The Field is Bigger than We Think
Albuquerque, New Mexico was a unique place to meet youth media and service-learning practitioners, amongst several other organizations at the 18th National Service-Learning Conference where 2,500 people attended on March 23-27th. With inspirational speakers such as Jane Goodall and spiritual blessings by insightful native elders, the energy of leadership, wisdom, and connectivity filled the convention center with youth and adult allies excited about engaging more deeply as active and effective citizens.
Why Albuquerque, New Mexico as a relevant conference setting? Albuquerque has made young people a top priority in its city where, among other things, is a teen artistic haven and entertainment center coined Warehouse 21 (W21). W21 provides young people to manage, produce, teach, design, and administer art, media, promotion classes and music performances in collaboration with MAP21, a local youth-operated magazine.
Interwoven at the 18th National Service-Learning Conference (NSLC) was a few youth media organizations and individuals who have made a direct link between youth media and service-learning. On behalf of YMR, I met with people from three specific organizations—New Foundation Charter School’s, Native Youth Magazine.com, and Stories for Service/Digital Storytelling—to learn how these connections are important for youth media professionals in the field and how media can serve youth and communities respectively.
Kevin Dobbins, a young man working with video, production, and editing who was filming the conference for the second time around with a team of youth, has first hand experience blending youth media work with service-learning. I met him on the opening day of the conference as he handed out flyers promoting their video production and storyboard workshops. Dobbins is an alumnus of the New Foundation Charter School’s (NFCS) in Philadelphia, PA—which serves kindergarten to 8th graders (but whose media program includes youth/alumnae up to grade 12). While at NFCS, Dobbins participated in a service-learning course in conjunction with an after-school media program.
The two opportunities pushed him to portray issues in his community using ‘active video documentation’—Kevin’s term to describe service-learning documentaries. I asked Dobbins, who was first involved with the conference last year, what it is like to be in New Mexico, film the conference, and be part of the second round of youth-designed pre/post production and storyboard workshops. “I feel honored,” he said with a wide grin as he led me to the video production workshop headquarters where I am met with two media instructors from NFCS, Shoshanna Hill and Geanie Meerbach.
NFCS has a service-learning component integrated into its academic curriculum, thanks to Amy O’Neil and Shira Cohen (Founders of i-Safe and i-Drive). The after-school video production program is youth-oriented, includes a wide scope of age groups (as many high-school alumnae attend), and uses service-learning best practices to effectively align it with a credit-bearing course at the school. Meerbach explains, “We integrate issues important to youth with service-learning.” Youth create videos at NFCS as a way to uncover and comment on issues through active documentaries which are up to five minutes long. These documentaries are viewed internally by other students, and sometimes by parents, teachers, and community members. Many of the films bring attention to issues of particular relevance to young people, such as bullying, while providing a space for creative expression (where youth integrate thriller-esque styles and comedy).
Media Instructor Shoshana Hill explains:
“Internet safety and bullying, for example, are big deals to youth [right now at our school]. I don’t think adults realize how important these issues are [to youth]. Often, youth are burdened with societal pressures with oppressive messages such as ‘you shouldn’t know how to use .’ The issues youth in our program address are not [typically] known [to the community/audience]. Youth get everything from media. And bringing up the unknown and showcasing that on a screen, gets a certain issue attention, which youth learn to use strategically. Video has the power to communicate and get the word out about issues. Young people, by using this medium, learn not only how a video works, but what a camera doesn’t see, which teaches youth to ask questions, think in a story, and creatively use alternative communicative forms.”
Geanie Meerbach, who has been working as a media instructor for the past year at NFCS, plans to archive all student videos and active documentaries in the school library. Meerbach believes that access to these video documentaries on youth issues and experiences will help support generations of youth to come at NFCS. She also believes that the ability and desire of NFCS students to take leadership on issues important to the community, self, and one’s peers is a direct result of merging service-learning with active documentaries. Both Meerbach and Hill are passionate and dedicated media practitioners who see a direct link between youth media making and service-learning—which has had profound effects on both students and the issues they are tackling.
