Over 12 years ago, when I first started Phillips Community Television (PCTV), I would drive around South Minneapolis in the old car my grandfather had bequeathed me, picking up teenaged participants and taking them to our “program space” located in the dark and dusty projection room of a former porno theater. Later I would take the kids home. At the time, most were girls. They would lean out the window and shout things at people as we drove by. I never thought there was anything wrong with this.
Once when I dropped off a participant, her aunt, who was her guardian, got confused by what she saw—a young skinny white guy driving an old beat-up Buick with a gaggle of teenaged Native American girls hanging out the back seat windows and being silly. Worried, the aunt checked with the school where I worked to make sure I was, indeed, a teacher and that the after-school program I ran was legitimate. The school assured her and for many years I continued the afternoon cruises to and from the program space in my grandpa’s old car.
Eventually, PCTV grew up. We moved out of the former porn theater and into an office space. We leased a van. We formed a board of directors and got nonprofit status. We drew up proper permission forms for the parents of the youth participants to sign. Now, there are four of us working here, and I would say we are much more professional, but still trying to hold on to that same early spirit of playfulness.
Recently, as evidence of our maturity, we completed an ambitious two-year study that allowed us to understand the impact PCTV has on its youth participants. The intensive, qualitative assessment was carried out by Janet Madzey-Akale of Full Circle: Youth Development Program Planning and Evaluation, located here in Minneapolis. Janet has 20 years experience in the youth development field.
To help Janet conduct the study, we first identified what kind of youth development outcomes we wanted to measure. At PCTV, we divided the overall impact on participants into two distinct categories: one personal (we called it “positive character development”), and the other social (“civic engagement”).
To measure these outcomes, Janet interviewed dozens of youth participants and all of our staff. She chose five youth to be “case-studies.” She interviewed not only those teens, but also their parents, staff at the schools they attended, and other adults in the young people’s lives.
Janet eventually issued a report that broke down just how the program works for youth. That report has helped us at PCTV better understand our program’s impact, and what we learned can be applied to many youth media programs. It can help guide groups who are just setting up shop or organizations who want to improve their already up-and-running programs, or conduct their own evaluations. It can also help explain how youth media works to funders. The comprehensive evaluation report is on our website, but here are the highlights, a few bite-sized nuggets of what we learned about how youth media benefits teens, and how to magnify its impact.
Teens Join Programs for Fun
Most PCTV youth, we discovered, join the organization because they want to be on TV, they hope to become more tech-savvy, or they’re looking for something fun to do with their friends. In short, they want to have fun. So emphasizing the “fun” and social aspects of your program is a great way to recruit youth.
Keep Teens Engaged (and Enrolled) with New Challenges
We found that the longer our youth stay in our program, the greater the program impacts them, so it makes sense to encourage the teens to stick around. But we don’t have to be only about fun to get teens to stay. PCTV youth said they typically stick around because of the opportunities we give them to explore their interests, be productive, and engage in meaningful work with other young people in a safe environment. Hands-on training that enhances their skills and allows them to explore themselves and their interests increases their confidence and keeps them engaged.
So if you’re having problems retaining youth, make sure your participants are getting ample opportunities to learn about new and unfamiliar media. Assist them in finding their own individual “niche” in the program. For instance, the youth who takes an interest in editing might become “the editor.” The one who likes to write scripts and be on camera might find her niche as “the host” or the “director.”
Program Success Comes in Many Forms
Through measuring “positive character development” and “civic engagement,” we learned that youth media programs often provide unexpected benefits for its participants. For instance, many of the youth we interviewed said a main perk they got from the program had little to do with learning about media production or technology. They felt their self-image had improved.
One staff at an alternative school we work with noted that when youth experience success they continue to seek it out. Knowing this allowed us to understand the link between our program and academic achievement. For example, one PCTV participant who attends a mainstream public high school described how she used to feel and act “stupid” at school because no one there had faith in her. After a year of participating almost daily at PCTV, she realized how much she had to contribute.
Youth Media Programs Are Great at Building Self-Confidence
We found that once young people have an initial positive experience, like the girl who used to think of herself as “stupid,” it builds their confidence. That can have a ripple effect in their lives.
We also found in our study that when young people are praised for their efforts, they are likely to have more confidence about what they can achieve.
Receiving positive public exposure, something that most youth media programs provide, is often the ultimate confidence builder for youth. Several PCTV youth spoke about how great it made them feel when someone who had seen them on TV complimented them on their work. One participant who heard people on her school bus saying they had seen her on TV remembered, “I got, like, this big, huge grin on my face.”
Youth Media Programs Can Build Community Connections
Finally, through our research we confirmed what we’d already sensed: it is important to contextualize the work our students do as part of a larger initiative, something we call “public work.”
Through meaningful work, where young people are not just receiving a service, but contributing something, young people begin to discover a sense of purpose. They begin to understand how they can share their interests and views, and how their messages can influence others. Being involved in issues they care about changes their perspective on the world and their role in it.
When producing something that is of importance to them, young people begin to feel a sense of obligation. When a young person’s message is aired publicly, it makes them accountable for their words and actions.
Through doing “public work,” young people also begin experiencing community in new ways—they begin to sense different connections to school, to see new job possibilities for themselves, and to have a wider sense of their education goals. They forge relationships with new people and experience media exposure and recognition. Doing so, they open new doors to future possibilities.
These increased community opportunities present a starting point for youth to become further engaged in the community. Technical training and media arts production opportunities within a community-based program are the catalyst for all this.
John Gwinn is PCTV Executive Director. He adapted this article from the 2005 PCTV evaluation report written by Janet Madzey-Akale of Full Circle: Youth Development Program Planning & Evaluation.
A Phillips Community Television staff member shares what they’ve learned about how youth media benefits teens, and how to magnify its impact.