Afrodescendant Citizenship in the Digital Age

By Amilcar Priestley | June 28, 2012
  • Author: Amilcar Priestley
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  • Abstract: Afrolatin@s, more broadly referred to as “Afrodescendants” or “Afrodescendientes,”have experienced increased visibility over the last 15 years. This was most evident when the United Nations declared 2011 “The Year of the Afrodescendant” with its approval of General Assembly Resolution 64/169. By some estimates, the number of Afrodescendants in the Americas has risen from approximately 150 million to nearly 200 million. Yet the histories and narratives of Blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean (“LAC”) have been consistently marginalized or co-opted by the nation-states in which they exist.


Afrolatin@s, more broadly referred to as “Afrodescendants” or “Afrodescendientes,”have experienced increased visibility over the last 15 years.  This was most evident when the United Nations declared 2011 “The Year of the Afrodescendant” with its approval of General Assembly Resolution 64/169. By some estimates, the number of Afrodescendants in the Americas has risen from approximately 150 million to nearly 200 million. Yet the histories and narratives of Blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean (“LAC”) have been consistently marginalized or co-opted by the nation-states in which they exist.



The discourse of Afrodescendant struggles for social, political and economic equity in the Americas has often focused on assertions of citizenship via territorial autonomy, inclusion within the national citizenry or a combination of the two. These more traditional paradigms of human rights struggles often do not address the concept of “digital citizenship” within the context of technology’s impact on the developing world. A digital citizen refers to a person who utilizes technology regularly and effectively, often times to engage in society, politics and government participation. The explosion of mobile phone use in developing countries appears to be a promising means of strengthening digital citizenship amongst  the poor and historically disenfranchised. As a result, it is increasingly important to address digital citizenship in the broader human rights dialogue as it relates to Afrodescendientes.


The AfroLatin@™ Project realizes the importance of broadening the discourse on 21st century citizenship. We hope to facilitate the ongoing economic, political and social development of digital citizenship among Afrodescendientes through the use of digital and mobile tools to preserve our culture and to keep ourselves and the world informed about Afrodescendiente issues.




The AfroLatin@™ Project was founded in 2006 by my father, George Priestley, a long time CSA member and CUNY-Queens College professor, along with a co-principal, through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Dr. Priestley was one of the trailblazers in the Afro-Panamanian political movement. As an activist scholar, he researched, wrote and taught about Afrodescendiente struggles for political and economic equity, and was also at the forefront of these struggles for nearly 40 years.


In 2008, Dr. Priestley secured a second Ford Foundation grant to conduct a study of the effectiveness of an HIV/AIDS prevention pilot program for Afrodescendientes entitled  “Conversemos Prevention Initiative” (read more on Conversemos HIV/AIDS here ) Since my father’s passing in June 2009, we undertook the challenge of continuing his legacy of commitment to the struggles of Afrodescendants.  Since that time,  we have worked with a small group of advisors comprised of my father’s colleagues, friends and those interested in raising awareness about Afrodescendientes, to re-establish Project.




 The Project relaunches 2012, along with a redesigned website. The AfroLatin@™ Project is committed to continuing to serve as an educational conduit, driving awareness about and encouraging collaboration among Afrodescendants in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as promoting research and writing about Afrodescendant peoples in the Americas.


To further these goals, we have incorporated a broad digital, mobile and social media approach to complement our research and offline initiatives. To facilitate the collection and dissemination of a wide range of material concerning Afrodescendants, a digital repository has been established to house content which will include both published and unpublished research, data, old documents (letters, drafts, , collectibles, artifacts, stamps, posters, postcards, old advertising and other relevant material. This is a community effort. As such, we welcome and encourage everyone who is interested to contribute relevant material as this will make the repository’s content as functionally useful as possible.


The digital repository will also include our oral history initiative “Conversemos Afro”  through which we  can empower people to record their own oral histories  using the voice recorder on the website and  to share their Afrolatin@/Afrodescendant experiences in a unique way, while teaching digital literacy. In addition we have created a mobile friendly Digital Bibliography, which can be sorted by year, author or title and searched by keyword. We would like to encourage user submissions of bibliographic information on books, articles, journals, reports, and dissertations, regardless of language, covering Afrodescendants/Afrolatin@s to add to the current list.


The Project will publish original material as well as republished works and select translated material concerning the Afrodescendant diaspora in the Americas through a digital Journal. To support the educational and informational goals of the AfroLatin@™ Project, we seek submissions from academics, public intellectuals and community activists who have worked in the Afrodescendant space in LAC. We are not a scholarly journal, but will have a group of advisors to assist us in reviewing submissions. We wish those who have something meaningful to contribute about Afrodescendants, Afrolatin@s and the Afrodescendiente movement to send us your reflections, articles and research reports to share with the world.




By utilizing a more robust technological approach, the Project hopes to engage the “mobile telephony” phenomenon within LAC, as well as in Black and Latino communities in the U.S..  Mobile telephony is the measure of adoption of mobile phone usage within a region or community.   LAC has quietly become the fastest growing mobile market in the world, comprising nearly 630 million users (as of December 2011) or nearly 11% of the world’s demand.


More importantly, despite the uneven distribution of mobile phone use throughout the region, studies demonstrate that even those in poorer communities own mobile phones. This has been attributed to the prevalence of pre-paid plans and to the high cost of other modes of communication, making mobile phones often the only option available for those of less economic means in LAC. Many people without landlines or internet access rely on mobile web access as their primary means of economic survival in societies that have traditionally excluded them from labor markets. In addition, governmental authorities, social organizations and collectives have begun to recognize the utility of mobile phones for educational, development, agricultural, health, banking and poverty reduction initiatives.


