Interview: Salome Chasnoff | Beyondmedia

Beyondmedia Education is a Chicago-based 501c3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to collaborate with under-served and under-represented women, youth and communities to tell their stories, connect their stories to the world around us, and organize for social justice through the creation and distribution of media arts.
Recently, Chicago Public Television station WTTW’s Image Union refused to air Beyondmedia Education’s award-winning documentary Turning a Corner, claiming that the content is inappropriate. As part of the award, Turning a Corner was to be screened on WTTW’s Image Union program. Created in a media activism workshop with members of Prostitution Alternatives Round Table (PART)—15 women who had been street-level sex workers in Chicago—the film recounts their battles with homelessness, violence and discrimination and provides insight into Chicago’s sex industry. Beyondmedia Education recently won the Chicago Reporter’s John A. McDermott Documentary (short) Film Competition for Turning a Corner. WTTW’s refusal to air the program cites the sensitive subject matter—sex workers in Chicago—as the reason for their decision.
In response, and due to other recent events that have challenged access to free press in Chicago (including Loyola’s takeover of WLUW and the buyout of the Chicago Reader and the firing of key writers) on January 17th Beyondmedia Education organized a meeting at Columbia College for community and independent media makers to come together to build a media justice plan for action addressing issues of censorship, inequality in media access, and the increasing corporate control of media in Chicago.
In January, YMR interviewed Salome Chasnoff, Executive Director of Beyondmedia.
YMR: In your own words, please discuss the important issue of community access to public media as it relates to the youth media field.
Chasnoff: It’s to recognize the reality that young people are part of our world. We are all in this together. We all need to communicate in the same space. Adults are very quick to complain that young people don’t communicate with them—that there is an invisible divide between the generations both in the public and private spheres. For example, “I don’t understand their music, dress, etc.” Media—public communication—is a way for these divides to be bridged and the public forum to be rebuilt.
In some ways, media reflects what is happening on the ground and in some ways it constructs what is happening. We can see the public and private as co-creative. Through media making we can repair the social fabric. Youth media is key to that enterprise. Technology is the means but the end result is larger. Youth are going to run the world and they are the vibrant voice of today. That has to be reflected in everything—including public access—and adults need to be accountable to young people. The only way to do that is to hear them. But young people also need to take responsibility for speaking and participating—and fight for the space in which to do it. If youth have something to say in the public space and that access is blocked—that is censorship.
YMR: About 30 people attended the media justice meeting you organized at Columbia College. What was the overall outcome?
Chasnoff: There were all kinds of groups that attended the meeting. Beyondmedia works with many different cohorts. Attendees included policy makers, media makers, academics, and youth media. Unless we are trying to develop an initiative, it is normally difficult to get these groups together. Everyone is so busy. People need to have a particular, shared objective.
In the break-out groups, there was a concern for university accountability (journalism/media programs). Students are being trained for jobs that do not exist—therefore, universities must share resources and be transparent in their programs.
People want to continue meeting and bring in more groups and definitely more young people (for youth voice). We are developing a listserv and the next meeting will be at Southwest Youth Collaborative in order to change the context of each meeting to reflect the diversity of voices. We are committed to win-able battles.
At the meeting, we talked about a live weekly forum where people could express their views on a particular issue (a hot issue) that could be broadcast locally. This would work well for young people and all different marginalized groups. Parents are complaining that they do not know what their teens are thinking. Youth can speak through media and adults can learn a lot from that.
YMR: How can educators, media justice organizers, community members and young people collaborate and support each other in doing this type of work?
Chasnoff: An important thing is to remember that we are all involved in the same project. What we do is about all of us. We don’t have to actively collaborate to keep each other’s best interests in mind. If what we are creating is for everyone, than we are collaborating. We have to remember to keep our blinders off and always expand our vision so it includes more and more issues, people, and audiences. If we are acting out of a social justice model, than ultimately, what we do will serve the greatest good.
YMR: What role can independent and community media play in accessing young people within public media?
Chasnoff: This is already happening. I’ve been a media maker for twenty years and I have seen youth media grow from something non-existent to a viable field. Part of that is the way technology has grown—young people have more access to media tools and knowledge. Public media must create a space of access for marginalized voices.
For example, independent/community media must have opportunities for young people to become involved and expand their frame as a result of talking to young people. Youth must learn how to engage media with solving issues or problems that concerns them.
YMR: One specific question at the meeting was “what kind of a job is Chicago public media doing in representing the public interest”? How does this relate to youth media?
Chasnoff: I think people would find youth media (and marginalized voice/media) interesting in Chicago. The Chicago public likes to be challenged and entertained. Many want to be active, critical viewers. The work we make here in Beyondmedia is not entertainment based and yet we get a lot of positive responses from a diverse array of people.
Rarely has my breath been taken away by mainstream media. But when someone is taking public space for the first time after making their story their entire lives, it is totally unique, fresh and surprising. It has the capacity to capture people’s imaginations and they can learn from that. It is not a story that is made to sell a product. It is a story that is expressing lived experience and, therefore, something most people can relate to, recognizing the truth in storytelling. The problem with a lot of university filmmaking programs is that state-of-the-art equipment is available to learn on but you might as well watch the products on mute—they are boring. The focus is warped in my opinion. Young people that really want to grab the power of these tools in their hands and use them to express their unique vision and get something that would make their world better—that is exciting.
YMR: What strategies can youth media educators use to access public media more effectively and consistently?
Chasnoff: Develop relationships with gatekeepers of public media and educate them to what youth media could bring to them and their audiences. Try to work creatively together. Develop programming that would allow youth to “see” behind the scenes how public media is made (and even develop roles for them such as internships and/or career paths). Work with public media such as NPR, PBS and even universities to develop resources. If taxpayers support and “own” these outlets, then they should reflect our vision. Young people and adults must fight to own public voice. We can’t take our ownership for granted—we have to fight for it on a daily basis. The relationship between public media and free speech/democracy is indivisible because you can’t have one without the other.
For example, as a result of the response from our colleagues and peers, Beyondmedia did win a battle. It’s not official yet but, despite the set back with WTTW’s Image Union, it looks like our full documentary will be aired on WTTW’s regular programming in the spring in an even better time slot and not just the initial short version proposed to air. This proves that there are win-able battles out there when you mobilize your troops in the field and beyond.