Empowering Youth to Knock Down Walls

As an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, I have responded to just over 9,000 requests (and counting) from high school and college students, media advisers, and those working on their behalf. Both nationally and within the region, the bulk of these calls involve censorship of student media.
Youth media professionals know that censorship is damaging. They don’t always know their response to censorship can be damaging, too. Consider the following hypothetical:
Two students arrive at a fifteen-foot high brick wall that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction. They turn to each other and share ideas, their reactions varying with their experiences.
The first student, from an under-funded school in D.C., says, “We should turn back. I’ve seen walls like this everywhere I go, and there’s no getting around them. They stretch for miles until they join other walls, which join still other walls. We’re just wasting our time. I don’t even know if I want to go over the wall.”
The second student, from a suburban Midwestern school, replies, “Well, some walls join other walls, but some don’t. Besides, we can build a ladder. And sometimes things can knock walls down. We can just walk along the wall, and even if we don’t get to the other side, at least we’ll figure out whether this side of the wall is the inside or the outside.”
The first student looks back at the wall thoughtfully, just in time for both students to be scooped up by an adult, thrown into a catapult and launched over the wall, ending all conversation.
The temptation to resort to a catapult is the problem I intend to highlight. Professionals for youth media programs with a focus in social justice face two potential stumbling blocks that may not be immediately apparent. The first is that many projects presuppose the end content of the media before student producers can offer input. The second is that, at the first sign of outside censorship or other resistance to youth media products, adult producers assume control and defend the work. In either case, the feelings of marginalization and irrelevance inculcated in the school environment are perpetuated—and that in turn alienates students from the very right to speak that we purport to champion.
The Difference between High School and Prison: Taco Wednesday
The Student Press Law Center was founded in 1974 with the mission to help students and those working on their behalf with legal information and assistance. When necessary, we make referrals to local attorneys who offer pro bono legal representation. The impetus for the Center was a report by the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism titled Captive Voices.
“Censorship is the fundamental cause of the triviality, innocuousness and uniformity that characterize the high school press,” the report said [1]. For thirty-five years, the Student Press Law Center has sought to combat that triviality and uniformity by empowering students with an awareness of their rights and the power of their words, images, and projects.
The courts, including the Supreme Court, have consistently acknowledged that students are entitled to a degree of free expression rights even in a public school setting [2]. School administrators often believe that the opposite is true, and that a student sent to public school can have his or her speech controlled without limitation or constitutional obligation. Because of this, students get a mixed message: “the Constitution grants everyone the right to free expression, but you’re not part of everyone.” Youth who don’t feel protected by the Constitution have little reason to value it or protect it; similarly, youth who don’t feel their expression is worth protecting have no incentive to generate media filled with that expression.
This conditioning has a profound effect on students attempting to produce media. Many students simply accept censorship, having seen firsthand for years how school officials ignore Constitutional rights. Others, backed into a corner by suspension or expulsion, are utterly lost, not having any concept of what the Constitution might actually mean or how they might actually vindicate their rights. A small number of students—often those who have lawyers for parents—have a much more concrete idea of the wrongdoing they’ve suffered, and immediately want to seek legal redress.
Very few students realize they have the ability to oppose censorship without needing an adult to take the lead.
Be an Adviser, not a Vice Principal
Youth media professionals are people of conscience. Very few master criminals have a line in their plans for world domination that reads “start a student newspaper.” No one passionate enough to inspire the creation of student artwork could be foolish enough to believe that becoming a youth media professional is the path to great riches and fame.
Permitting that passion to overwhelm student decision-making, however, undermines the basic goals of social justice and youth media. If social justice includes civil rights, and civil rights includes the right to free expression, then students need to determine the content of that expression, whether their decision is a documentary video of an anti-war protest or a video feature on their favorite kind of sandwich. In plain language, social justice has to include the right to give the finger to social justice.
