In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where world-class universities sit alongside low-income residential districts, local teens from one public housing complex were tired of being rejected from adult festivals and decided it was time to start their own.
Since that critical moment in 1996, the “Do It Your Damn Self!!” National Youth Video & Film Festival (DIYDS!!) has been screening youth-produced films from around the country to an audience of the general public every November.
While some suggest that youth media programs should prioritize the use of media products and their impact on audiences over youth development (Sloan, 2009), we found the opposite to be the case when running a festival. Consistent among our findings is that supporting youth leadership is fundamental—even for a festival that aims to reach a growing audience.
We found that when we ran DIYDS!! in a way that put the primary focus on generating audience for the films, the needs of teens in our own program were neglected and we lost the investment of our core group of leaders. Putting youth development at the center of the festival’s goals, allows DIYDS!! to retain a true youth voice and not become a festival run by adults making assumptions about what youth need.
History of the Festival
DIYDS!! is the longest running youth-produced and youth-curated film festival in the country and attracts over 1,100 youth and adults to public screenings and workshops each year. According to its founders, the mission of the festival “was, is and always will be, to give youth producers like ourselves a place to be heard.”
The core elements of the festival have included: engaging a group of youth to screen entries and select a final reel, presenting the festival to youth-only as well as general audiences, and encouraging as many featured filmmakers as possible to travel to Boston for a weekend of events.
DIYDS!! is curated and organized by youth from the Community Art Center, which operates year-round arts programs for children and media programming and internships for teens. For many years, there was a core group of youth who had grown up in the Community Art Center’s afterschool program who led the festival each fall, supported by one full and one part-time staff member. It was the teens that provided institutional knowledge of the festival process. In its ninth and tenth years, when the festival was at its fullest capacity, up to 50 teens would surface to help make the festival happen. Among their many roles, they led discussions during festival screenings, inspiring hundreds of young people to share their stories and influencing the impact these stories have on the audience.
However, over time, the core group graduated from the program, and there was no strong pipeline of new leaders, partly due to organizational instability. Supporters and adult allies appreciated the raw voices presented at DIYDS!!, and pushed for more venues for the festival, beyond what the teens had the capacity to present.
We realized that promoting the festival had taken priority over our training program for youth, and questioned whether the festival should continue as an effort of the Community Art Center, should be handed over to another agency to run, or whether it had even run its course. Our model needed to change.
Challenges to Youth Participation and Leadership
DIYDS!! has always promoted youth leadership, but the level of youth involvement has shifted over the years as adults began taking on larger roles: connecting with schools, organizing events, and promoting the festival. As the staff and volunteers saw their work as independent of that of the teen leaders, tensions arose between responding to the input of youth leaders, and the potential expansion of the festival.
As the festival grew, the youth became disconnected. Helping DIYDS!! by increasing distribution and seeking larger venues was not addressing the needs of the Cambridge teens who presented it. We needed to resist the push for bigger, better venues, and to retain a focus on the artistic and developmental needs of the teens in our midst.
As a result, the teen program moved the curating of the reel to the summer, freeing up time and energy for other projects in the fall. In an effort to offer more space for the growth of youth leadership, we lengthened the timeline of the festival planning process to one full year. The scale has stayed relatively the same for the past few years. As a result, the goal of deepening the experience for Cambridge youth and sustaining a high level of quality has become a higher priority.
Screening youth-produced media in order to raise awareness among adults has become our secondary goal. We found that the interest of the general public is considerable, and we can leverage that interest to give Cambridge and national youth producers a larger forum to communicate their message, but it should never be at the cost of offering consistent support to youth. As one teen expressed after being asked to serve as a Festival Committee Chair, “but I just learned how to make a website. How can I be in charge of a website for a whole national festival? What if I can’t do it?”
Now, we are building a new core group of leaders, exposing a larger pool of teens to both filmmaking and media literacy, alongside festival planning and developing criteria to judge films. We have also piloted new festival events in response to youth input and will continue to increase youth investment by implementing their ideas.
Although we no longer see the influx of as many teens at festival time, we have succeeded in building a loyal and dedicated group of youth leaders invested in the festival. Fundraising and staff time will be focused on supporting this core group as they continue to deliver DIYDS!! with a unique presentation each year.
Suggestions to the Field
Know your goals. If you want to screen youth media in order to raise awareness among adults about prominent youth issues and youth’s ability to create interesting media, throw your energy into marketing, promotion and educational supports. If your goal is focused on developing young people, spend time collaborating with local groups, organizing youth leadership and creating environments where youth can come together to network and exchange ideas.
Provide significant support along with significant opportunities. Start where the youth are and let them drive the process forward. Where youth are taking risks or being asked to lead, educators must instill appropriate supports to ensure they succeed.
Collaborate and leverage partnerships. Find partners who can help generate an audience in addition to supporting youth with internships or volunteer positions. Look to colleges, independent theatres, libraries and community centers as potential screening venues. Hold school-day screenings predominantly for youth, giving them a chance to connect with and question their peers.
Build the Field. Use the gathering of youth and their supporters to continue to build the field and address relevant issues. Survey audience members and find ways for supporters to contribute, promote or act on what they experience. Bring together adults who work with youth media producers to support and learn from each other. Provide forums for discussion of content as well as design, to allow viewers to open their minds and create bridges of understanding.
The survival of DIYDS!! speaks to the impact of youth media, and even more so to the importance of gathering youth together to share stories about their lives. Young people still struggle to have their own voices heard, to tell their own stories in their own words.
Raising youth voices, particularly those who have been marginalized by poverty, language, culture or geography, is realized in the convergence of youth who can come together through their filmmaking—learning, growing and reshaping the world around them by participating in it.
Eryn Johnson is the executive director of the Community Art Center in Cambridge, MA and has worked for more than 12 years as a youth advocate and manager in youth-serving arts programs including ZUMIX, Inc. and Proyecto Ak’Tenamit in Izabal, Guatemala. Prior to managing the Community Art Center, Eryn was director of education at Citi Performing Arts Center. She has presented on arts and youth activism for the New England Women’s Studies Association Conference, the ArtCorps Program and at Tufts University. She has her BA in Theatre from Oberlin College and her Master’s in Performance Studies from New York University.
Melina O’Grady is an education consultant with roots in Boston and San Francisco. She is on the Advisory Committee of the “Do It Your Damn Self!!” festival and currently resides in Boston, where she is working on an anthology of youth workers telling their stories.