Chrystian Rodriguez–native New Yorker, facilitator of collective experience, curriculum writer, zombie expert, filmmaker, and more–recently became Hive NYC’s Network Manager. In this role, he works with members to strengthen the network as a space for digital learning, innovation, and leadership. How? By co-designing digital peer professional development opportunities. Why? To explore, create, and share tools, ideas, and practices that can transform learning in NYC and beyond. Before joining Mozilla, Chrystian directed partnership and community engagement at Free Arts NYC, and youth media programming at Global Action Project, a Hive NYC member.
I sat down with Chrystian for an interview over banh mi and bubble tea a few days ago, and am sharing our conversation to introduce you all to him. He’ll be meeting one-on-one with Hive members over the next few months so until you get a chance to chat in with Chrystian in person, read on to learn more about him.
How did you originally get involved in Hive?
I got involved in Hive through Global Action Project (GAP). I was a GAP media educator for a long time, and supported the creation of the Media History Timeline (MHT). Since digital technology as a program design was new to GAP, we really wanted to ensure it was a youth-informed process. We invited long-term youth leaders to do research and take on developing a paper prototype into an online digital media creation and tool for media organizing.
Through our MHT work we got to go to MozFest in 2012. Even as experienced facilitators, it was overwhelming initially to come into a space with such a global presence. But right away, the young people we brought jumped in and started exploring. At MozFest, we presented a paper prototype of MHT, and got a lot of feedback on creating a digital version. We also developed a beta of MHT utilizing open source tools that Hive HQ introduced us to. From there, we explored developing MHT as a program that could be centered around the tool. When we returned to NYC, the young leaders shared their experience at MozFest with the rest of GAP.
I became more involved in Hive spaces after that to move our digital work forward. Julia Vallera and Leah Gilliam facilitated a lot of great connections and were very responsive to what we were looking for–how to integrate youth leadership and a community-oriented process into best ways to develop a tool for the web, for example. Beyond a product, we wanted to include young people in the design, user experience, and shareability of MHT, so the program really was informed by the young people we were working with.
Through Hive I really found my footing in this digital world, and was excited to connect GAP to something larger. Hive was a way to bring GAP to the forefront of different conversations in the context of other youth development and organizing groups across NYC.
Could you share more about your experience moving from being a youth leader to a youth educator?
I started as a youth facilitator at Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s (MNN) Youth Channel. Before that I didn’t want to talk about politics at all in my life. The Youth Channel provided an environment to share our youth voices; I got to do programming meetings and be a lead producer using a collaborative decision-making process for in-house projects. Through this work, I came to learn about GAP, and ended up becoming a media educator there at age 20.
At first, I wasn’t able to talk about framing and messaging, but I knew about media production. I started out co-facilitating a workshop in Washington Heights in partnership with a school-based health clinic that created anti-tobacco ads and sexual health videos with middle and high school students. I had an interesting learning moment because the young people had already been through this program twice — they pulled me aside and said, “there’s a lot more happening in Washington Heights than these people are telling us to do.” That was my introductory experience of leading programs driven by young people’s voices, what they wanted to do, and really informing what they needed.
What are some lessons that you’ve learned over the years as a facilitator and in engaging communities?
One of the things I really celebrate is co-facilitation–to get and give feedback, work collectively–as it allows for the possibility to strategically develop oneself and meet folks where they are. In holding a program space, having goals is great, but it’s important to be structured and flexible at the same time with the support of your co-facilitator. When working with many different communities of young people and adults with varied experiences, it’s important to be very present and responsive to their needs.
For example, as facilitators, we need to be cognizant of our ideological biases and lenses. We all have implicit bias–it comes from our differences in culture and histories–and it’s important to understand that when working with young people and multiple stakeholders. I’ve definitely had experiences where I’ve learned that I don’t have all of the information as a facilitator, and none of us do. I’ve been lucky enough to learn through popular education. As facilitators and educators, our responsibility is for young people’s learning, and we need to embrace ourselves as perpetual learners in that process, too.