It also means letting students address censorship themselves. Too often, professionals try to defend student media when they should be teaching youth how and why to defend their own media. While it can be hard for professionals in youth media to stand back and watch the struggle, an assumption of control undermines the message that youth media can be powerful, even though the intent is only to help reach a quicker resolution.
Overall, youth media professionals working for social justice should start from the perspective that advocacy needs advocates, and the creation of a strong, independent youth voice is of much more value to social justice than a project with a laser-focus on the topic the adults happened to find interesting. This process begins, as it must, with educating students about their right to publish, the effect their work can have on others, and how the First Amendment was created specifically to defend this process against manipulation by the government.
Suggestions to the Field
There are a myriad of resources available to assist in having these conversations with young people facing censorship, and the subject matter is too diverse to cover in any depth here. But empowering students to create and defend their work begins with teaching them that they own their investment in their work. Practitioners should reinforce the following points at every opportunity:
1. Students own their words and images, literally. Copyright law permits them to sell their works, and they should treat their work with the same care (if any) they use to handle the iPods, canvases or computers that contain the works.
2. Within the bounds of the law, a student’s expression is in the student’s control. What they choose to do with that liberty will determine how people view them.
3. Media products are powerful and valuable. We ended up an independent country because (more or less) a few people decided to tell off King George. Right now someone somewhere is getting sued for stealing someone else’s work.
4. The purpose of the First Amendment was to protect speech someone tried to stop. Speech that no one is censoring doesn’t need any protection.
5. If someone is trying to censor a student’s work, that work is probably powerful and valuable, and it is what the First Amendment was designed to protect. And because of the First Amendment, student authors have a lot of ways to defend their rights, should they choose to do so.
From these basic lessons, students and professionals can forge an understanding that a professional’s role is to alert the student to options and help provide information necessary to make an educated choice, rather than being another adult seeking to impose by fiat a system of rules that deny autonomy and the value of the individual’s work.
Social justice seems abstract to many students because they haven’t experienced any, particularly at over-populated and under-funded schools in urban areas. The difference between a student who surrenders at a wall and one who scales the wall is the knowledge that a student has the right, the power, and the tools to make the climb.
Adam Goldstein is Attorney Advocate for the Student Press Law Center who is licensed to practice in New York. Beyond media law, his Internet work has included representing domain name complainants in arbitration and authoring several legal articles on online copyright and trademark issues. Before entering legal practice, Goldstein spent three years as a freelance producer and editor for FoxNews.com, handling day-to-day and breaking news coverage.
[1] Captive Voices, The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism 49 (J. Nelson ed. 1974).
[2] Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, 506 (1969) (finding students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”); see also Morse v. Frederick, 127 S. Ct. 2618 (2007) (citing Tinker as valid).

Funding the Nascent Field of Youth Media

From Wide Angle in Baltimore to DCTV’s Youth Training Institute, the Washington, DC metropolitan area is peppered with groups engaged in youth media training and distribution. The services provided by these organizations are as varied as the organizations themselves. What is consistent is the unavoidable, annual struggle to acquire funding for youth media programming.
As DCTV has discovered, one of the main issues in the current funding paradigm is that organizations and programs often are forced to put themselves in boxes that do not suit their work. Approaches to creating youth media programs can range from stand-alone arts programs to civic engagement-focused efforts that use media as part of education and outreach [1]. While many nonprofits, regardless of focus, are facing shrinking funding opportunities, the impact on the field of youth media is complicated by the fluid nature of many of the programs [2].
There needs to be greater dialogue between funders and the field of youth media to enhance mutual understanding of this developing field of practice. Funders must help co-create and better serve the nascent field of youth media, providing practitioners opportunities to define the need of their communities, work collaboratively to establish best practices and more strategically work within their communities. As the field moves forward, we must unify our collective goals, giving youth opportunities to have voice that accurately and deliberately establishes their role as future leaders. We need opportunities for dialogue, outside of the funding model, between foundations and youth media practitioners.
