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Basalt teacher tackles censorship in Egypt with social networking sites

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Contributed photo"Basalt High School teacher Ben Bohmfalk stands in front of an Egyptian temple. Bohmfalk traveled to Egypt to Egyptian professors how to use new media to encourage civic engagement among their students."
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BASALT ” Thanks in part to the efforts of Basalt High School teacher Ben Bohmfalk, a group of students in Egypt recently created a website to draw attention to child labor at a nearby mine.

When Bohmfalk wasn’t teaching government, history, religion, geography or street law at Basalt High School this year, he was in Egypt, teaching civic engagement.

Twice this year, Bohmfalk has traveled to Egypt to help journalism professors there teach their students to use media ” particularly new media ” to examine their government, their country and their world. He returned from his most recent trip last week.



The trips are funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development, a division of the U.S. State Department. Citizen-to-citizen exchanges like these are part of the department’s “soft diplomacy” mission, he explained.

In Egypt, traditional media is monitored by the Ministry of Information, which restricts what can and cannot be printed ” particularly about the president. So new media has exploded onto the scene in recent years as a way for citizen journalists to write unregulated content. Facebook, for example, is the third most-visited website in Egypt, reports The New York Times.




But according to Bohmfalk, many of the users of new media tools in Egypt are extremists. So it behooves governments ” both in Egypt and the United States ” to encourage young citizens to use such tools in socially constructive ways.

Engaging the Egyptian young is particularly important, according to a project handbook, because Egypt is a nation of young people: Over 80 percent of its population is under 45 years of age. And for the nearly three million Egyptians enrolled in universities right now, the lack of channels for political activity can make civic engagement a challenge.

But that, explains Bohmfalk, is where new media can be a huge tool.

“So the purpose of this project then is to help the university [journalism] professors embrace that concept ” they’re still providing a good education to their students about journalism, but they need to incorporate new media,” he said.

In some cases, Bohmfalk said, it wasn’t hard to demonstrate the power of new media. As an exercise one day, a group of professors set up a basic Facebook page about one pressing Egyptian issue: the high unemployment rate among college graduates. By the next day, hundreds of people had joined the group.

“It really opened their eyes to the power of a social networking site like Facebook … and its ability to connect them to all these people that are concerned with the same issue,” Bohmfalk said.

And while Bohmfalk didn’t travel to Egypt under the auspices of Basalt High School, he’s brought a little of what he learned back. This year, he says, when his students complete their own annual civic engagement project ” called Project Citizen ” he’ll encourage them to go beyond just building just posterboard displays, or even websites.

“If you just make a website, people might never find it,” he said.

Instead, he’s teaching his students to build broad support through blogs, videos ” and maybe most importantly, social networking sites like Facebook, where ideas can spread virally and quickly.

It’s not that he has to teach the American students to use social networking sites, he said. But the new learning for them is in how to use the sites to build support for political and civic causes.

“People are constantly on Facebook searching for groups and for people who have something in common with them,” he said.

kredding@aspentimes.com


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