As educators, we hope to instill the idea that the media young people create can have a positive impact on others, but in reality that cannot happen unless youth media is distributed widely—with the conscious efforts of producers and mentors to go beyond the final production phase.
Youth media usually focuses on the three phases of production, which unfortunately cuts youth out of the distribution portion of the equation. Yet, a successful distribution project can provide youth media makers with valuable experience interacting with a critical audience, and witnessing the impact of their work—which is powerful.
Such an effort must be a conscious extension of the original product, and involve youth—ideally the original producers—every step of the way. An example of such a project is Reel Grrls’ 2004 film Coming Out… and its accompanying distribution campaign.
Reel Grrls & Coming Out
Founded in 2001, Reel Grrls is a Seattle-based, after-school media and technology training program that empowers girls to critique media images and to gain media technology skills in a safe, open environment, mentored by a network of multi-cultural women media professionals.
In 2005, three young producers created Coming Out…a short mockumentary about a straight girl who faces the challenges of coming out in a queer world. The film’s youth-infused humor and unique format flipped the often-painful coming out story as an aid to spark dialogue about homophobia and heterosexism. Although only one of the youth involved in the project was queer-identified, the three producers were extremely open during the production process, exploring the challenging issues within the film, placing them in the perfect position to contribute to next steps.
Executive Director Malory Graham suggested to the youth producers and mentors involved with the project that Coming Out… had the potential to live on outside of its initial screening and create an impact through distribution. Once prompted, the producers were excited to remain involved and were an integral part of generating the outreach and distribution model that would eventually be put into action. Our youth hadn’t yet thought about what would happen to their film after the final screening. By planting this seed, we invited them to utilize their creativity to envision the next steps in the filmmaking process.
As educators and mentors we faced many questions and challenges in extending the project beyond its production. The Reel Grrls spring program in which the film was created had ended. Did that mean the film itself was the product, or could we push the process to a further end? How could we keep the youth producers involved, and who would ultimately define this involvement? We recognized that carrying out this campaign would require long-term commitment, continued engagement, and the willingness to explore non-traditional modes of getting the film’s message out.
Our approach to shaping a distribution campaign around Coming Out… was not a typical one, although Reel Grrls has used a similar model two other times. The first took place the previous year and was led by an adult facilitator, which was not as successful.
We realize it is unrealistic to pursue an extended distribution campaign for every film created. These opportunities require a unique cocktail of content displayed, invested youth, funding, time and energy, and the ability to frame a film for extension into youth-led distribution.
Outreach and Additional Funding
We could not have started those conversations without the humor component.
—Malory Graham, Reel Grrls’ Executive Director.
The three student creators of Coming Out… emphasized their desire for their film to speak to both straight and queer audiences. We began by brainstorming what an extended distribution campaign around the film would look like, and came up with a list of organizations and festivals that could be allies in continuing the project. Although LGBT festivals and organizations would be ideal distribution partners, everyone agreed that for the film to reach its full potential as an outreach tool we had to look beyond these niches.
We all felt that Coming Out… made the challenges of being a queer young person appear to be a more universal experience, and that it was one that could resonate with many people who don’t share that experience. For this reason, the young filmmakers decided that leading discussions in schools and community groups would provide a greater and more far-reaching impact, using the film as a centerpiece to a set of guiding questions. With this input from the youth, the project mentors wrote a grant for the Coming Out… distribution project, naming two of the original producers as facilitators.
A year and a half later, funding was secured. In the interim, Reel Grrls championed Coming Out… on the film festival circuit. It won audience choice awards and festival curators began to specifically request it for submission. The project mentors remained involved with Reel Grrls, revising and submitting our initial grant to several different organizations.
In 2005, our persistence paid off. The Pride Foundation, a Northwest organization awarding grants and scholarships to leaders of the LGBT community, presented Reel Grrls with a $5,000 grant. The project allocated funds to hire Reel Grrls graduates to: create a discussion guide for the film; facilitate peer-led screenings and discussions for school and community groups in Washington State; and distribute the DVD and discussion guide at no cost to organizations across the U.S. interested in mediated dialogues about homophobia and heterosexism. The Pride Foundation was hugely supportive of this model, especially emphasizing the need for youth to occupy central roles and receive financial compensation for their work.
Re-Engaging Youth to Take the Lead
After securing funding, the next challenge was re-engaging our youth. For this project to work it had to be youth led and adult supported. Of the film’s three initial creators, we were only able to track down one who was still interested in taking part in the distribution campaign. We offered the role of the second youth facilitator to a graduate of the most recent Reel Grrls program, who was now an accomplished youth media maker committed to social change and questioning her own sexuality. We hired a Reel Grrls graduate from 2003, now studying graphic design, to design the discussion guide, which needed to be professional and eye-catching to young people and reflective of the aesthetic of the film.
