Somerville is a densely populated city of 77,500 people in the Boston urban area. Its residents are a mix of middle class, well-educated young professionals and low income, immigrant families with children in the public schools. The students must deal with issues of acculturation as well as the mainstream American problems of alcohol and substance abuse, gang involvement, teen pregnancy, depression, obesity, and domestic violence.
The City of Somerville and youth-serving organizations in the city have been proactive in dealing with these problems, especially since 2004 when a rash of student suicides shook the city. As a result, the city now provides after school activities, many grant-funded, that deal with educating youth about how to make healthy choices. Federal and state grants are available for youth projects that deal with substance abuse, and many urban social service groups use these grants to fund projects.
As a result, we’ve seen some important changes. For example, Somerville youth have seen underage drinking decline among middle school peers by 50% over two years since they began working with the Health Department and Somerville Community Access Television on community outreach, including media projects that reach their peers via cable TV and the Web.
Youth media in partnership with health providers truly are making a difference in our community, benefiting young people and increasing the overall effectiveness of the field.
Next Generation Producers
As a public access center, SCATV’s mission is to provide a free speech venue for the city on cable TV, providing equipment, facilities, and training to produce programs for the Channel. Youth media is an integral aspect of the mission, as youth rarely have a voice in mainstream media, and the images they see of urban youth are often negative. Next Generation Producers (NGP) is the youth media program of SCATV, which aims to give teens the tools they need to express their world using up to date media technology.
NGP has worked on health-related media programs with teens through a variety of partnerships, including the Boys and Girls Club, a Latino immigrant support organization, a counseling center, an anti-poverty organization with a Latino youth group, and most consistently with a youth group of Somerville Cares About Prevention (SCAP), a community based coalition supported by the Somerville Health Department.
NGP has found these collaborations an excellent way to help achieve citywide goals of having healthier young people, which in effect, increases the value of SCATV to the community. I will focus on the partnership between SCAP and SCATV as a case study as it has been the most frequent and successful.
A Working Partnership
The mission of SCAP is to bring together and mobilize the diverse community of Somerville to prevent and address issues associated with substance abuse while promoting positive mental, spiritual, and physical health, especially among youth. Their youth group is called Somerville Positive Forces (SPF) and its mission is to empower youth to make healthier decisions regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
Since 2007, SPF and NGP have worked together to produce public service announcements, magazine shows, and short original dramas on the topics of underage drinking, prescription drug abuse among teens, and depression.
SCAP benefits our youth media efforts because they diversify our pool of applicants, further uniting young people across cultural groups that might not have a similar opportunity in school settings; and, SCAP issues an annual high school student health survey to follow the rates of alcohol and drug use, depression, and domestic violence in the lives of teens (see: http://www.somervillema.gov/CoS_Content/documents/SomervilleHS08_ExecutiveSummary.pdf). Working with factual percentages related to one’s community is powerful for the young people we serve.
SCAP sees media production, which we provide, as a tool for getting their message out and directly affecting young people through their prevention efforts. For example, for a recent NGP project, students videotaped a skit of a peer saying no to alcohol among a group of friends, representing the statistics in clear graphics throughout the piece. The piece was powerful for both the youth producers and the audience; and, it gave SCAP a direct means to get their message across to a target demographic.
Besides the efficacy of the message, a key to the success of the partnership has been the funding that SCAP receives to support their work at SCATV. SCAP’s primary funders are the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the MA Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS). According to the Director of SCAP, the funders appreciate the wide distribution via cable TV and the Web of the health-related messages that our youth produce.
SCAP contracts NGP to guide the media production aspects of the program, usually providing about $2,000 for a ten-week workshop. NGP has its own cameras and laptops to use for production, and two staff members who are dedicated to the program for a portion of their hours. SCAP has an adult leader who works with the teens as well, keeping the projects on target with the information to be presented. In addition to learning production skills, speaking in front of groups, and conducting interviews with strangers in the streets, teens begin to believe in the positive impact they can have on the local community using media.
