Youth Media against Violence
Chicagoans and many people throughout the country have seen news reports that either open or close with a body count—at the time of this writing, for example, 36 Chicago Public School students have been killed since the beginning of the academic year.
But much is missing from this macabre recitation of numbers. The focus on murder blurs our perception of the range, depth, and pervasiveness of violence. Perhaps most troubling, youth voices are systemically excluded from coverage—not only in the mainstream media, but in almost all media—and young girls are increasingly perpetuating violence. One consequence is that the media misrepresent youth involvement in violence, routinely characterizing them as either victims or perpetrators.
We call on the youth media field to forge visible spaces for young people—particularly young women—to talk as authorities on the violence in their lives, and to reflect on strategies for avoiding, combating, managing, and surviving violence. By unveiling violence through their conversation and projects, young people become active creators of constructive, educative media, rather than passive consumers of media that depicts teens as marginal, menacing, and intractable problems.
When Youth Leadership Council member Crystal was asked why she is involved youth media to combat violence, she replied, “I feel like as of now we don’t have a voice, we don’t have a way we can express what we’re feeling.” With the inclusion of young people’s insights in an analysis of violence, the chance that we will understand it in all its complexity and develop effectual solutions is greatly increased.
Beyondmedia Education, Girls, and Violence
Beyondmedia Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to using media and workshops for greater understanding of women’s issues, works primarily with young women. We have become increasingly concerned with the continual rise in both arrests of and acts of violence committed by girls and young women (1). More than ever, adolescent females are entering gangs—some female-only, like the Chicago-based “Lady Taliban,” which has begun to communicate their membership and display weaponry on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook (2).
The new uprising of girl gangs is occurring in conditions of almost unthinkable violence. For example, one south side neighborhood where Beyondmedia works is Englewood, which tops all Chicago neighborhoods for reported crime (3). In a recent media literacy and production workshop one young teen was absent from our Dreamcatcher workshop. Her friend recounted how over the weekend this young woman had gone to a friend’s house, where she and three others were kidnapped by the friend’s stepfather, driven to another city, held captive at least 24 hours, raped, and abandoned in a desolate field where they were attacked by wild dogs.
This story sparked another 14-year-old girl to share that as she left school one recent afternoon a man began shooting a gun outside her school; the next morning on the way to school, she heard a man’s voice insistently calling out to her. When she finally turned around, she saw him raping a 13-year-old girl. “How do they expect us to live our lives and do what we’re supposed to do in all this insanity?” she demanded to know.
Chain of Change
Though mischaracterized by the news, violence involving youth is largely happening off school grounds, and much is not school-related (4). Many young people recount acts of violence in their neighborhoods and homes, sometimes involving family members and members of the local community. Much of the violence is also attributed to gang activity, a historic problem for the city of Chicago (5).
These acts of violence are not equally distributed throughout the city but are more of a problem on the city’s largely disadvantaged and under-resourced south and west sides (6). As a call to combat violence in these areas, two years ago Beyondmedia launched Chain of Change, a project that organizes youth to reflect on, dialogue about, and produce and share media on the subject of violence without risk of censorship, embarrassment, or recrimination. Chain of Change is one example of a youth media initiative to critically disrupt the normalization of neighborhood violence and amplify the perspectives and solutions crafted by young people.
Part of the Girls! Action! Media! program, participants organize around everything from housing to sexual exploitation, immigrant issues, girls in foster care, economics, and queer issues. The main feature is the video project, created with equipment provided free-of-charge by Beyondmedia Education and uploaded to the Chain of Change interactive website (link: www.chainofchange.com). The website enables the participating groups to share their experiences of violence in their particular communities and, together, come up with ideas as to the roots of violence and how to end it.
Furthermore, Chain of Change networks with other groups and adults to raise awareness of the issues they find pressing, whether it is bullying in schools, domestic violence, relationship abuse, or gang recruitment. The website has been redesigned to enhance its social networking capabilities and to make more room for textual expression, reports, interviews, and blogging entries.
We’ve found that young people living in violence need a forum and space to explore, discuss, and identify what violence is. Their videos capture their views on the diverse forms of violence not depicted in the media.
For example, Sandra Husic of the Empowered Fe Fes, a support and action group of young women with disabilities aged 13 to 24, shares important insight on the ways violence affects this demographic:
“I always got picked on for my size, for my religion, and all that. One time this guy grabbed my wheel chair and said, ‘You want me to throw it in the trash can?’ … In high school I had a girl put her foot on top of my wheel chair and almost flip me over. … I told the teacher about it, and I told the dean. She didn’t get suspension. All she got was, ‘Well, she does not have disabled people in her family, so she doesn’t understand the disability world,’ and the next day she was in school.”
Kimberly Wilson, the Girls Organizing Coordinator of Access Living, the organization hosting the Empowered Fe Fes, expressed the special difficulties that many of the Fe Fes face.
“In my interactions with young women with disabilities, I have noted that many seem to have a higher tolerance for domestic violence in romantic and family relationship than non-disabled women. Dating poses a greater difficulty for many disabled women because they have a visible disability. And many of these women have reported accepting physical abuse because they fear that speaking up will result in being alone. In addition, many young disabled women reported being verbally abused in their own homes, but are afraid to report it because they may find themselves homeless.”
In participation with Chain of Change, Empowered Fe Fes created and performed a skit demonstrating bullying, which they filmed and uploaded to the site. They also brainstormed about ways of dealing with potential violence and actual violence in the future.