It is important to note that many of the ownership and usage patterns described for LAC are visible amongst Blacks and Latinos in the U.S..  In its 2011 study, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 44% of Blacks and Latinos in the US had smartphones, and noted that 74% and 63% of Latinos and Blacks respectively used their smartphones to access the internet or check email. In fact, nearly 38% use their phones exclusively to access the internet. In its most recent 2012 study, the Pew Center noted an 11% increase in total U.S. smartphone ownership at 46% of the population with Blacks and Latinos still adopting smartphones at a rate slightly higher than Whites (49%-45%). Furthermore, as in LAC, many who owned mobile phones purchased pre-paid plans due to their low cost and ability to allow for budgeting.





One extensive problem that continues to arise on any range of socio-economic issues is the lack of disaggregated data in LAC with respect to Afrodescendants. In addition, much of the “information and communication technology” (ICT) research on mobile phone use for socio-economic or political development has focused on efforts in continental Africa, India, and Asia (although there have been projects in Mexico, Chile and Argentina that I am aware of).  While statistics existed on mobile telephony in LAC and the way Latin Americans used their mobile phones, there were no concrete numbers on mobile phone use among Afrodescendants. Based on the general mobile adoption rates reported regionally (Bolivia- 66%,  Colombia 103.7%,  Costa Rica 110%, Dominican Republic 92%), it seemed likely that the rate of  mobile phone usage among Afrodescendants  in LAC shifted with the overall population. The question became identifying the direction of the shift and what it meant.



With that, we set out to develop our Pilot Survey, which we conducted in the Republic of Panama and Costa Rica between January-February 2012. The Pilot Survey asked 42 men and women of varying ages several questions, including: 1) their ideas as to the importance of mobile phones generally, but specifically for Afrodescendants, 2) the extent of smartphone ownership and prepaid v contract customers, 3) the perceived potential of mobile (and social media) as a tool to educate and to further community needs, and 4) the importance of digital literacy and extent of participation in digital culture for Afrodescendants. We will be publishing these findings soon.


One Web 2.0 platform that the Project will explore, among others with its Teach Afrolatin@ initiative, is the use of Twitter as a simple, yet accessible educational tool. While not novel, Twitter is particularly useful as an SMS (text message) compatible application. It has been demonstrated that LAC people as well as Blacks and Latinos in the United States, frequently use SMS services and social media. Recent studies reveal that in many poorer communities,  people were open to the idea of learning through SMS and are willing to use some of their prepaid time for this purpose. Other communications prospects in use which should be further explored are Apple’s WhatsApp and Blackberry’s Messenger Service (Blackberry leads smartphones in LAC for various reasons).


Nevertheless, the use of mobile phones to facilitate digital literacy presents opportunities to teach or reinforce development initiatives. . The notion of BOYD (“Bring Your Own Device”)  and the possibilities of Web 2.0 appear particularly useful, for example, in the development of a framework of mobile learning to teach afrodescendant history that complements growing calls for inclusión of these histories in Latin American curricula.




The current direction of the Afro Latin@™ Project is in keeping with the trajectory of important work on Afrodescendants taking place around the world.   We hope that our emphasis on digital preservation, digital citizenship and possibilities of mobile for Afrodescendants encourages discussion of new ways to preserve our histories and empowering ways to harness the mobile and digital tools in our hands.

The significance of what some have coined the “second generation” of human rights cannot be overstated. While it is important for stakeholders to continue to address human rights issues in the offline world, we must also begin to conceptualize this discourse within a digital paradigm. Given the social, economic and political access opportunities technology  can potentially facilitate for Afrodescendants (as well as other marginalized communities), the strengthening of digital citizenship may turn out to be crucial to advancing Afrodescendant political and social agendas in this new digital age.


Selected References

Cohen, Patricia, “Giving Literature Virtual Life”. The New York Times. 21 March 2011

“Cultura Digital En America Latina: Investigacion Interuniversitaria”.  Centro de Comunicación educativa audiovisual CEDAL.  Colombia. 2012.

Barseghian, Tina. “For At-Risk Youth, Is Learning Digital Media a Luxury?” The Huffington Post., 28 July 2011.

Gladwell, Malcom. “Small Change.” The New Yorker. 4 Oct. 2011

Hindman, Matthew Scott. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009.

Ito, Mimi. “What Exactly Can You Learn on a Mobile Phone.” MindShift. June 2011.

Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009.

Mossberger, Karen, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Ramona S. McNeal. Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society, and Participation. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.

King, Jamilah. How Big Telecom Used Smartphones to Create a New Digital Divide”. December 2011.

“Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites: What the Research Tells Us.” 2 Mar. 2011. <http/> .

Rheingold, Howard. “Why You Need Digital Know-How –Why We All Need It” European Business Review. 25/5/12

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006.

“UNESCO Mobile Learning Week Report.” First UNESCO Mobile Learning Week. Jan. 2012. .

Watkins, S. Craig. The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social-network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Boston. See also:





I currently serve as the Director of The AfroLatin@™ Project. I am also a media and intellectual property lawyer. The pride fostered by my father, throughout my life, in being an Afro-Panamanian have been important in shaping my desire to move the AfroLatin@™ Project into the digital era.

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