Overcoming Identity Politics in Youth Media

As a youth media educator I try to stay focused on the power of consequences like the one I faced in my youth. As a teen, I was part of a queer organization whose top priority was advancing my story of marginalization. However, it was never explicit that the access to advocacy and media tools they provided was dependent on producing stories that moved their agenda forward in the public eye.
The unspoken—and I believe unconscious— assumption was that my needs as a queer youth were always going to be synonymous with the needs of the organization I was part of. But they were not. I soon realized that even with the best of intentions, expectations for marginalized youth to tell their stories can be damaging, silencing, and tokenizing. As a youth media educator and coordinator of the Twin Cities Youth Media Network, I share insights from my experience making my first documentary ten years ago—documenting the dangers of claiming a utopian answer to a population’s need for voice.
By and For Youth
District 202 was developed in the early 1990s in collaboration between the Youth Studies Department at the University of Minnesota and a group of active queer adults from the Twin Cities concerned about the safety of queer youth. District 202’s mission was “For and By Youth”—meaning youth were to lead the design of the space, the programming and governance of all activities. The initiative was based on the understanding that queer youth are easily marginalized by mainstream society and often at a higher risk for suicide, homelessness, prostitution, victim of violent crime and limited access to education.
The passion to champion marginalized youth “voice” became a problem at District 202 when young people—including myself at the time—began to question the reality of “By and For Youth.” We all believed in the ideal of District 202’s mission—that youth should lead governance. However, we began to see inconsistencies with the mission when adults began making decisions without youth input.
The day came when I needed to critique my experience with the center’s process around promoting the safety and voices of queer youth, which I turned into a poem asking adults to stop co-opting youth voice. My peers unanimously voted to paint the poem on the center’s youth-created graffiti wall. Within a few months, three of my friends and I were kicked out of the center indefinitely, citing my critique as unbeneficial to the organization.
The ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’ Story
Before getting removed from District 202, a youth media educator had taught a few of us how to make our own videos. Her goal was to teach us video making skills. I choose to bring the story up about my confrontation with inconsistencies in the mission of District 202 and the reality of how it was being run. Whether I brought this story or another story, I still fulfilled the need of the media class by learning specific skills in video making.
By focusing on teaching a skill, that practitioner—who now runs the youth media program In-Progress—gave me the freedom to judge whether I was ready and interested in telling my story of marginalization as a queer youth. Her support gave me the confidence to produce Witness, a documentary about the lack of voice I experienced at District 202. I was 17-years-old at the time. And because of the story I chose to tell, I lost the queer adult community District 202 provided. Though I released the film at the Girls in the Director’s Chair film festival at the Walker Art Center six months after my removal from District 202, as a queer teen, losing an entire support group in the Twin Cities because I didn’t share the “right” type of story, left its mark.
Beyond Identity Politics
Only young people can determine their readiness and risk involved in telling their stories. But they need accurate information and skill sets—such as media and power analysis—and supportive mentors to take the lead and make sound judgments. As a practitioner, I can’t get overtly excited about the potential of what a young person’s story can or should be. Because of power dynamics between youth and adults, I need to be aware that expressing my excitement over a specific story can influence a student.
It is unethical to demonstrate to marginalized youth that their access to tools is dependent on identity politics—that queer youth or young people of color can only share stories from these social arenas. If we do this, we perpetuate the injustice we are working to reconcile. Educators need to refrain from making assumptions of what types of stories a young person ought to tell based on “who they are.” Because identity politics is often implied in our mission, course descriptions, and proposals, educators must emphasize skill-building rather than identity when operating programs that target marginalized youth
It is unfair and invasive for educators to solely depend on young people to make media pieces that evoke their stories of oppression. As educators, we may not know the effect of exposing a certain type of story or what is on the line in a young person’s life—such as family or community responses. As educators, we do not want to risk a young person to feel mislead, exploited, over-exposed or co-opted. We need to recognize that young people are at different points of processing their identities and whatever stories they capture documents a specific point in time relevant to them. We cannot expect young people to provide a conscious analysis of say, “being queer,” just because we think they have a space to do so. But we can get excited for young people to create something entirely different than what we imagined and as a result, open up our eyes.
Joanna is a documentary filmmaker and owner of Kohler Productions based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who works part-time as a coordinator for the Twin Cities Youth Media Network. Joanna has produced and directed documentaries ranging in topics from exploitation of youth in youth services, peace activism in West Jerusalem and amateur women’s boxing. Joanna holds a B.A. in Social Documentary from the University of Minnesota, has studied at various institutes for Cultural and Public affair, trained at the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, and has been awarded by the Jerome Foundation for Media in 2005 & 2006.
The mission of Kohler Productions is to use digital media storytelling to create social documentaries that would otherwise go unheard. To confront power, entertain, and engage communities. www.kohlerproductions.com.