DCTV & Funding
DCTV, for which I am Director of Community Affairs, is a membership-based, nonprofit, public access television station dedicated to strengthening communities through telecommunications. Over the years, DCTV developed a variety of youth training programs in partnership with community based organizations, charter schools and public schools. DCTV regularly runs a summer Kids Camp for youth ages 7-18, providing basic video and media literacy training that helps young people use video as an art form. The program partners for the Kids Camp are the Smithsonian Institution, which allows the youth to video parts of the American Art Museum collection, and the DC Film Alliance. The Kids Camp is paid for by DCTV and our partner organizations make their contributions for free. Last year DCTV was able to obtain a grant from DC government to launch the Youth Training Institute (TYI)—a program for youth to utilize media as a civic engagement tool. The partner for the year-long program was the Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter Schools.
As a quasi-government agency, most of DCTV’s funding comes from the DC government. The government funding covers the basic operating costs to fulfill the mission of the organization. The youth programs require additional funding so, like most youth media nonprofits, DCTV applies for grants. DCTV obtained a grant last year to pilot the YTI, but due to budget cuts the grant was not renewed for 2009. In fact, DCTV often struggles to obtain the additional funding necessary to maintain youth programs. This year DCTV is faced with obtaining funding to continue YTI and will again pay the costs for training youth enrolled in the Kids Camp.
Despite the funding challenges, over the years DCTV has trained hundreds of youth and successfully developed and implemented curricula tailored to different populations from first-time offenders, teen mothers, and at-risk youth. DCTV has a history and a track record for success in the area of youth media training. Still, DCTV struggles to obtain funding for youth programs because in part of a lack of clarity among funders about what public access is and how we serve and are a part of the youth media field.
Building Dialogue–A Case Study
On May 1, 2008, The Benton Foundation and DCTV convened a meeting entitled Got Media? that brought together funders from across the Washington Metropolitan area to identify ways to better use media and advance their programmatic goals. Specifically, the meeting sought to help program officers identify ways to support their grantees’ use of media as they work with public, education and government channels; and, to determine what tools were required to better assist and support their efforts. The event provided an opportunity for funders to meet and discuss the goals and objectives of their programs.
Over ten foundations joined the meeting. The outcomes included the development of a media toolkit and follow-on actions to continue to define local priorities with respect to funding media. One of the main ideas behind Got Media? was to create a meeting template that could be replicated in other cities by local funders.
The agenda for the Got Media? meeting included presentations by three nonprofits detailing how media was used to advance their mission. Each “Best Practice” model group represented different ways to utilize media in advocacy, education, training and capacity building programs. The dialogue that followed the presentations was informative in what funders needed to be better equipped to measure outcomes in the media field. The funders discussed possible tools that would help Program Officers advise grantees in their use and better evaluation of the effectiveness of their media.
This convening is an example of what the entire youth media field requires—a convening that could help change the dynamic between funder and grantees. Ideally, such a convening would be a series of facilitated conversations between funders and members of the youth media field to identify opportunities for collaboration and ways to establish measurable results and best practices [3].
A useful replication of the Got Media? meeting for the youth media field would start with a funder willing to convene the meeting. This funder should be a leader in the community and fund youth media consistently; their portfolio should include innovative projects. Without Benton as a partner for Got Media? , DCTV would have likely been unable to convene the meeting.
Another key aspect to replicating the Got Media? meeting would be to provide an opportunity for a select group of participants, both funders and groups from the field, to collaboratively set the agenda. This process allows for greater buy-in and sets a tone for teamwork for the meeting.
Finally, it has to be clear that the purpose of the meeting is not for organizations to pitch projects, but to foster dialogue. The field of youth media could move leaps and bounds with a series of these sorts of meetings held across the country with reports on outcomes shared among funders and those in the field.