Also, I’m a big sci-fi and horror pop-culture nerd and use them in my work to discuss social justice issues. It’s essential to create a spaces where young people can dialogue about oppression and liberation with their peers and with their communities. Using pop-culture and fantasy offers a tool to make these conversations accessible and safe.
Another lesson I’ve learned during my last few years at Free Arts is the importance of working collaboratively with other community organizations, and learning to meet people where they’re at to make conversations and partnerships more accessible and effective. In an under-resourced and competitive city like NYC, it’s particularly important for youth and education organizations to work collectively to create pathways for the dissemination of new ideas, different teaching approaches, and to strengthen each other’s work. I like being in a facilitative role where I can bring people together for the purpose of peer learning and exchanging new ideas. I’m really excited about doing this in Hive NYC, especially since there’s such a wealth of knowledge to learn from and share in the network.
What are you most excited about learning in the Hive NYC network manager role?
I’m really excited about building with the amazing organizations that are part of the network. One dream I’ve had for a while is to find a way for youth development spaces to work collectively with each other, to share resources and be more connected. As someone who’s been part of social justice and youth arts organizations, it’s really interesting to see the range of groups that are part of the network and what their approaches are. A lot of times organizations are siloed, which makes sense given their tangible work with given communities, but I’m excited to learn what could manifest with different folks working collectively — how people are using innovative tools, tech, curriculum to advance their work, and us connecting with the broad work of the Mozilla Leadership Network, which is invested in digital equity, web literacy, open innovation and more. We strive for digital equity and connectedness–there are so many interesting things that can happen, hacking how we respond to the world and systemic oppression. We’ve seen this a lot through many different ways people have been using technology for activism and shifting power dynamics.
Mozilla’s mission is to ensure that the internet is a global resource, open and accessible to all. What does this mean to you, and how do you envision this playing out in Hive’s work?
Making something open and accessible is really great. What I like about this is the possibility and the opportunity–making something open and accessible to communities who can use the tools for community building, social action, organizing. I’d like to engage in a deeper conversation about what “access” means — we need to think about why there isn’t access and respond to this with communities that are impacted. It’s great to be able to connect communities with resources and tools to shape their spaces and the world they want to be in, but it’s also important for us to be allies. This means not just creating the process for a community, but also being in support with the community to make the process informed and relevant to them.
You’re a zombie genre expert. What should the Hive NYC community know about zombies?
There’s a very interesting history when it comes to the zombie genre. Their roots come from voodoo, and it’s interesting to see the way that a culture and religion has been appropriated in western pop-culture in terms of creating negative images. But I also thinks it’s really interesting to see where certain narratives have moved towards. Zombie films have particularly become the genre of horror filmmakers masking conversations about inequality, for example. George A. Romero — the father of zombie films — introduces us to analytical tools to really look at and investigate US history and how systems of oppression–racism, capitalism, militarism–really mold us into these brainless beings that just consume without thinking.
I’m currently working on a script for a zombie film that looks at patriarchy, and examines it through zombies as the symbol of not being alive.
Finally, what else should the Hive NYC community know about you?
I’m a sci-fi/pop culture geek–specifically horror of the 60s through the 90s. I know…very specific.
What’s powerful about Hive is that educators are deeply invested in creating space for young people to build their identities and experiences, their values and understanding on the world, how they can change it. From how people develop as ‘learners’ or ‘doers’ using history, identity, and certain types of emotion, like love and community power. I’d like to go deeper when we think about the ideas of ‘youth development’, ‘youth leadership’. I’ve been fortunate and challenged by working with communities most affected by oppression, and I like looking at what we want to celebrate about our histories and identities, and would like to bring that to Hive as well.
Feel free to reach out to Chrystian at email@example.com, or come by Mozilla to chat with him during Hive office hours on Tuesdays between 10am – 1pm.
Special thanks to Meghan McDermott for contributing edits to this post.