In addition to the NFCS conference attendees, Mary Kim Titla offered a workshop on native youth and storytelling at the conference. Titla has spent more than half of her life as a professional storyteller, including 20 years for NBC as a news reporter. She mentors young Native storytellers through her website, Native Youth Magazine.com. At her workshop, two young storytellers spoke about the importance of storytelling, writing, and how they entered the world of storytelling through pow wows (a cultural tradition amongst Native Americans).
Native Youth Magazine.com promotes youth initiatives, youth storytelling, website design, cultural presentations, media relations, video production/narration, and more. Founded by Titla, Native Youth Magazine.com offers youth a forum to view and upload video clips, audio, profiles, galleries and blogs. As she explained in her workshop, the website “addresses real world issues through the ancient craft of storytelling.” Adding storytelling to technology builds a sense of unity that is meaningful.
As a mother of teenagers, Titla realized that there were “not enough positive websites about Native American youth communities and activities that could connect Native American youth with one another.” Titla explains that youth who have access to technology are part of a generation that is up to speed on the latest technology—they are really into figuring out how things work, function, and what advanced features new technology offers.
Throughout Titla’s work and life, she emphasizes the importance of language, signs, and symbols to one’s history, personal transformations, and cultural knowledge. She believes that the importance of storytelling enhances one’s identity and community—which are integral to learning how to serve and give back to where one’s roots are laid. By creating Native Youth Magazine.com, Titla engages youth with a passage way that connects them to their cultural identity, to their peers, and to the power of story telling in a digital age.
Story telling fosters a sense of identity, lineage, and service in youth in many ways. The National Service-Learning Conference also featured Stories of Service, a program of Digital Clubhouse Network. Stories of Service (SOS) mobilizes young people to interview and produce digital stories (multimedia videos) about the memories of women and men who serve the nation. SOS is dedicated to developing innovative ways of using technology to build stronger communities, with an emphasis on mobilizing youth in service to their communities.
SOS was launched in 1998 and founded in 1996 in Silicon Valley, CA out of a NASA research project and currently partners with the History Channel, Youth Service America, and the National Youth Leadership Council. SOS engages youth with skills such as video production, interviewing, writing, visual arts, research, and intellectual property/copyrights. SOS provides an electronic toolkit of curriculum on their website www.stories-for-service.org, training workshops, and orientations.
SOS captures stories of those who serve the nation who:
• Are universally inclusive, reflecting the contributions of individuals of all backgrounds;
• Are ordinary individuals who have received little recognition for their extraordinary service;
• Provide youth with role models for ongoing service; and
• Engage youth with older generations by creating a “youth to youth” connection (youth producers are similar in age to the Storytellers during the Storytellers’ time in service)
At the conference, youth from SOS conducted interviews with elders from the local Albuquerque community as well as other elders with strong backgrounds in service-learning to capture their digital stories. Teams of youth were paired with an elder storyteller to create an opportunity for intergeneration learning and togetherness. Video became a tool both to build community and document personal histories of older generations. Ryan Hegg, the Project Director of Stories of Service, explains that there is power where “young people volunteer to capture stories and share them—media is a modality for preserving stories and history.”
Preserving stories, working with elders, and using media to highlight local issues are all elements of youth media directly related to service-learning. As Nelda Brown, the Director of the National Service-Learning Partnership explains, “The service-learning field is bigger than we think. Often our colleagues using youth media, youth organizing or other engagement strategies to pursue community change are in fact doing service-learning, often with even stronger social justice outcomes for participants and neighborhoods. We need to recognize, embrace and learn from their work to strengthen our mutual goals of community improvement, equity, and justice.”
Bridging service-learning and youth media has profound effects on youth and their communities. Both the service-learning and youth media fields ought to recognize and learn from each other’s work, especially on specific areas of overlap. Whether its documenting oral history through a generation of elders using video, sharing one’s cultural identity and experience through journalism and pow wows, or actively documenting issues in one’s school—youth are taking on socially conscious, activist roles in using media to engage with their sense of self, community and belonging.