When I started working in youth media, it took me several months to discover a powerful but rarely discussed practice in the field. My first week editing Represent, a magazine written by and for teens in foster care, I received a large stack of articles, all edited for publication. My task was to decide which stories should appear in which upcoming issues of the magazine.
They were mostly personal stories detailing young writers’ struggles growing up in New York City and in foster care: surviving sexual abuse, getting caught up in gang life, the stigma of being labeled a “foster child.” There were also some happy ones—the joy of basketball, finding family in a group home, a first love. In several, teens used their personal experiences to make arguments for change—how the foster care system should be reformed, for instance, or why special education doesn’t work. But as I started talking with the adults working in child welfare who read the magazine, it was apparent that they considered a writer’s recommendations for change as merely representative of one teen’s point of view, not to be taken very seriously. They read the magazine for its emotional truths, not for its policy recommendations.
After a few months of “curating” issues of the magazine I began instinctively organizing the stories around themes. Journalistically, themes did a more responsible job of providing the magazine’s teen readers with balanced information. A story about one teen’s decision to have an abortion provided readers only a small window into the options for pregnant young women. But a half-issue on teen pregnancy with diverse personal stories by teens who had become pregnant and made different decisions they thought were right for them, gave our readers a far more thorough perspective on the topic.
I soon noticed an unexpected perk to publishing thematically: Grouping stories by themes prompted adults to take the writers’ suggestions for change far more seriously.
A child welfare expert requested 200 copies of our issue on homelessness to distribute at a conference on runaway prevention. A law school used our issue on family court to train lawyers on how to work with young people. An education advocacy group used our issue on getting an education in foster care when preparing a report. This would not have happened had the stories in these issues run separately. They had far more power collectively than they did apart.
I have since learned of youth media groups in all genres—print, online, radio, film, photography—that organize their media around themes. Sometimes they consciously do it to amplify the impact of their young people’s work. Other times they’re cornered into producing themes by funders, who sometimes fund media about specific topics of their choosing, like drug use prevention, or teen activism. Either way, when used sensitively the technique is extremely effective.
The Bay Area-based Youth Radio won the prestigious Murrow Award from the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) for its thematic radio series that aired on National Public Radio, “Reflections on Return,” featuring voices of young soldiers returning from Iraq. Part of the series’ power is that it provided a youth perspective on the war, said RTNDA chairman Dan Shelley. But it was the sheer range of voices included in the series—a young Iraq veteran who suffered a devastating throat injury in the war; a soldier reunited with his girlfriend after returning from Iraq; a young man with PTSD—that made audiences pay attention.
ListenUp!’s compilation of videos produced by young people from around the world, including a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, aired on the Independent Film Channel nearly 20 times the first month of its release. “It never would have been shown on the Independent Film Channel if it was just one piece, if it was just one group of kids in one country,” said Mindy Faber, who has curated numerous compilations of youth media and now runs Faultline Media Services. “It was the way it was packaged thematically around this idea of struggle and overcoming challenge from a global youth perspective that allowed it to have an audience beyond small local audiences.”
And numerous film festivals featuring youth-produced media have found that adults who may not show up to a screening simply to support teens will show up if they’re interested in the theme the media explores. This applies even when the theme itself is “youth voice”—the importance of providing opportunities for teens to be listened to.
“Smart, curatorial work,” says Faber, is a powerful tool for building not only audience, but also democracy. “Different perspectives help people negotiate an issue, and that’s something we need to do in any society—to listen to people who have different ideas and experiences and different forms of knowledge and take that information in. The whole democratic process is about this,” says Faber. “Thematically-based, contextualized discussions through media is a great way to do it.”
Smart, curatorial work is a powerful tool for building not only audience, but also democracy.
But what is it like for young people to see their personal narratives—the ones they deliberated over for months—suddenly packaged as part of a larger issue? Might it feel like their personal struggles have been co-opted? Has too much control been taken away from the media maker, allowing adults, not youth, to set the agenda?
It depends how it’s done, said Natasha Santos, 18, a Represent writer. When she first started writing for the magazine nearly four years ago, Santos liked to know ahead of time which themes her stories would be part of. Though she has since come to trust her editor to curate sensitively, even now she sometimes worries that a thematic packaging might prompt readers to interpret her stories in ways she did not intend: If published in an issue on drug use, for instance, will her article exploring her curiosity about drugs make her appear on the verge of addiction? But Santos also says that in all her time writing for Represent, she has not felt misrepresented by the way her stories were packaged. One of her recent stories published as part of an issue exploring anger. “It was interesting. It made me feel good to be like, ‘Hmmm…I’m not the only one who feels that way,’” says Santos, “but also not so special, because my story really was so like everyone else’s.”
Linda Rodriguez still remembers the recognition she felt in 2000 when her editor and I published her first story for Represent, “How to Get to La La Land: Reflections on getting high and the rough ride back to earth,” as part of a thematic issue on drugs. Linda had intended her story, which walked the reader through the steps of getting high, to be funny, edgy, and entertaining, “like a sit-com,” remembers Rodriguez. Nothing more. But published alongside a reported story about drugs in group homes, a narrative by a teen struggling through rehab, and a story by a parent who lost her child to foster care after becoming addicted to crack, Rodriguez saw her own article anew.
“It was like a light that switched on,” she remembers. “It gave my story more meaning than I actually gave it credit for when I was writing it. What I picked up from all the stories in the issue was mine was really about that feeling of despair, and not knowing where to look, this sadness, like you’re sitting in dirty bath water. Next to the other stories it gave me the feeling of, ‘Man, there’s something going on here, and we’ve got to do something about this.’”
She’s been writing ever since.
How curating youth media around themes amplifies its impact—for both audience and media makers.