An Ally for Youth When it Counts
Every summer since 1999, I have volunteered my services to a local youth media organization called VOX Teen Communications. My “day job” is as a news designer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (AJC) editorial pages. I once believed that getting more youth voices on our opinion pages was a good way to grow a younger readership. However, after years of working with teens through VOX, I find myself less concerned with my employer’s circulation and more dedicated to giving young writers the best publishing experience I can.
In the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to mentor a 16-year-old Somali girl named Ayan Hussein get a very difficult, personal story published in our paper. The experience tested the resolve of all involved and forced some lessons on us before it was over. These lessons included how to be an advocate for young writers, how to negotiate cultural differences, how to support a teen facing outside pressures and most of all, how to guide a young writer through a large bureaucratic process with her voice intact and her spirit empowered.
Ayan and I first met as part of the Raise Your Voice Summer Program sponsored by VOX Teen Communications (http://www.voxrox.org/program/summer.html). Each summer, VOX teaches 16 teenage writers and journalists journalism fundamentals and community leadership. One of the most popular attractions of the program is the one-on-one mentorship with news-industry professionals. As mentors, our immediate goal is to help each teen get an article published in the AJC. We coach our teens to select a topic that the paper might want to publish, give advice on how to cover the topic, and help pitch the finished article to one of our paper’s section editors.
The subject matter Ayan wished to write about was challenging. During our initial meeting, she told me she wanted her article to be a personalized introduction to the Somali practice of female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation, or FGM). In her words, “I wanted to educate myself on what happened to me when I was 7 years old through the research that I would be doing. The article would also benefit other victims of the ritual.”
Ayan took this opportunity very seriously. She explains, “[When I gave Pete my first draft], I was sure that he was going to judge me when he was done reading it. I was wrong. He said that it looked good and the only thing missing was the reliable resources and interviews from people in the community. [Female circumcision] has always been in my mind but never talked about because it is taboo. [Yet] I had stories of my personal struggle that I went through since coming to America…this was a chance to share my stories with [a wider audience].”
Soon Ayan was telling me how her family was scattered between the U.S. and Kenya; how her first years in the United States were lonely and difficult; how she lived with her father and younger sister in a tiny apartment; and how her educational ambitions were at odds with her family’s plans for her.
No one in her family had more than a fifth-grade education. Joining the VOX summer program made Ayan’s father fearful that such activities would westernize her beyond his recognition. Ayan explained that most young Somali women were expected to drop out of school and go to work, or marry young and start families.
I quickly realized that there was more at stake here than a writer getting something off her chest. I knew I would need a plan for how to support her without being a disrupting force on her relationships with her family, culture and community.
To that end, I decided that I would do my best to create options for her and leave as many choices as possible up to her. It was my hope that giving her options would increase her confidence and leadership as we progressed toward publication.
I explained to Ayan that we had several choices where her article could be published. If she kept a detached voice, her article could run as an explanatory news story in our weekly international section called Atlanta & the World. This would require more research and reporting. The advantage of doing a detached, reported-news article would be to expand the scope of her writing from a first-person piece to one that would allow her to explore the context of her experience.
On the other hand, there were advantages to keeping her subjective voice too. By running her article as a first-person piece on our daily op-ed page, she would have more opportunity to reflect on her experience. We already had a daily op-ed venue for young writers called “New Attitudes” that was tried and true, but I felt that Ayan’s story deserved a bigger treatment.
The third option was creating a longer piece intended for the Sunday opinion section, @issue. Publishing a teen writer in the @issue section would be new territory for the AJC, and I warned Ayan that the experience of dealing with several layers of editors could be frustrating for her. In response, Ayan only asked which venue had the largest readership. Getting her message out was paramount. As our “primetime” space, the @issue section would be a gamble—we would get a larger readership, but also more scrutiny from the paper’s editors. More editors always means more changes, and I worried that we might change or even lose Ayan’s voice.
Over the next several days, I checked on Ayan as she progressed on her research. I made some suggestions on where to look for materials and asked if there was any way I could help. At times, her research was emotionally difficult. Ayan explains, “To my surprise, I realized [during my research] that there were three types of female circumcision. At one point I came across a picture taken after the procedure and I almost vomited—I could not hold back tears. I phoned Pete and I will never forget what he said. Instead of telling me to be strong or just move on and not to visit the website again, he said that I was a good writer and I have plenty of stories to work on—that female circumcision was not the only option we had.”
It was still early in the process, and I reminded Ayan that we could go to Plan B if necessary. Ayan reflects, “As a result of Pete giving me options, I chose to stick with the topic. I realized that I didn’t have to continue [with the topic] but that I wanted to.”
Working with the editor
After a round of editing, I arranged a pitch meeting between Ayan and the @issue editor Richard Halicks. Pitch meetings are crucial to a teen writer’s ultimate experience in the VOX summer program. Pitch meetings allow both the teen writer and editor to get to know each other—even before the article is discussed. Doing so creates a partnership, rather than introducing another authority figure for the teen to deal with. It’s also a great time to discuss expectations.
Richard—a very nurturing editor—was enthusiastic about getting her article into his section. However, he wanted to know whether Ayan’s parents knew what she was writing. Although he would not ask for their permission, he wanted to make sure that Ayan understood the consequences of making them part of her story. Ayan replied that she had discussed her article with her father, who was cool to the idea, but did not forbid it.
With that, Richard and Ayan created their own working dynamic. Richard wanted more reporting on the practice of FGM, and sent Ayan for quotes from the Somali community. Ayan seemed to enjoy working with Richard. They haggled over word choices and traded ideas over how to begin and end the piece. You would have thought she was a regular staff reporter.