Suggestions to the Field
If you are able to identify a health provider that is interested in partnering with your youth media organization, consider emphasizing the win-win partnership that this article highlights. The topic of health is a popular and growing trend and youth media and its distribution capabilities are increasingly attractive to many of these providers.
Consider networking with other youth serving organizations to determine if they have received health-related grants for programs that could incorporate media elements. Suggest co-authoring grants with these organizations.
Once you establish a partnership, here are a few important tips to be mindful of:
Research what health issues are the most important to teens in your community. Have a group advisor on board who is knowledgeable about the topic so that the projects are factual and relevant.
Make sure that the media production skills you offer are interesting and fresh. One challenge we found is that we needed to keep our media technology and instruction hip and new to keep the teens invested. Encourage participants to experiment, to write more abstracted scripts, and even incorporate stop-motion animation. Statistics presented in graphics are effective and give authenticity to the projects—they can be used in multiple creative ways.
Distribute the end projects far and wide through all means of distribution available, including live screenings, cable TV, Facebook, YouTube, and community websites. Enter videos in film festivals to gain recognition for participants, further spreading the information and message forward. This not only helps inform a wide array of viewers but also encourages health-providers to sustain partnerships with youth media.
It is in the best interest of youth media programs to seek out partnerships with youth-serving organizations in their communities to produce health-related media projects, attracting larger partnerships with local and national health providers. We have the right tools, approach, and methodology to make major changes in the areas of health education and access, which will enrich our communities and the young leaders in our programs.
Wendy Blom is the executive director of Somerville Community Access Television in Somerville, MA. She has an MA in Mass Media from Emerson College and an MA in Theater Arts from the University of Colorado. Blom has been active in public access television since 1997. Previously she served as Community Programming Director for the Lowell, MA access center, and as Outreach and Education Coordinator at Boston Neighborhood Network.
Left: Maliha Khan, Right: Yesenia Reinoso
Today, numerous adult-led youth media organizations work to enhance youth development, expression and voice for teens through radio broadcasts, films, print and a wide variety of media outlets. Throughout New York City alone, these organizations empower and teach media to (collectively) hundreds of young people each year. However, youth media organizations may be overlooking the power and potential of the college student mentor/volunteer in the field. A recent activity conducted by undergraduate college students at Pace University (New York City), reveals the potential of the field to engage with volunteers and service-credit college students—an important and valuable group that is currently under-resourced.
Youth, Media & Democracy
This past semester, students interested in taking part of a youth media civic engagement project—since all Pace students are required to take a civic engagement course—could register for the course “Youth, Media and Democracy.” Led by Emilie Zaslow, assistant professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, the purpose of the course was for students to analyze how young people use media as tools through which they can document their lives, concerns, and desires, produce social change and put democracy into action.
Throughout the course, we observed young citizens who serve the community by generating media juxtaposed with the government and mainstream media’s criticism of teen apathy. As a class, we questioned what role media—particularly youth generated media—plays on youth civic engagement.
Civic engagement, as Peter Levine writes in his book, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens, refers to a person’s actions that have a positive effect on society. Media created and disseminated by youth have such an effect and are therefore an important contribution to our democracy. This is not just any kind of media; youth media portrays some kind of message about issues relating to the youth.
The field-work part of the course assigned teams of two to three student volunteers to eleven different youth media organizations operating within New York City. As volunteers for Youth Media Reporter, we acted as participant observers of the overall course experience, gathering information from our peers—who visited EVC, DCTV, Vision Education and Media, Radio Rootz, Politrickin’, Scenarios USA, YMR, Children’s Pressline, the 52nd Street Project, and HarlemLive—to understand the genuine need of organizations in the field.