Forming an Idea Bank for the Field
At the moment, funders are setting the agenda. They determine at the start of the year what their priorities are. Their grant guidelines often determine the goals, length, and sustainability of programs. This leaves youth media organizations, and programs that offer youth media, to compete for the few dollars available. In order to turn this dynamic on its head, youth media organizations might consider starting a Community Idea Bank to better inform the needs of the community.
The Idea Bank could be an online tool that would allow for organizations to vote on a set of community priorities that values youth media and the use of media as a tool. Participating organizations could establish criteria for projects to be included in the Bank. For example, the project might include collaboration between at least two participating groups, building solidarity and a strong understanding of program resources. The Bank would be available to funders; during regular grant cycles, funders could choose what projects would be funded. Because the Bank is a collaborative process, the collection of priorities would better reflect the needs of the community and would allow for greater creativity among the organizations for addressing those priorities.
A mapping function could be an aspect of the Bank, requiring each organization to identify recent partners, the projects they collaborated on, and the results. This would allow for a better understanding of how groups work together and to what end. Such a visual display would also serve to enhance our understanding of the field as practitioners, demonstrating how our work impacts our communities and identify best practices.
With an Idea Bank, grantees have a space for pitching ideas outside of a funder’s pre-defined expectations, funders would choose among ideas from the bank, and as a result, the field would see more collaboration among providers.
Next Steps
Funding youth media requires a new paradigm, starting with the premise that youth media is not an end, but rather one of several means to an end [4]. Funders need to show greater leadership in helping grow the nascent field of youth media and improve opportunities for dialogue and collaboration.
Youth media professionals also have to show leadership in developing best practices and establishing a different conversation with funders that makes sense to their work and that will advance the field. There is also a need to establish national networks to push the field of practice out of isolation and better define unifying goals that lead to a consensus about best practices. The solutions suggested here will move us closer towards addressing these needs, but also require that we work together rather than see one another as competitors for funding.
Tonya Gonzalez is the director of community affairs at DCTV where she develops community partnerships that help individuals and organizations better utilize DCTV’s resources. Tonya received BA & BS degrees from the University of Maryland, University College and a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, MD in 2000. Throughout law school, Gonzalez held various leadership roles, serving as President of the Latino Law Students Association; Community Chair of the Black Law Students Association; and co-founder of MARGINS: Maryland’s Interdisciplinary Publication on Race, Religion, Gender & Class. Tonya served on the Alliance for Community Media Board of Directors for four years and was a founding member of DC’s Local First Steering Committee (part of BALLE, the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies).
[1] From the STICKING WITH MY DREAMS: DEFINING AND REFINING YOUTH MEDIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY, http://campbell-kibler.com/youth_media.pdf: In spite of all the diversity within Youth Media programs, the programs themselves and their goals seem to fall into two broad categories. In one, Youth Media is a tool to be used by those involved in youth development, media literacy, career development or other areas to reach program goals. In this instance, youth development programs can, and sometimes do, use Youth Media, organized sports, arts and crafts and/or hands-on science activities as tools to help them meet their goals for youth. Similarly, career development programs can use Youth Media, job shadowing and/or internships as tools to help them meet their goals. Media literacy programs could use Youth Media, textual analysis of ads and/or the study of propaganda to help them reach their goals. In these examples, Youth Media is not an end, but rather one of several means to an end.
[2] There are also similarities in the youth media field with that of the youth development field. See .e.g. PEPNet, ND; Brunner & Tally, 1999 and school-to-career (e.g.. Grobe, Nahas & Steinbrueck, 1996).
[3] According to What Works in Youth Media: Case Studies from around the World, evaluation of measurable outcomes is key to sustaining funding however, “evaluating the impact of (a program) remains a challenge.” A funder for one of the projects profiled in the Report admitted that “while evaluations would be extremely valuable, they often cost more than the amount now being invested in the project itself.”
[4] From STICKING WITH MY DREAMS: DEFINING AND REFINING YOUTH MEDIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY, http://campbell-kibler.com/youth_media.pdf.