Another group, Kids Off the Block, an organization that seeks to give at-risk, low-income youth positive alternatives to gangs, drugs, and violence, participated with a video about the reasons behind male-on-female physical abuse. Their founder, Diane Latiker, said:
“Through video [young people] are able to express themselves without being scared. They are uncomfortable standing in front of a huge group of people they don’t know, but here at Kids Off the Block they are comfortable so their responses are real, they don’t just say what they think adults want to hear.”
As a result of Chain of Change, one change we are seeing is that the conversations about violence led by young women are taking place across neighborhood and identity. For example, Global Girls, another COC contributor, created “When TOMs Attack,” a video inspired by their personal experiences dealing with sexual harassment and assaults from “Thirsty Old Men.” In the process of making the video, the girls talked about their experiences with TOMs and also came up with potential solutions to protect themselves from this unwanted attention from older men. The girls were so inspired by participating in COC that they went on to create a traveling stage production by the same name to reach younger girls and start a conversation about this pervasive form of violence and provide solutions.
Another change we have seen is the expansion among youth of what constitutes violence. Mainstream media’s seeming equation of violence with homicide is the reason why one young woman thought “real” violence was only school or community shootings. She wanted to talk about bullying, but wasn’t sure it was a valid form. Participants not only feel their own power when they express themselves through media, but feel justified in the feelings they have when their voices are legitimated.
By creating spaces for young people to contemplate their experiences, youth media can empower and embolden youth to express themselves to adults, furthering the objective of getting youth voices into the discourse on violence. Networking additionally creates a wide community where participants see that they are not alone in what they are facing, glean ideas for new approaches to their own issues from other participants’ work, and recognize that they can speak legitimately on violence.
In order for the youth media field to better serve youth, the topic of violence must be discussed and young people encouraged to analyze, situate, and craft solutions. We encourage the field to embed the following recommendations into existing programs:
1) Create forums for youth to discuss violence.
2) Create spaces for artistic rendering of youth experiences of violence and ideas to make change.
3) Create opportunities for age-appropriate research activities.
4) Encourage youth-led media making as a technological device to craft solutions to violence, document dialogue, and off-set the narrow definition of violence set by the mainstream media.
5) Engage the method, “each one teach one,” which encourages young people to teach their peers what they have learned and give back to their communities.
Youth media represents a wedge in the fight against violence. It can create spaces for young people to connect, learn from each other, cross boundaries, and build self-esteem. Furthermore, when youth media projects are coupled with outreach and forums for networking, it can stimulate constructive dialogue across generational, occupational, and other differences, helping to erode mistrust and build respect, important elements in diminishing violence. We believe that if consumption of violent media increases the incidence of aggressive behavior, the creation of media to combat violence, which teaches non-violence, can decrease reliance on aggressive behavior as a way to resolve potentially violent encounters.
Youth media programs must engage young people to share their insights, experience and analyses of violence that is unfortunately, an intensely pervasive element of life outside of schools in cities like Chicago, and in many rural areas. Young people must be given a space to articulate violence and use media tools to dismantle violence, its roots and causes, piece by piece.
Given various alternative media platforms like Chain of Change, youth media must signal other groups that support young people’s anti-violence efforts, those outside of the community, and in ethnic and gender organizations geared to the same goals. Our collective aims will increase the chances that young people will invest time, attention, energy, and enthusiasm in the project, the end product, the dialogue, and the future.
Salome Chasnoff is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, installation artist, and media activist who has been guiding Beyondmedia’s artistic production since founding it in 1996. Her strong commitment to using media for liberation education and progressive organizing has drawn like-minded people over the years to shape Beyondmedia’s distinctive artistic and political vision. Salome has an M.A. in Theatre and Performance and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. She has been an arts educator for more than 20 years in university and community settings, and has produced more than 25 works, several dedicated to expanding media access to the diverse stories of women and youth. She is a single mother with three fabulous children.
Jesse Wheeler has worked for Beyondmedia on a part-time basis since 1997 in a wide variety of capacities, from grant writing, to editing, curricula development, workshop facilitation, music rights acquisition, and DJing the fabulous fundraisers. He has a B.S. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA. He has produced two amateur shorts: Tributo ao Rock ‘n’ Roll and On Your Skin: F*** the USA and Ethnography in Protest. Jesse also has two sporadically active, yet sempiternal bands: Mad Dog with Jesse James (blues) and X-GRANITO (punklore).
(1) For the last 30 years the trend has been an increase. See Zahn, Margaret A., et al. 2008. “Girls Study Group: Understanding and Responding to Girls’ Delinquency.” Report of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/218905.pdf (Accessed 3 June 2009) and Lamberg, Lynne. 2002. “Younger Children, More Girls Commit Acts of Violence,” Journal of American Medical Association 288:566-68. Available at jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/288/5/566 (Accessed 3 June 2009).
(2) See www.substancenews.net/articles.php?section=Article&page=660 for examples.
(3) See chicago.everyblock.com/crime (Accessed 8 June 2009).
(4) “On-campus school violence is down,” Chicago Sun-Times, 5/2/2009 (http://www.suntimes.com/news/education/1555300,CST-NWS-skuls03.article).
(5) See, for example: “Institutionalized Gangs and Violence in Chicago,” by John M. Hagedorn (www.coav.org.br/publique/media/Report%20EUA.pdf), and www.gangresearch.net.
(6) We can interpret from the schools targeted in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” project, purported to be an initiative to improve the country’s third-largest public school system through closings, privatizations, “turnarounds” (parlance for the wholesale replacement of a school’s entire staff), and militarization (whereby military academies and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs are established within existing high schools and middle schools), that violence is more of a problem in schools on the city’s largely disadvantaged and under-resourced south and west sides.