Negin Dahya: New digital youth assistant professor is passionate about addressing social inequities

When Vancouver. B.C. native and new iSchool Assistant Professor Negin Dahya wrapped up her undergrad degree in psychology and English lit at the University of British Columbia in 2005, she wasn’t sure what direction she wanted to go with her career. So she took time off to travel to Brazil, where she volunteered facilitating arts-based education with young people in local urban slums or favelas. While there, she was struck by the way popular media—like American TV shows dubbed in Portuguese and watched in many households—influenced the way local community members, especially young people, perceived or understood North American culture.

“I was also frustrated by how much intensive on-the-ground work was underway, and the continued challenges of fighting the structural issues related to lack of social security, healthcare and education for these young people, as these would not change unless larger and governing social and economic structures changed. It was an important moment for me,” Dahya said. “When I finished my work there I wanted to do something to get more power to implement change.”

That something was going back to school at Toronto’s York University, where Dahya earned a Master's and Ph.D. in Education, focusing her work on digital media technologies, as well as gender and ethno-racial difference related to social justice issues. 

“I think new technologies offer unique opportunities to address inequities. However, it’s complicated and nuanced. Things won’t necessarily change if you just give someone a mobile phone or a computer or access to the Internet. But by asking questions about who uses technology, and who makes and designs technology, we as people and communities can contribute to creating more equitable social conditions.”

One study Dahya worked on at York University, led by Professor Jennifer Jenson, explored girls’ engagement with game play and interrogated the social and cultural assumption that videogames and videogaming are a male domain.

“What we found is that when girls are given a chance to get their hands on the technology independent of boys, the way they talk about video games really changes. Instead of saying “We don’t play because we’re not really good at games,’ they say, ‘We don’t really play because we’re not given time. But we can do it and get really good at it if we’re given a chance.”

That study grew into an ongoing project called Kids Get Game. Kids Get Game helps young people in low-income schools and communities in Ontario learn STEM-related skills through videogame development and programming. Additionally, it’s working to train teachers to integrate technology into classroom teaching by learning with and alongside kids.

“If you think of video games as just one way of being comfortable with the media and the technology associated with it, there are a lot of transferable skills there that are going to be important for other professional and creative endeavors,” Dahya said. “It’s not the only way to learn those skills, but it is one fun and important way.”

The Toronto-based project, funded by the Motorola Solutions Foundation, is also working to address the gender gap in games.

“We find that working with boys and girls in separate spaces is really beneficial for the girls. It allows them to get comfortable as video game makers and players. When someone’s being told they can’t participate in something they might like because of their gender or who they are—when that changes [when that environment changes], that’s a really impactful moment.”

Another project Dahya began working on at York University is Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER). BHER aims to address the extremely limited opportunities for higher education for the 15.2 million people in Global South who currently live in refugee camps. Since 2013, BHER has been offering teacher training programs that may be applied to full degrees in a range of social sciences and liberal arts in the future. 

“It’s a huge project delivering blended learning to camps that hold half a million people,” Dahya said. “Many refugees are deeply impoverished and facing injustice. The project is based on the idea that education is a human right.” Dahya’s focus within the project has been to explore transnational mentoring through social media and mobile technologies, a collaboration with Dr. Sarah Dryden-Peterson at Harvard University.

Now that she’s joined the iSchool, Dahya plans to continue using informatics—research and practice at the intersection of information, technology and society—to fight for important social justice issues. And she feels the iSchool offers fertile ground for the work, including the opportunity for collaboration with a wide range of disciplines.

“Since I’ve come here, I’ve seen a deep-rooted desire to bring women into the informatics program and change the ongoing disparities relating to women and ethno-racial minorities in technology fields. People at the Information School are really ready and receptive to ideas that are going to change things in terms of access,” Dahya said. “As an educator, I would love to see that kind of conversation happening in every classroom, because there’s space for it in every area. There’s no topic of study that lies outside these social, cultural, and economic issues of injustice and inequality.”