"It started with a spark," says Elder Carlie Towne, head of the Gullah/Geechee nation's Tech-Up, Step-Up program, which meets every other Saturday to bring elders and youths together in a meeting of the minds. "I saw two little girls walking down the street one day, and I thought, 'I wish I could teach them about who they are,'" she says. So she created a space for those kinds of conversations.
The Tech-Up, Step-Up program, on its surface, is a bi-weekly, three-hour gathering at Calvary A.M.E. Senior Citizen center, located in the Union Heights neighborhood of North Charleston. Elders are asked to share information about various skills like doll-making, quilting, cooking, or playing a musical instrument, while youths help the older generation with computers, cell phones, and other technology. Beyond this information swap, though, is a journey to a new kind of communication. Through Tech-Up, Step-Up, people of all ages can preserve the Lowcountry's Gullah/Geechee community.
"Our community is under-served, and we have to build from the inside out. The resources are in all of us, we've just gotta pull them out," says Towne. She relies heavily on the local community, saying that "the word is collaboration." She partners with Arthur Chisolm, producer of the TV show AC Fun Time (which airs on the Comcast community channel on Friday nights and Saturday mornings), who videotapes Tech-Up, Step-up attendees hoping to spread the word about any skills they may be honing. "We want to get them to the position where they can be discovered so someone can pay them for what they want to do," says Chisolm.
Chisolm understands how to reach a broader audience — he's been doing it for years with his TV show. "The thought came to me to use entertainment to draw the people," he says, describing the different segments of his show, which spotlights entertainers like gospel singers and R&B groups. After a few minutes of music, Chisolm says that his show features nuggets of info like Gullah/Geechee historical facts.
While Tech-Up, Step-Up is for the young and old alike, it's clear that Towne and Chisolm had today's younger generations in mind when creating this workshop. "We want to build relations with the youth. We want to build that bridge. I can't help you if I don't know who you are or where you want to go," says Chisolm. It's also important to acknowledge the true capacity of a three-hour informational session. Each Saturday is meant to build upon previous Saturdays and eventually move beyond just a singular bi-weekly event into a longer-term collaboration among community members.
Towne thinks that one of the most important aspects of knowing who you are is knowing where you came from. "They [young people] know they have a culture, but that gets washed up in bigger things like survival," she says. Towne wants to regain a culture of support in the Lowcountry, like the one that existed decades ago — one that promotes the Gullah/Geechee nation and helps its members succeed and progress through the marketing of their goods and services. "Our greatest advantage are our elders," says Towne. "When you're an elder, time is of the essence." In the Gullah/Geechee nation there is no set parameter for what defines someone as an elder, but according to Towne, age, experience, and wisdom are necessary facets of the position. "Elders look out for the community, well, for humanity," she says.
While elders are looking out for humanity, the younger generations are trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Akua Page, a public health student at Trident Technical College, is part of the younger crowd that heads to Calvary A.M.E every other Saturday. "The reason I love it is because it teaches me about Gullah/Geechee culture. I wasn't taught that in school. It gives me the bigger picture," she says. While Page says that a lot of the kids that come to the program are younger — like elementary school age — she thinks this program would do really well in local high schools. "That's [the age] when things stick with you," she adds.
Page says she helps the older participants with their phones and computers, which raises the question: Has technology added value to the Gullah/Geechee culture? Elder Towne answers that question with a resounding "yes." "Technology has improved upon storytelling," she says, remarking on her frequent use of Facebook. "It creates a level playing field for those who have access. It is innate for these stories to be told, whether we do it on the internet or in person," she says. Page agrees with Towne on this point, saying that once older generations can get past their general fear of technology, they can use it to their advantage to get their messages to reach a broader audience.
"We're empowering the community to get us to a place to know who we are," says Chisolm. Chisolm says that today's youth want a "fast fix" for problems and that with a little guidance they can figure out lasting, long-term solutions to everyday dilemmas.
Page, for example, has found a solution to her problem of feeling distant from her culture. "Last week we made dolls. My great-grandmother used to make dolls, and she passed away shortly before I was born. It helped me make a connection with her," she says. Page and Towne hope to see more and more people sharing every week. "Young people have a lot of creativity, they just need to know how to channel it," says Towne.