Book Review: Drop That Knowledge
Youth media has been transforming the lives of young people for decades. Like an oasis among the often-oppressive urban, rural and suburban American landscapes, where privilege and power often go unquestioned and unchallenged, at youth media programs teens experience voice, value, visibility, peer and adult collaboration, integration with the local community (and on-line communities), and recognition in creating collaborative, thoughtful media (video, radio, web, print, photography to name a few).
Youth media is not just about handing young people cameras and having them post videos onto YouTube nor is it simply about getting on the airwaves to do a “youth” feature. Youth media is a strategy that uses media technology to amplify the critical analysis, expression and voice of young people. The relationship between adults and youth at these organizations model what it means to be a responsible and proactive citizen in contemporary society. In these small environments, young people are encouraged to work across difference and understand both the power of one’s ability to create while building a solid foundation and deep analysis of the media, power, and the dynamics of race, class and sex in society.
Whenever I have visited a youth media organization—there are approximately over one hundred throughout the U.S.—I always wonder what my life would have been like had I the youth media experience as a teenager. As an educator, I intend to replicate some of the core principles and methodologies I have gleaned from working in the field. But how can the world of educators who have not had the pleasure to work in the field—or who do not even know of its existence—become informed?
The recently published book Drop That Knowledge: Youth radio stories helps educators, grassroots organizers, academics and the general public learn from the insights and lessons learned by a pillar organization in the youth media field—Youth Radio in Oakland, CA.
I had the pleasure of visiting Youth Radio twice. The first time, when construction of their new head quarters was almost complete and Nishat Kurwa was kind enough to give me a tour of what has become a haven for youth in Oakland. The second was in the past year, where I experienced the thriving world of the organization’s teen radio producers and adult allies in action.
The co-authors of Drop That Knowledge, Vivian Chavez and Elisabeth Soep, are seasoned youth media educators and academics. Vivian Chavez, is featured as one of four personal stories captured in “Alumni Lives”—the final chapter in the book—which gives the reader a clear sense of youth today and how youth media responds to their needs and concerns. She explains:
Being defiant was a necessary device, an antidote to guard against the adults in charge of my education and sometimes obstacles to it… I needed an outlet. Through youth media training, I gained effective communication skills… to unlearn ideas that did not serve me… Common among alums were a desire to be heard, for community, interdependence, connection… something to belong to,…add meaning to our lives and transcend individual differences (p. 141).
Chavez is now an Associate Professor of Health Education at San Francisco State University.
Soep’s role throughout the book is clear. Her work guiding students to unbury the “lede”, interview participants and edit their pieces starts with an important questions to examine and stretch perspective: “How do you know? How do you know what you know?” Soep’s honest examination of her own role as an adult—when to step in and when to step out—helps the reader navigate and think about important parameters of space and dialogue that working with youth requires.
Lissa Soep joined Youth Radio as a PhD student conducting research at Stanford and has been working at Youth Radio ever since, teaching at Berkeley as well as San Francisco State. She is currently the Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio. Both Soep & Chavez have multiple books and articles published under their belts.
Together, Soep & Chavez give the reader access to multiple case studies in their experience at Youth Radio, which is community-supported, has roots in public media, and offers training in radio, music, and video—and even provides a health component including food, martial arts, and yoga. The mandate of Youth Radio is described in an epilogue written by Youth Radio’s founder, Ellin O’Leary: “to prepare young people to maintain and reinvent journalism’s best principles, so they can deploy today’s new tools and platforms to speak truth to power, to cultivate credible sources, to tell the story no one else is telling, and to create art and report on emerging trends and cultures.” O’Leary asserts: “I believe that young people trained in youth media will continue to bring about change—by revealing both the connections and the gaps between what happens in Oakland and what happens in Washington, and places in between and beyond (p. 177).”
Drop That Knowledge adds to the growing body of research in youth media. The book begins with introducing key theoretical terms such as converged literacy and collegial pedagogy, situating youth media pedagogy in the ethos of progressive academia and higher education. The authors then introduce some solid takeaways and tips for practitioners and educators on the ground, including the phases of production, nine identified factors that promote youth engagement, interview tips, and specific elements of what they coin “the feature” and “the frame.” Engaging stories, challenges, lessons learned and activities fill up the near 200 pages of this volume. Drop That Knowledge wraps up with three key chapters: Alumni Lives, an epilogue by Youth Radio founder Ellin O’Leary, and specific training exemplars from Youth Radio curriculum. To review Lissa’s own chapter layout and overview, go to her blog here.
Drop That Knowledge emphasizes an important element to youth media and youth radio: youth-adult collaborations. Despite new technology and the assumption that young people are experts in navigating new media, Soep & Chavez show the reader that youth media projects are mediated processes that guide and mentor young people to connect their experiences to advocate for change in a manner and voice that can reach (and resonate with) a large audience—for Youth Radio, that means National Public Radio (NPR) with a listenership in the millions.
As the editor-in-chief of Youth Media Reporter, a professional multi-media journal that documents the best practices of the youth media field, the questions I ask of a chapter or book that needs to be forthcoming, is: what qualities, values or principles make a youth media educator? After meeting and publishing about three hundred educators, all of whom come from many different ethnic and educational backgrounds who enter youth media’s world all too often by happenstance, I want to know what a youth media educator is as defined by the field. What does a youth media educator look like? With the possibility of youth media exponentially growing—as it its progressive power that lays in its strategic uses of technology, mediated process, and access to large audiences is realized—providing a concise depiction of what it takes to be a youth media educator is critical to sustaining this important work. Perhaps an extension of the final chapter of “Alumni Lives,” as modeled in Drop That Knowledge could lead Soep & Chavez to collaborate once again to capture such a blueprint from the voice sof young people and their adult allies.
As an educator, I would have also liked to see more gender analysis and more discussion during sections that bring up conversations on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) issues throughout the book. Increasingly, youth media programs are providing important safe spaces for exploring gender stereotypes and identities that attract queer teens and feminist praxis. Currently, there are several girl-specific youth media organizations—TVbyGirls (Twin Cities), Reel Girls (Seattle, WA), Girls Write Now (New York, NY), Teen Voices (Boston, MA), Khmer Girls in Action (Long Beach, CA), and the 15-25 Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls to name a few—and LGBTQ youth media programs—particularly provided at Reel Girls (Reel Queer), REACH LA (Los Angeles, LA), BeyondMedia Education (Chicago, IL), and Global Action Project’s Supafriends (New York, NY)—who would benefit from such insight and pedagogy.
Drop That Knowledge is a great launching point for educators to learn more about the youth media experience, sharing perspectives and constructing opportunities while guiding the generation of powerful stories to affect social change. That youth media affords any young person with a platform to discuss oppression and experiment with crafty, media innovation is reason to learn the art of youth media, starting with Drop That Knowledge.
Ingrid Hu Dahl is the editor-in-chief of Youth Media Reporter and a program officer of youth media at the Academy for Educational Development. Dahl is an adjunct professor, currently teaching Imagery & Culture at Rutgers-Newark. She holds an M.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies from Rutgers and lectures nationally and internationally on youth media/media literacy, identity, LGBTQ issues, women’s leadership and social change. She is a founding member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn, NY and in the band, Rad Pony.