As participant observers, we received excellent insight into the myriad of ways youth contribute to the future of the field and to the greater society by making media. Students described the attitudes of the staff members of the youth media organizations as very positive and uplifting. Employees were “highly motivated,” they explained. The positive attitudes of the staff rubbed off on the students. Students said they were eager to work with their assigned organization, particularly in direct contact with the youth. College students are eager for the same meaningful connections and relationship-building as teen participants of youth media programs.
What seems to hinder youth media organizations from involving undergraduate students is not entirely based on external, outreach issues—such as developing partnerships with faculty at local universities—but internal issues. These include lack of time to gain from using us as a viable (and free!) resource, funding to provide space, and support staff who could manage extra volunteers adequately. According to Professor Zaslow, “Students had very little understanding of the constraints under which such organizations operate.” She continues, “The next time I teach the course, I will require students, through project-based work, to research their organizations’ funding sources and budgetary challenges.” Clearly, involving volunteers is an issue of additional staff time and staff support—but one that college students might be able to help investigate, analyze and evaluate for improvement through field-placement.
Suggestions to Integrate College Students in the Field
To engage college students with the field in a manner that takes into account the capacity issue of most youth media organizations, we have the following suggestions to offer.
Tap the power of college students as an ally and resource. The recent presidential elections are a clear depiction of how young adults of voting, college age can use their power. As Rashid Shabazz writes in his recent YMR article, “Obamania: A Reflection on New Media Tactics Drawing Youth to the Voting Booth,” youth media organizations “‘should immediately [begin] hiring youth to design the next generation of sites and media tools for youth voter engagement. Youth need to be hired, and focus grouped and educated about what they can do to get involved.’” College students are an impeccable resource for the field and its future.
Establish protocol for effectively integrating college-level volunteers into youth media organizations. College students have particular needs and constraints that should be taken into consideration before accepting them as volunteers. Take full advantage of their knowledge and skills and desire to be part of the community. Professor Zaslow explains, “When students wrote about their experiences as volunteers in the various organizations, they often expressed frustration about the ways in which they, as resources, were being utilized. They desired more meaningful work and felt that some of the administrative tasks they were given were tiresome.” Rather than assign tasks such as filing or photocopying, students ought to be engaged; for example, to observe staff meetings, trainings and workshops, co-manage the organization’s website, promote the organization through advocacy and public relations work, advise and mentor youth, and/or learn how organization raise and manage funds. Youth media organizations should assess the needs of both the staff and student in a one-on-one conversation, to get a clear understanding of how to manage time constraints and the busy schedules of both parties.
According to Professor Zaslow, one of the biggest challenges she faced when she was reaching out to youth media organizations was that the model of course-embedded civic engagement did not match the model that most organizations used for volunteering. Some youth media organizations do have established internship programs but such programs require students to make a greater time commitment to the organization and require students to be vetted through an interview process, which may not possible when attempting to place 30 students in organizations between the time they register for classes and the time the semester begins. Professor Zaslow explained, “It is important for youth media organizations to be aware of college students’ needs but it is equally important for the course to meet the needs of the community. I see great value in the university and the community working together to integrate college students into the important work being done in the field of youth media.”
Establish an important and visible role for college students in youth media organizations. Think career-bound. Providing undergraduate students with a visible role in youth media organizations affords an inside view of field. The more welcoming it is, the more we will want to come back and be a part of this work. Though college provides students with the necessary book-smarts to transition into chosen careers, it does not always supply the necessary experience to choose or review career options. Having genuine field experience can enhance students’ knowledge about prospective careers and help guide them in the right direction. Through such career pipelines, college students can investigate potential careers in youth media through field-work placements. In addition, the experience of these youth media placements will be carried to the many different organizations and careers that students choose; therefore, expanding the knowledge base and visibility of the field.
For Zaslow, this is a key. She explains, “Our students majoring in Communication Studies have tremendous opportunities at major media corporations throughout the city; they are interning, and subsequently working, at top media companies. However, the field of youth media was new to most of the students. They had no idea that such work was being done, the power behind the processes and the productions created in youth media organizations. I’d love for more of our students to have an opportunity to experience careers in alternative media, particularly youth media.”
