Little did I know how much of my core values, international mindset and future life plans would develop when I joined the Children’s Express Indianapolis bureau—now called Y-Press—just a few weeks after my 13th birthday, smack in the middle of 7th grade. I was nervous and shy, having no idea what to expect, but I loved books and writing, so I applied to attend a weekend-long training.
Fifteen years later, I can still recall each one of the six teenagers who trained us. The idea that my peers—not adults—would train us was a revolutionary idea to me, and a taste of what was to come. I quickly learned that everything in the program is built around a core principle: that young people’s voices matter; and, every aspect of the organization, from the story process to the board of directors, is built around youth leadership.
Taking part in a youth-led organization meant both amazing opportunities as well as a lot of grunt work. We led interviews and completed articles, but we had to do our research, prepare questions, and write and rewrite until our articles were as strong as any professional journalist.
One of the most frightening tasks was making phone calls. Do you know how rare 13-year-olds are required to call up complete strangers and request interviews? I was terrified. But I learned from the older kids—the editors—to write out a script and practice it before making a call. (Later I would give the same training to friends in college who didn’t have that experience and struggled making simple calls to the college registrar or a new landlord).
That summer, I was part of a reporting team that traveled to Havana, Cuba. Thanks to journalism visas from both the Cuban and American governments, we were able to legally travel to the country in a time when few Americans could, to report on the lives of Cuban youth during the “Special Period.”
We prepared for months through weekly meetings, phone interviews with Cuban youth in Miami, and piles of research. One of the most memorable briefing exercises included filling large pieces of paper with our stereotypes about Cuba: cigars, Castro, army fatigues, authoritarianism, boat people. Recognizing and naming stereotypes was powerful, as it helped me understand that the role of a journalist is to uncover and think critically about such unspoken biases.
Although we had adult mentors who traveled with us, it was our job to schedule our time in Havana—another exciting leadership opportunity. We were granted permission to cover the annual convention of the Pioneros—communist youth from across the island. Prior to departure, we scheduled interviews in private homes, churches and at the Synagogue and read up on the complex laws governing American traveling to Cuba, but nothing could prepare us for the actual experience of international journalism.
For me, each day felt like an adventure. One of the first days, we spoke in hushed tones with a 17-year-old in her family’s crumbling mansion. She spoke of the struggles of the Special Period and economic woes, such as the young women who would sell their bodies for a bar of soap. Days later, her story contrasted the patriotism of the Pioneers, who had traveled from all over the island to celebrate their love for their country and the revolution. I wondered what I had taken for granted from a US perspective. When we interviewed a young poet and some of her peers, we bonded, despite the seeming enmity between our two governments. As I traveled around Havana and saw signs denouncing the US embargo, I realized that maybe my government wasn’t telling me the entire picture.
If I had been reporting on all of these interviews alone, I perhaps would have never made sense of it all. However, we had an important policy: debriefings were mandatory after interviews. And so at the end of each day, the other young reporters and I would gather and discuss what we had observed and learned from our interviewees.
Often, our spirited conversations would last for hours, debating communism, the US embargo and other complexities. The debriefings helped me recall the initial list of stereotypes we had generated, and it was remarkable how few I believed by the end of the trip—the Cuba I had come to know was much more complex, complicated, and interesting. That fall I wrote my first article for the local paper, The Indianapolis Star, about my observations of the country, and how much I learned from the young people I interviewed. See the article in it’s original format here and in PDF form here.
The Cuban youth I interviewed in Havana were the first of many interviewees who would profoundly impact me over the years. Some of the most memorable stories I worked on after returning to the US included interviews at the Indiana School for the Deaf, Latino youth living in Indianapolis, and a classmate who was expelled from my high school following the massacre at Columbine. As a youth media journalist, I was also able to continue to travel, interviewing young cancer patients in Russia and kids living in and on the streets in Brazil. As I grew older, my Children’s Express/Y-Press experience grew with me, offering new ways to see the world, and an incredible opportunity to learn by doing.