Over the next two weeks, my role would be to talk to each of them separately to make sure Ayan was meeting Richard’s expectations, and that Richard’s changes were not diluting Ayan’s voice. I further mediated by touching base with staff at VOX to deliver progress reports and ensure that Ayan was not overwhelmed.
A major roadblock
With all parties happy with the article, and with three days before publication, Richard took the piece to his editors. The intent of this meeting was to inform the editors what was going in the @issue section, and also to run interference on Ayan’s behalf if those editors had any concerns. Unfortunately, they had a big one.
The editors wanted some kind of signed note—either from a doctor or parent—verifying that Ayan had the FGM procedure. In the summer of 2005, the journalism scandals involving Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley were still fresh, and for some editors, having a “good feeling” about a writer wasn’t enough (especially a young freelancer we hadn’t worked with before).
Richard and I were crestfallen. We discussed ways to change Ayan’s piece so that we would not have to ask for such verification. For instance, we could pitch it as a news story, without the personal angle. Or give the story over to VOX, which would be happy to publish it as-is in their monthly newspaper. Whatever the answer, we would be going to press in three days regardless.
I contacted the VOX office for advice. Program director Meredith Tetloff said that she would explain the situation to Ayan, and stress that the choice was still hers. I was very thankful that VOX was there as a safety net. I knew that the concerns at VOX would be unclouded by the production concerns at my office.
A difficult choice
Ayan’s first reaction to the news was disbelief. She explains, “At first I thought that it was a joke. But then it sunk in slowly. I understood where they were coming from. The worst part was [asking] my father to write the letter and then sign it.”
Ayan became more determined to get her father’s signature and I could tell she was looking for encouragement from me. I reminded her that she had choices, that the article would be published and that people would be moved wherever they read it.
Later that evening, Ayan called me. She sounded like she had just run a race. I could hear raised voices in the background. The talk had been difficult, but productive. She later told me, “It took hours of talking to [my father]. He finally signed it. I believe that he did it because deep inside he agreed with what I was doing.” Though far from enthusiastic, her father had contributed his signature to a scrawled note saying that Ayan had indeed had the FGM procedure.
With that behind us, we were back on track. Ayan explains, “The next day, [I] spoke to Meredith at VOX about what had happened with my dad and she was comforting.” Meredith and I paid close attention to Ayan’s mood over the next week. She seemed exhausted, and as she says, “I almost changed my mind about the article but thank God I had a good support group at VOX.”
A few days later, Ayan’s article was published on the cover of our “primetime” @issue section and her mood was lifted considerably. In fact, the article led to many great things for Ayan as she entered her senior year of high school. Ayan says that although many in her community were angry about the article, others were now coming to her to share their experiences. She explains, “I have also had open conversations about this ritual with friends, something that I could not do before. I had friends, victims of the ritual who admire me for writing the article but [whose] parents hate me for publishing the piece. I also [received] letters from people who read the article and congratulated me for my bravery. All I care about was that my message was loud and clear to both victims and strangers of female circumcision.”
In the published version of Ayan’s article, she writes, “I wish I had the power to prevent any other 7-year-old girl from getting circumcised. My privacy was invaded that afternoon, and it still haunts me to this day. Sharing my story is difficult, but it is an important step toward my healing.”
My work with Ayan continued after the success of her article. Over the next year, she emerged as a campus leader and a hero to local Somali women. NPR (partnered with Youth Radio) broadcast a first-person segment on her story. She became involved with international and refugee groups. And she continued to write for VOX. Last fall, I began helping her copy edit college and scholarship applications. Ten months later, she is a Gates Millennial Scholar bound for the University of Georgia with a shiny new laptop.
Getting more youth writers involved in mainstream media outlets can be a challenge, but a very rewarding one. The VOX Raise Your Voice Summer Program is an excellent model in youth media/mainstream media partnership. Even with my long involvement with the program, my experience as Ayan’s mentor taught me to completely rethink the value of the publishing experience and how to improve upon it for teen’s benefit.
For instance, it is not enough to treat young writers with patience and “kid gloves.” Teens are up to any challenge if the right rapport is struck upfront. As with our productive pitch meeting, having teens meet with their editor(s) face-to-face creates a partnership.
Furnish teens with choices throughout the process. Put as many decisions in the teen’s hands as possible. Be clear on your expectations and what they can expect from you.
Be prepared to support teens in ways that are outside the sphere of typical journalism and editing. Also, be mindful of outside pressures affecting the teen. Tread very lightly when dealing with cultural and family connections.
Be an advocate for teens. Ask them how you can help. Run interference on their behalf when the bureaucracy threatens to swallow their voice. Give them a chance to challenge decisions. As with our productive pitch meeting, having teens meet with their editor(s) face-to-face creates a partnership.
Remember that bigger venues bring more scrutiny, more editors, more verification and more headaches. Leave yourself time to address the unexpected. And always have a Plan B at hand if it all goes south.
Along with that, tell the teen (and your superiors) what’s ahead. Despite our best efforts, this is unfortunately where Richard and I failed Ayan. Her biggest hurdle came at the very end of the process and was unduly stressful. It possibly could have been avoided had we involved our own editors earlier on.
And finally, encourage strong cooperation between the youth organization and the professional newsroom. The dual goals of teen-building and voice-raising demand it.
My experience with Ayan reminded me that youth media is a means to an end, but not the end itself. As valuable as the published artifact is, what makes the experience a lasting one for the teen is the ownership and realization of their ambitions. By providing choices, a mentor helps the teen chart their own path. Do this, and you’ll be amazed where they lead.
Pete Corson has been a news designer for the Editorial department of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1998. He has volunteered with VOX Teen Communications since 1999, where he has helped coordinate the summer mentorship program. He is married and lives in Atlanta.