Encourage dialogue between college students and teen producers. After providing a preview and brief workshop with college students, allow more opportunities to work directly with youth producers. Teens and college students are a perfect match. As Peter Levine writes in The Future of Democracy, “To varying but significant degrees, young people live in a world of their own, influencing one another and making decisions without their parents and other adults even being aware of what they decide.” We are the best mentors that can speak to teens, eager to offer experience and advice. In many ways, college students can better relate to the issues faced by young people since they are the issues we faced just a year or two ago but we rarely have such an opportunity for dialogue. David Buckingham, author of The Making of Citizens, explains that the process of change is inherent to youth politics, “[enabling] young people to express their views on issues that directly or indirectly concern them, yet on which they are rarely consulted.” If college student volunteers consult teen producers on the issues expressed in media, we will increase a civic-sense to the generation behind and ahead of us. We have witnessed the positive effect of this dialogue, which encourages the teen to pursue a college education and the student to pursue a career in youth media. It’s a win-win situation
Engage college students as a new and important young adult audience for youth media products. College students are also an important target audience that educators in the field ought to tap. Typically, the field focuses on building a youth to youth or youth to adult audience base. As a demographic in transition from young adult to adult hood, we are an extremely important audience to the field, serving as a bridge between teens and adults. Creating opportunities for the college student in youth media programs—as both an audience and advisor—can increase the reach and scope of the field as it expands as well as the many goals for youth empowerment the field holds. Key to this process is providing a platform for teen voice and expression that are heard not just with other teens or adult sympathizers, but college students.
Partner with academics and network with students interested in the field for service credit. Beyond this course, participants report that there are no existing outlets through which college students can effectively get involved in youth media for credit. By reaching out to college/university academics, youth media organizations can create a network connecting students to youth media organizations. Youth media organizations can contact the public outreach personnel at universities and provide them with exactly what kind of work they do and what type of assistance they are looking for from prospective volunteers. The university can then create a database (possibly through simple surveys of incoming freshman, transfer students, and existing students) of the students’ interest and abilities in relation to the needs of the youth media organizations. Once this data is organized, the students can be assigned to the organization that best matches their interests and abilities through relevant classes, such as the one described earlier. Academically, there should be more classes that are related to youth, media, and/or the government.
We Welcome You to Invite Us to the Field
College students have much to offer youth media organizations. They not only have time and requirements for field work or internships available but eager to learn about and affect the field. Youth media practitioners should reach out to a greater body of student volunteers, partaking in active discussion with college students through events at colleges. Such an investment will present a clear picture of what requirements students have to graduate and how to provide students with much needed field-work experience—especially in unique and unfamiliar careers as youth media. Similarly, college professors should actively provide their students access to information about youth media organizations and how they can volunteer for them—there is great interest to become part of this work.
Involving undergraduate college students is a win-win for the youth media field. Offering college students an inside look at how youth media organizations operate will certainly benefit organizations—we are prospective employers. As college students act as role models for teen producers and a receptive audience for their media, we are introduced to career options in the field and become part of youth, media and democracy.
Maliha Khan is a senior at Pace University, graduating with a dual-degree in Finance and Political Science and minor in Middle Eastern Studies. She is the secretary of the Muslim Students Association and president of Project Nur at Pace. Head of the New York Youth Wing of Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political/social organization, Khan plans to attend graduate school for international affairs. She will be one of the many college students who plan to attend the Presidential Inauguration Seminar in Washington, D.C. in January, 2009.
Yesenia Reinoso, 20, is a junior at Pace University and is a Communications major. She has been volunteering at Youth Media Reporter since September as part of her Youth, Media, and Democracy class. She is currently employed with the Times Square Alliance.