As I stayed with the organization, I experienced important nonprofit learning opportunities particularly during a time of crisis. Children’s Express nationally had undergone a leadership change, and was attempting to reduce the level of youth involvement in editorial decisions. The adult leadership at the bureau met with members, alum, and parents to decide what to do. Collectively, we decided to break-off and become independent, but not before weighing the positives and negatives, and having very serious discussions about our broader goals and values. Then came the re-branding process, where we brainstormed names to reflect what our bureau did. One parent, an advertising executive, helped us think strategically about this. We decided on the name “Y-Press,” and he worked with us to design a logo that incorporated a question mark, representing one of our core values to never stop asking “why.”
While our overall focus was to produce quality articles and radio pieces, in the process, youth leaders learned how to collaborate, fundraise, work with professionals, help make big decisions during times of change, and organize trainings. By the time I graduated from high school, and by extension Y-Press, I was committed to making something out of the incredible opportunities I had been given. I went on to major in international relations and lead student volunteer trips overseas, intern for African journalism Programs and become a student leader at my university.
This month marks 15 years that I have participated in the youth media field, and one of my greatest take-away is that the full impact of youth media programs extends far beyond the media products themselves, and lasts much longer.
Youth media programs affect the lives of their participants, and by extension the lives of everyone they interact with. In the fifteen years since my first nervous weekend of training, I have trained hundreds of youth to follow in the same footsteps, first as a Y-Press member, and after college returning to Indianapolis for a year to work as an adult staff member and mentor.
In 2007, I left Indianapolis to contribute to research on refugee youth living on the Thailand/Burma border. Inspired by the youth I met, I co-founded Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that harnesses new technology to empower marginalized communities. Since its founding, I have been continually grateful for the lessons I learned at Y-Press, which has greatly informed our own programs, starting with the idea that making media can be an important first step in leadership development. One of our initiatives, Project Einstein, draws directly on this by empowering refugee youth through digital photo trainings, new media literacy curriculum, and online exchanges that connect students living in refugee camps overseas to resettled refugee students in the United States.
At Y-Press, I learned that young people are just as capable as adults of producing quality journalism. At Digital Democracy, we extend this belief in people in a global manner, using human rights as a basis for taking technology tools to groups such as refugees, women and youth who have been neglected, abused, and/or marginalized.
Whether working with women in Haiti to create a technological response to gender-based violence or connecting human rights workers in Southeast Asia via mobile phones, we focus not just on the end products, but the process of empowering our partners as leaders in those projects. And we have been able to incorporate youth media in many ways, particularly with Project Einstein trainings in Bangladesh, Thailand, South Africa, Kenya, and Guatemala, thanks to the partnership of a fellow Y-Press alum.
In each of our youth media projects, I have a goal I strive for—the precedent that was set for me at Y-Press. These goals include how to:
• ask questions and think critically;
• break down a seemingly impossible task and make it manageable;
• work in a team and believe in oneself; and,
• emphasize that young people’s voices matter and deserve to be heard.
Every human being, no matter how young, deserves to have his or her voice heard. Youth media programs have the power to change the world by instilling this value in the young people they serve. Nothing makes me more excited or proud than when I watch as another young person accepts, learns and re-produces this fact and helps others recognize and value the multiple other voices in one’s community. Through youth media as a journalist and now a co-founder of my own nonprofit, my experience continues to help others take that step toward creating truly global, engaged citizens.
Emily Jacobi is co-founder and executive director of Digital Democracy, a New York-based nonprofit that works globally to empower marginalized communities with digital tools. Emily began her career at the age of 13, as a youth journalist reporting from Havana, Cuba on the lives of young Cubans during the Troubled Period. Since then she has worked on media and research projects in Latin America, West and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as En Los Campos, a multi-media exhibit highlighting the lives of teenage migrant farm workers in the United States. Prior to founding Digital Democracy she worked at Internews Network, AllAfrica.com, the Center for PeaceBuilding International and Y-Press.