Ultimately we, the mentors, followed the lead of these young people in exploring how to affect a young audience’s understanding of queerness and heterosexism. As a group, we researched and created content for the Discussion Guide that would accompany Coming Out…, which included sections on terminology, setting ground rules, and follow-up activities and resources. Some adult members of the group pushed to use the term “gay” in the guide, but the girls insisted that they preferred to identify as “queer,” and that this term was more inclusive and would bring more young people to contribute.
The youth producers also led the charge to make the discussion guide more accessible to middle school aged students, since young people are now more likely to come out (and experience harassment) at that age. For this reason the guide contains separate comprehensive question sets for pre and post-video discussion questions specific to both middle and high school age (and older) audiences. The section for pre-high school age students includes more general questions like “Have you ever had to tell people something you didn’t want to about yourself? What kinds of anxieties did you feel? How did you feel afterwards?”
Audience outreach goals for our project were also set by youth and mentors together, and included partnering with a variety of organizations, reaching a wide range of ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations (including straight-identified audiences unfamiliar with queer issues), and communities outside the Seattle area less acquainted with or having less access to queer support networks. Our youth facilitators took their roles seriously, and requested specific trainings to aid them in facilitating discussions, which were donated by the National Coalition Building Institute http://www.ncbi.org. It was great to partner and work with an outside community organization to offer this support that went beyond the skill set of the mentors for the project. As the adult project leader, I was always ready to step in if needed but, thanks to the training the facilitators received, the producers held their own.
Between August and November of 2006, the Coming Out… Discussion Project presented nine screenings and discussions, meeting or exceeding all of our outreach goals. Over the next two years, Reel Grrls partnered with national LGBT and youth organizations to send out targeted press releases and mailings, ultimately distributing the film and accompanying discussion guide free of charge to over 50 schools, non-profits, and community groups throughout the country.
Response and Impact
“I had never before experienced a discussion that was directed towards youth and led by youth as well. At times it’s easier for students to open up and say what is on their minds when they feel like they are just having a talk with their peers.”
-Monica Olsson, youth facilitator
The biggest lesson of the Coming Out… project was also our biggest success. Providing youth media makers the opportunity to take ownership of an extended distribution project makes their work accessible to other young people, allowing the film to have a greater impact. The Coming Out… discussion and outreach campaign was hugely successful—not just in audience response but the positive effects it had on the youth facilitators, who became more confident in their abilities as the project progressed. These girls were forced into challenging situations, like speaking to a roomful of 6th grade boys, and leading discussion among a group of college students.
One of the youth leaders noted that, for her, the project “was a learning experience. By virtue of leading this discussion I was able to question myself internally. Due to this experience, I feel more comfortable speaking in front of groups and my peers.” Meredith Stone, whose organization hosted one of our discussions, echoed the power of this peer discussion model. She explains, “It meant a lot to see what youth are doing out in the community, and [it] opened doors [for] youth to think about exploring their own ideas in different ways that didn’t previously seem possible.”
Get the Message Out
Youth media educators have the potential to amplify the impact of youth produced media by extending projects beyond production. For such a campaign to work, projects must be chosen carefully, and youth must be involved throughout the process. Adult support should come in the form of mentors that the youth know and trust, and who are as committed to the process and the film as they are. The Coming Out… project took what most of us already know—the importance of treating young people with respect and valuing their time and ideas—and extended it into the fourth realm of film production—distribution.
Cutting short the life of a film that has the potential to make an impact does not have to be a missed opportunity. By focusing more on youth-led distribution, young people can develop the skill of engaging viewers—in this case, inventively using humor—to get their message out. It is up to educators to identify a group of committed youth raising strong content-specific films, and plant the seed, hand them the reins, and be ready to support them all the way.
Lila Kitaeff is a media activist, freelance writer, videographer, radio DJ, and Technical Director for the Reel Grrls program. She has been active with Independent Media Centers throughout the United States and Mexico. Along with PepperSpray Productions, a Seattle-based video collective, she coordinates a weekly television show that airs on over a dozen stations nationwide, and submits documentary work to the national Free Speech TV Network. She also produces socially progressive video work via her own business, Longshot Productions. She believes in using media as a tool for social change and passing on the tools of media production to as many people as possible.
Learn more about Reel Grrls at www.reelgrrls.org. See the film profiled here and others created in this program at www.youtube.com/reelgrrls.