used it as part of its research on criminal justice. But as community activists spoke with others around the world about their neighborhood, offers of help began to flow in, and eventually the media became interested, Lee said.

That culminated in a documentary film called Milwaukee 53206, which chronicles the lives of America’s most incarcerated ZIP code.

With 62 percent of the male population either in jail or former prisoners, the movie tells how mass incarceration affects an entire community.

On another level, the Shared Studios portal has been an eye-opener for local kids, Lee said.

“It has brought a lot of hope,” he said. Some kids have learned foreign languages, and five are going on to college, he noted.

Calling the portal a “digital world university,” Lee compared its impact on the underserved community to the movie The Matrix.

“Our eyes really opened to what the world is really like,” he explained.

“It was big. It really opened our eyes to culture,” Lee said. A smaller portal is now in his home, and he spends time traveling to other cities on behalf of Shared Studios.

While the daytime sessions are reserved for students and teachers, a number of time slots for the general public are available.

Those are on:

  • Saturday, March 2, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. (connection TBD)

  • Sunday, March 3, from 10 a.m. to noon with Amman, Jordan

  • Sunday, March 3, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. with Milwaukee