Cultivating a Field
Rebecca Renard, co-director of the Educational Video Center (EVC) documentary workshop, cues up a 10-minute tape of her class preparing to make a documentary. Then she presses “play.”
“Get into your group and brainstorm ideas,” Rebecca says onscreen.
Aureliano, also on the tape, leans forward and says, “I think homelessness is definitely a problem for teenagers.” He adds, “But a lot of times they’re homeless because they don’t want to work.”
“But mostly they get caught up in a system where their family is thrown out of housing and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Shinnel counters. “We need to find out about groups that help build more housing. Maybe we can volunteer for them.”
Rebecca stops the tape and asks the EVC staff where they see the teaching of inquiry practice, a method of having students’ own questions drive learning.
“I think what happened would have been totally different if the young people weren’t in a group but were sitting by themselves,” one colleague says.
“Getting the students to go to a deeper level of questioning, to researching and reading is a real challenge,” says another.
“So, how do we get them to really research their issues? To get in the habit of asking questions and pursuing them further—even when there isn’t one clear answer?”
This is the Educational Video Center study group in action. Every two weeks, they spend a morning over coffee and bagels reflecting on challenges and grappling with how to better teach their students to be critical thinkers. The staff also meets regularly with other New York-based video youth media groups to learn from other organizations and discuss the critical issues they face.
These forums for professional development were founded on the belief that practitioners most effectively improve their teaching when they have regular opportunities to learn from each other. By engaging each other in ongoing discussions about the theory and practice of their craft, staff develop a critical sensibility. EVC’s study group helps build and sustain a culture of a “learning organization” in the office—a place where staff learning is collaborative, public, nonthreatening, and integral to the daily experience of both students and staff.
Virtually no colleges exist where one can earn a degree or certificate to be a media educator. Perhaps the most common way that media educators learn their craft is through trial and error, and they largely do so in isolation.
The challenge of having no formal training is compounded by comparatively low salaries and the lack of a secure career path, which leads to high rates of turnover and the necessity of training new staff. Groups like EVC’s go a long way toward helping youth media educators improve their teaching and feel supported in their learning. That, in turn, can encourage them to stay at an organization longer.
But many organizations don’t have this kind of staff development, and of those that do, too often the lessons learned in individual sessions never find their way to the outside world, where others can benefit from them. As an emerging field, youth media work is not yet professionalized with a commonly accepted set of best practices and standards for teaching, media production, or organizational management.
Part of the challenge of professionalizing youth media is that the field encompasses such a broad range of organizational models as well as various forms of media. Some programs operate as part of larger community media arts institutions, youth organizing projects, or after-school centers. Others are stand-alone organizations operating independently. Some focus on media literacy or building youth skills in preparation for college or a career. Others focus on media education, the arts, recreation, or using the making of media as a therapeutic tool. Still others are driven by goals of civic engagement and social change.
While we have yet to agree on common standards for teaching, producing, and distributing youth media, progress has been made towards finding common ground. New York City’s youth media film and video community, which meets regularly to discuss their work, is doing a particularly good job at forming opportunities for learning among the many local organizations.
In the coming year, both EVC and the Global Action Project will publish curricula to disseminate their youth media practices and principles to teachers and community youth workers across the country. The Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Youth Channel offers training modules for local organizations wanting to replicate parts of their program.
Video groups have also collaborated to form the Urban Visionaries Festival in New York City, where local youth media groups put on a festival showcasing their work. And many New York-based organizations have formed networks connecting youth media groups and educators, especially those working in video. These include ListenUp! PSA network and MediaRights.org‘s youth media distribution project.
These are all positive steps that can and should be replicated by organizations working in various media—print, radio, film, and multimedia. However, individual collaborations aren’t enough to truly professionalize the field and exploit to the fullest the creative ideas and energy produced by these and other initiatives.
Towards this end, we need to establish an effective network—on the local, regional, and national levels—that will move the field beyond simply information- and resource-sharing to collective knowledge-building. Such a network would allow administrators and practitioners at the grassroots to help each other make sense of, and apply new knowledge coming out of the field. In turn, they could contribute back to the field their own innovations and lessons learned.
In addition to professional development, networks can address issues that will help build the field, such as effective distribution of media and curriculum, and how to raise money.
Ultimately, if youth media groups formed a national network, we would most likely attract larger grants from private and federal funding agencies than we do as individual organizations. With support from funders who encourage a culture of cooperation rather than competition, a range of cross-organizational initiatives could emerge, such as institutes facilitating intervisitation of each other’s programs, practitioners conducting case studies of their own projects, a collaborative publication containing essays from the field on the theory and practice of youth media, and a traveling youth media festival.
The point is for us to create meaningful ways to share each of our organizations’ accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience, and to build upon the new information and lessons learned.
EVC is laying the groundwork for such a network by working with the Education Development Center’s YouthLearn. We are taking the first steps to form the Learning Network, which will engage teachers, youth workers, as well as emerging youth media practitioners in forums where they can learn from each other. These forums will be sponsored in partnership with organizations from intersecting fields such as youth development, civic engagement, journalism, and the arts. The network will also invest in a select group of emerging and mid-career practitioners who will serve as youth media fellows, honing their leadership skills together as a cohort and engaging in intensive projects designed to capture and disseminate promising practices to other interested practitioners and institutions.
Through these various field-building initiatives, a base of shared language, practices, and goals can emerge. Each organization will then become not only a producing and teaching organization, but perhaps more importantly, a learning organization.
Steven Goodman (pictured above left) is the founder and director of the Educational Video Center and author of Teaching Youth Media. “Cultivating a Field” was adapted and updated from a paper commissioned by OSI for a March 2004 convening on youth media.
This article is part of a series exploring a new phase of introspection in the youth media field, in which educators have begun placing a premium on reflecting on their work and thinking and planning on a macrolevel.
Youth media practitioners teach better when they have regular opportunities to learn from each other. Steven Goodman explains how that can happen.