Time to Reflect
Not long ago, many of us working in youth media did not consider ourselves part of a field. And, really, why would we? Opportunities to share practices and collaborate with others working on teen-produced media were few and far between. Conferences tended to lump us together based on our means of communication—print, radio, film, the web—not on how or with whom we worked.
Foundations did not earmark funding specifically for youth media, isolating organizations further. Competing for grants, many groups felt pressured to package themselves in the categories funders sought—as either activist-oriented or artistic, focused on product or process, or preoccupied with distribution or education reform.
But as foundations like the Open Society Institute and that of Time Warner have recognized and funded youth media as a field, grantees at resulting conferences have begun to see far more similarities in our philosophies, missions, and approaches to our work than previously imagined.
Since then, youth media as a topic in and of itself began making the agenda at related conferences, like last June’s Ethnic Media Expo as well as Scholarship in the Digital Age, hosted last year by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy.
These opportunities have led to a new phase of reflection. Educators have begun thinking and planning on a macro level, placing a premium on not just continuing the work of helping teens make media, but reflecting on that work—on codifying practices and evaluating impacts, on determining where youth media fits and diverges from the many fields and movements it borrows from and builds upon—such as alternative education, narrative therapy, and independent media.
“There’s an obvious thirst for dialogue, for tools, for sharing best practices among people working to support youth media,” said Rachel Alterman Wallack, executive director of the Atlanta-based youth publication VOX, at the Ethnic Media Expo.
The new premium on reflection is apparent in the many conferences and collaborations that have emerged over the last five years, in new and unprecedented opportunities for practitioners to develop professionally, and in the increase in research and writing about the field. Recent conferences, collaborations, and venues for professional development include:
– A collaboration between the Educational Video Center and the Education Development Center’s YouthLearn Initiative to create new resources for the field, including a peer network linking youth media educators to each other.
– The National Alliance for Media Art’s and Culture’s Youth Media Leadership Institute, where 20 educators from around the country received fellowships to convene in Oregon where they set goals for leading and advancing the field.
– The formation of the New York City Learning Network, a group of film educators who meet monthly to discuss their work and topics such as critical literacy.
Research and writing about youth media include:
– The Education Development Center’s YouthLearn Initiative’s ongoing research into how youth media programs evaluate their impact.
– The film Born into Brothels, about a youth media project in India, which won the Oscar for best documentary this year. The film reflects a growing trend in media produced by youth media educators that explores their line of work, often placing it in an academic context.
– The intensified push by a number of individual organizations to better understand, evaluate, research, and codify their work. Berkeley-based Youth Radio has an in-house researcher who helps staff and youth develop, document, and evaluate learning at the program. L.A. Youth, Youth Radio, and Youth Communication have mental health professionals on-call for managing and understanding the emotional issues of the job. At Youth Communication, where I work, staff has recently undertaken an effort to define our practice through documenting our work—practices, strategies, philosophies and lessons—in an ever-growing manual.
Over the next several months, Youth Media Reporter will run articles that look closely at the different types of reflection happening in the field, as well as what youth media groups and educators are gaining from it and whether it is likely to bring more money to the field.
Of course, most of a youth media professional’s day is spent not in reflection, but raising funds, working with teens, and putting out a product. But it’s the moments when we do get glimpses of the bigger picture—the conferences, collaborations, time to view the work of colleagues—which can sometimes be unexpectedly exhilarating, leading to new ways of thinking and planning for how this line of work can continue to grow and evolve. (In this sense, feeling part of something larger than one’s own organization can help prevent burnout and quick turnover at nonprofits.)
The relaunched Youth Media Reporter, now six months old, is itself part of this new phase of introspection, and the comment page of some articles—like Ken Ikeda’s review of Born into Brothels—make apparent how ready youth media educators are to engage in dialogue about their work. My hope is that all youth media educators can help make it the most useful tool possible for reflecting on their practice and sharing ideas and tools by sending feedback and ideas.
Kendra Hurley, editor of Youth Media Reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above left: Youth media educators discuss ways to evaluate their organizations at a 2005 conference hosted by the Time Warner Foundation.
Youth media has become a bona fide field with its own practices, philosophies, and goals. Discuss.