Albuquerque, New Mexico was a unique place to meet youth media and service-learning practitioners, amongst several other organizations at the 18th National Service-Learning Conference where 2,500 people attended on March 23-27th. With inspirational speakers such as Jane Goodall and spiritual blessings by insightful native elders, the energy of leadership, wisdom, and connectivity filled the convention center with youth and adult allies excited about engaging more deeply as active and effective citizens.
Why Albuquerque, New Mexico as a relevant conference setting? Albuquerque has made young people a top priority in its city where, among other things, is a teen artistic haven and entertainment center coined Warehouse 21 (W21). W21 provides young people to manage, produce, teach, design, and administer art, media, promotion classes and music performances in collaboration with MAP21, a local youth-operated magazine.
Interwoven at the 18th National Service-Learning Conference (NSLC) was a few youth media organizations and individuals who have made a direct link between youth media and service-learning. On behalf of YMR, I met with people from three specific organizations—New Foundation Charter School’s, Native Youth Magazine.com, and Stories for Service/Digital Storytelling—to learn how these connections are important for youth media professionals in the field and how media can serve youth and communities respectively.
Kevin Dobbins, a young man working with video, production, and editing who was filming the conference for the second time around with a team of youth, has first hand experience blending youth media work with service-learning. I met him on the opening day of the conference as he handed out flyers promoting their video production and storyboard workshops. Dobbins is an alumnus of the New Foundation Charter School’s (NFCS) in Philadelphia, PA—which serves kindergarten to 8th graders (but whose media program includes youth/alumnae up to grade 12). While at NFCS, Dobbins participated in a service-learning course in conjunction with an after-school media program.
The two opportunities pushed him to portray issues in his community using ‘active video documentation’—Kevin’s term to describe service-learning documentaries. I asked Dobbins, who was first involved with the conference last year, what it is like to be in New Mexico, film the conference, and be part of the second round of youth-designed pre/post production and storyboard workshops. “I feel honored,” he said with a wide grin as he led me to the video production workshop headquarters where I am met with two media instructors from NFCS, Shoshanna Hill and Geanie Meerbach.
NFCS has a service-learning component integrated into its academic curriculum, thanks to Amy O’Neil and Shira Cohen (Founders of i-Safe and i-Drive). The after-school video production program is youth-oriented, includes a wide scope of age groups (as many high-school alumnae attend), and uses service-learning best practices to effectively align it with a credit-bearing course at the school. Meerbach explains, “We integrate issues important to youth with service-learning.” Youth create videos at NFCS as a way to uncover and comment on issues through active documentaries which are up to five minutes long. These documentaries are viewed internally by other students, and sometimes by parents, teachers, and community members. Many of the films bring attention to issues of particular relevance to young people, such as bullying, while providing a space for creative expression (where youth integrate thriller-esque styles and comedy).
Media Instructor Shoshana Hill explains:
“Internet safety and bullying, for example, are big deals to youth [right now at our school]. I don’t think adults realize how important these issues are [to youth]. Often, youth are burdened with societal pressures with oppressive messages such as ‘you shouldn’t know how to use .’ The issues youth in our program address are not [typically] known [to the community/audience]. Youth get everything from media. And bringing up the unknown and showcasing that on a screen, gets a certain issue attention, which youth learn to use strategically. Video has the power to communicate and get the word out about issues. Young people, by using this medium, learn not only how a video works, but what a camera doesn’t see, which teaches youth to ask questions, think in a story, and creatively use alternative communicative forms.”
Geanie Meerbach, who has been working as a media instructor for the past year at NFCS, plans to archive all student videos and active documentaries in the school library. Meerbach believes that access to these video documentaries on youth issues and experiences will help support generations of youth to come at NFCS. She also believes that the ability and desire of NFCS students to take leadership on issues important to the community, self, and one’s peers is a direct result of merging service-learning with active documentaries. Both Meerbach and Hill are passionate and dedicated media practitioners who see a direct link between youth media making and service-learning—which has had profound effects on both students and the issues they are tackling.
