A Change in Focus: Youth Media Shapes Community

Youth Media programs are, by nature, uniquely poised to be effective vehicles of youth self-expression, protest and social change. But how effective is this programming in the long-term if we do not make an effort to use these tools to make change in the communities where our students live?
Many times, youth experience great change in youth media programs; however, outside the media-making space, young people often have to squeeze their newly enlarged vision of the world back into the small, often stifling or dangerous spaces of their neighborhoods or schools. Youth media organizations can help make this transition easier by working with families, community partners, and schools to improve young people’s lives and decrease city-wide violence. Partnering with key stakeholders must become a key component of youth media programs in order to contribute to the continued growth and long-term sustenance of the young people we serve.
Of course, what with increasing budgetary constraints and overworked staffs, running a youth media program is difficult enough without thinking about expanding our reach to service entire communities and families. But while the challenges are many, they are not insurmountable. One of the first steps we can take is to incorporate a broader, more holistic vision of our students’ lives—one that incorporates family and community resources—into our program structure and goals.
Young Chicago Authors (YCA)
I am currently the director of publishing for Young Chicago Authors, and have worked with the organization to develop and promote its publishing initiatives for 5 years. For over 18 years, Young Chicago Authors has cultivated voice and vision in youth ages 13-19 by teaching creative writing and performance. YCA began simply as a space where young people could come to write and be a part of a community of writers. Freedom of expression and the nurturing of a safe community space remain core values of the organization.
Contrary to popular belief, writers do not write in isolation. Writers thrive when they are exposed to diverse experiences and perspectives. YCA celebrates the fact that its students come to the organization from all over the city of the Chicago, and with them bring a multitude of experiences, needs, and interests. YCA also believes in writing and creative expression as a means of creating change in individuals and communities. YCA actively seeks to nurture the rich diversity of its community and support the growth of young writers.
One of the primary ways that YCA does this is to encourage a lifelong relationship with the organization. Staff members and teaching artists for the organization reach out to and make concerted efforts to maintain mentorship relationships with both current students and YCA alumni. YCA also encourages its alums to teach and mentor current students by providing employment opportunities to graduates of the program. This allows older students, many of whom are pursuing careers in education and social service, to gain valuable teaching experience, and allows younger students to see that it is possible to make a living as both a creative artist and an educator. This also instills in all of our students the value of giving back to a community that nurtured them.
Whenever possible, YCA also seeks to involve parents in our programming. We invite parents and families to all of our events, and we have asked parents to serve on our Board of Directors. YCA also, on occasion, offers writing classes for parents, giving them a creative outlet that mirrors that of their children, and that, hopefully, encourages families to share with one another.
YCA has also recently been making an effort to establish relationships with local elected officials to develop youth-centered media and writing programming that meets the needs of their communities. For example, YCA is currently working with a group of aldermen to develop a series of student-produced Public Service Announcements to promote safe spaces in some of Chicago’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Students will conduct research and interview community members to gather information about their neighborhoods. This project will enable students to become visible agents of change in their neighborhoods and encourage community members to work together to combat violence. These governmental ties also open the door for YCA to become involved in discussions about—and perhaps the creation of new—educational policy that will ensure that children in all neighborhoods have access to safe, creative spaces.
Suggestions for the Field
Involve key stakeholders despite a small budget: Involving key stakeholders in the community—parents, elected officials and business owners—can be done with no or minimal cost. Incorporating community members as an integral part of existing youth media programming, as well as creating new community-based projects and collaborations, not only can enrich the program, but also help youth understand that they have access to a network of concerned and supportive people in their own communities. Youth and community members need to recognize that they are all part of an intricately woven community tapestry.
Build non-youth media specific partnerships: Establishing partnerships with local community organizations and law enforcement and family service agencies will strengthen youth media’s overall impact. Establishing personal relationships between youth in the community and these agencies makes it harder for children to be treated as “faceless” entities in the community and could reduce the tension and stereotyping that often exist among these groups.
In addition, youth media practitioners must learn from existing organizations and service providers in the local communities where we work. As young people document and disseminate information about existing neighborhood initiatives, they can initiate collaborations and projects to uncover and address needs that are not being met. We need to nurture and provide these opportunities, including employment, for youth to become leaders in their communities.
Suggest community-youth media projects: When youth engage in projects like recording local CAP meetings and interviewing residents to get a better sense of needs of the community, they are using media to build bridges between these agencies and constituencies, which benefits both the community and the field. In this context, youth are seen by the community as valuable contributors, and young people, in turn, can begin to recognize the valuable resources available to them in their own neighborhoods. Youth media programs must investigate community resources to better supply young people with life-tools they need.
Dedicate resources for at-risk youth: Many young people who enter youth media programs express that they have complicated family situations and require safety within the community. Although I would not suggest that youth media organizations should, or have the capacity to be social service providers, I do want to acknowledge that beyond our programs, students live lives that require support and attention. Building relationships with local agencies could provide youth media organizations an opportunity to know what services are available and to direct students to resources they might need beyond our programs—such as housing, counseling and shelter.
The Effects of a Holistic Approach
Those of us who are youth media practitioners and supporters have witnessed first-hand the “magic” that happens when young people come together to work towards a common goal-compiling a magazine, creating a film or collective work of art. Barriers and gaps around race, geography, affiliations, and interests that exist outside of the meeting place fade away and the alchemy of transformation begins. Young people begin to teach and learn from one another and, in the process, discover and uncover new layers of themselves. However, if this transformation is not supported beyond the time and space of a particular program, the “magic” that is created can all too easily fade away.
By incorporating a holistic approach to youth media programming, one that actively encourages and creates opportunities for youth to engage with their communities, young people will learn more about their communities and be able to use that information to effect change, whether through policy, advocacy, media communication or artistic reflection. Youth media producers will also increase their sense of visibility and power, thereby improving self-esteem and self-efficacy.
In addition, focusing on youth media that reaches an adult audience will help communities see young people not as a threat or a drain on resources, but as active, engaged community members.
Youth media programs must play a significant role in helping youth, families, and neighborhoods identify and assign value to the resources that they have. This may lead to increased understanding, need and support—both financial as well as participatory—of youth media programming, thereby creating more opportunities for youth media organizations.
This shift in perception not only has the potential to transform small, daily interactions and one-on-one relationships, but also to improve the overall tone of a neighborhood or community. Young people and adults come to perceive that they’re in the work together, and they take greater responsibility for improving their physical space, the policies that affect them, and their social interactions. Youth media programs must incorporate into their programming a vision that includes not just individual youth, but also the communities and families and institutions where young people are educated, work, and live in order to sustain and encourage continued growth among youth media producers.
Natasha Tarpley is the director of publishing at Young Chicago Authors. A former Fortune Magazine Reporter, she is also the award-winning author of several bestselling books for children and adults.
See the “Neighborhood-Based” approach of the Harlem Children’s Zone (www.hcz.org), a New York City nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty through the provision of comprehensive neighborhood based educational and community programs for children and families.
The Knowledge Works Foundation, based in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, is a foundation committed to “reinventing the relationships between school districts and community, demonstrating the power of a school created and sustained by a village.” Learn more about their community-centered model and policy initiatives at www.kwfdn.org/schools_communities.