In addition to the NFCS conference attendees, Mary Kim Titla offered a workshop on native youth and storytelling at the conference. Titla has spent more than half of her life as a professional storyteller, including 20 years for NBC as a news reporter. She mentors young Native storytellers through her website, Native Youth Magazine.com. At her workshop, two young storytellers spoke about the importance of storytelling, writing, and how they entered the world of storytelling through pow wows (a cultural tradition amongst Native Americans).
Native Youth Magazine.com promotes youth initiatives, youth storytelling, website design, cultural presentations, media relations, video production/narration, and more. Founded by Titla, Native Youth Magazine.com offers youth a forum to view and upload video clips, audio, profiles, galleries and blogs. As she explained in her workshop, the website “addresses real world issues through the ancient craft of storytelling.” Adding storytelling to technology builds a sense of unity that is meaningful.
As a mother of teenagers, Titla realized that there were “not enough positive websites about Native American youth communities and activities that could connect Native American youth with one another.” Titla explains that youth who have access to technology are part of a generation that is up to speed on the latest technology—they are really into figuring out how things work, function, and what advanced features new technology offers.
Throughout Titla’s work and life, she emphasizes the importance of language, signs, and symbols to one’s history, personal transformations, and cultural knowledge. She believes that the importance of storytelling enhances one’s identity and community—which are integral to learning how to serve and give back to where one’s roots are laid. By creating Native Youth Magazine.com, Titla engages youth with a passage way that connects them to their cultural identity, to their peers, and to the power of story telling in a digital age.
Story telling fosters a sense of identity, lineage, and service in youth in many ways. The National Service-Learning Conference also featured Stories of Service, a program of Digital Clubhouse Network. Stories of Service (SOS) mobilizes young people to interview and produce digital stories (multimedia videos) about the memories of women and men who serve the nation. SOS is dedicated to developing innovative ways of using technology to build stronger communities, with an emphasis on mobilizing youth in service to their communities.
SOS was launched in 1998 and founded in 1996 in Silicon Valley, CA out of a NASA research project and currently partners with the History Channel, Youth Service America, and the National Youth Leadership Council. SOS engages youth with skills such as video production, interviewing, writing, visual arts, research, and intellectual property/copyrights. SOS provides an electronic toolkit of curriculum on their website www.stories-for-service.org, training workshops, and orientations.
SOS captures stories of those who serve the nation who:
• Are universally inclusive, reflecting the contributions of individuals of all backgrounds;
• Are ordinary individuals who have received little recognition for their extraordinary service;
• Provide youth with role models for ongoing service; and
• Engage youth with older generations by creating a “youth to youth” connection (youth producers are similar in age to the Storytellers during the Storytellers’ time in service)
At the conference, youth from SOS conducted interviews with elders from the local Albuquerque community as well as other elders with strong backgrounds in service-learning to capture their digital stories. Teams of youth were paired with an elder storyteller to create an opportunity for intergeneration learning and togetherness. Video became a tool both to build community and document personal histories of older generations. Ryan Hegg, the Project Director of Stories of Service, explains that there is power where “young people volunteer to capture stories and share them—media is a modality for preserving stories and history.”
Preserving stories, working with elders, and using media to highlight local issues are all elements of youth media directly related to service-learning. As Nelda Brown, the Director of the National Service-Learning Partnership explains, “The service-learning field is bigger than we think. Often our colleagues using youth media, youth organizing or other engagement strategies to pursue community change are in fact doing service-learning, often with even stronger social justice outcomes for participants and neighborhoods. We need to recognize, embrace and learn from their work to strengthen our mutual goals of community improvement, equity, and justice.”
Bridging service-learning and youth media has profound effects on youth and their communities. Both the service-learning and youth media fields ought to recognize and learn from each other’s work, especially on specific areas of overlap. Whether its documenting oral history through a generation of elders using video, sharing one’s cultural identity and experience through journalism and pow wows, or actively documenting issues in one’s school—youth are taking on socially conscious, activist roles in using media to engage with their sense of self, community and belonging.