Youth Media Saved My Life

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Christine L. Mendoza went to Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City as a teenager. She returned to EVC after spending two years in Spain where she worked for the Consejeria de Educacion, and taught English using visual media as a facilitation tool. Christine received her Masters from the Comparative Ethnic Conflict Program at Queens University in Belfast and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Media Studies from Hunter College. She has facilitated workshops at an international youth camp in Finland, to Protestant and Catholic youth in Belfast and in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has also interned at ABC News and BBC Northern Ireland. Christine is currently the co-director of the Youth Documentary Workshop and the director of Educational Research and Evaluation at EVC. In this interview, Christine draws connections between her personal experience and her vision of youth media for educators and students she now trains.
YMR: You participated in Educational Video Center (EVC)’s programs as a student, first a high school student then a college student. Now you work for the organization as a full-time staff member. What about your experience there drew you back in as an adult?
Christine L. Mendoza: EVC literally saved my life. When I was 15, I dropped out of high school and was out for a year. I went back to school at City-as-School, an alternative high school program. That’s where I learned about EVC.
EVC made school more relevant, and was exactly what I needed as an independent student who still needed some guidance. EVC provided a program that was part classroom, part workplace. I felt that I was given a lot of responsibility and that I was trusted. So many times before I had been told I was a failure, but the staff at EVC helped me find what I was good at, and supported me so I could succeed. I continued at EVC through the end of high school, and then into college. As a high school student, I participated in the Doc Workshop, and I transitioned into the YO-TV program when I started College. I was exposed to global issues because I was able to travel as an EVC media educator. Looking back, I can see that so many of my choices—from where to go to graduate school to what I want to do for a career—are thanks to my experience at EVC.
When I started at EVC in high school, I was living day by day and school was not one of my top priorities. From there, I became the first in my generation of my family to go to college. I have one older and one younger brother, and their lives have followed a different path which didn’t focus on education.
Because of the skills I developed at EVC and the emphasis they placed on education, I am able to be the person I never imagined I could be—a person that is really contributing to society. For this reason, I have returned to EVC as an educator and researcher—I want to pass on to a new generation of young people the confidence and skills that EVC gave to me.
YMR: What makes the EVC curriculum different from traditional school/educational curricula? Why does this appeal to you as an alumnus and educator?
Mendoza: EVC emphasizes engagement, literacy, and civic journalism. Young people have to be engaged in and like what they’re doing in order to be successful and to make a real difference.
Knowing that, EVC asks young people to create their own research questions and develop their own means for research, helping to support in realizing their vision. At the end of projects, the young people present their research to staff and community members, and their knowledge and insight are appreciated and valued.
I experienced this first hand while I was a student at EVC. The work that I was doing at EVC was project-based, relevant to me and my peers, and it was meaningful. I wasn’t sitting down and memorizing material for class. My learning was connected to something real, and something that would be helpful to the community in the future. I knew that the research I was doing and that the videos we were producing would help other people.
Because of the way EVC’s program worked, it became critical that I was there and that I worked every day. I never missed a day at EVC and I never missed a day of class at school because of EVC. I began to understand why school was relevant to me. When students find this connection for themselves, between a project they’re working on and school, it makes a big difference in the way they feel about school overall.
YMR: Describe a project you worked on that had a big impact on you.
Mendoza: The second video I worked on, through YO TV, was about the juvenile justice system in the United States. We wanted to tell the story of young people who were incarcerated, while showing the broader community issues that led to that moment in their lives. The message of the film was that incarceration doesn’t work because it creates a high level of recidivism and does not, in fact, reduce crime.
The film demonstrated that it’s the lack of resources in a community that lead to crime, and those who do commit crimes need better alternatives to incarceration.
The project had a huge impact on me at the time. We decided that as part of the research for the film, we would go to Rikers Island—New York City’s main jail complex—to better understand the experience of being there. We were given access to inside the Island. There, we interviewed prisoners, saw cells, and saw the church. While we couldn’t film these things, we were able to use the information we gained to create a portrait of that community.
The most notable part of that experience was the time I spent working with formerly incarcerated youth. As part of our reciprocal agreement with New York’s Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) program, we had to go into incarceration programs and teach film classes. My peer filmmakers and myself (all college students) created a curriculum, and did a series of four peer-to-peer workshops. Through the process of these workshops, the young people opened up and told their stories to the EVC students, and we shared stories with them. Not only was I personally impacted by their stories, but I discovered then that I enjoyed teaching and working with young people, and I decided I wanted to be a teacher.
YMR: How did your involvement with EVC impact your educational and career trajectory?
Mendoza: My work with EVC impacted my educational trajectory in a very concrete way. I graduated from undergrad with a major in media and a minor in sociology. I focused on written journalism because I had obtained a very good film education from my work at EVC and other community media outlets in NYC. My interest in sociology was spurred by the research I did for film projects at EVC.
I was exposed to international travel through my work at EVC, and that opened more doors for me after college. I went with EVC to Belfast, Ireland, to work with Catholic and Protestant youth on a project that would build bridges across religious divides through film. While there, I made connections with the University. I went back to those connections later, applied and was accepted to the Master’s program. I graduated with a Master’s in International Politics and Ethnic Conflict Resolution from the School of Politics, International Studies & Philosophy, and wrote my thesis on the education of new immigrants in divided societies. I looked specifically at Belfast and Quebec as case studies. Following that experience, I’ve been able to work with youth in South Africa, and most recently in Spain.
I have to say that staff at EVC was definitely influential in getting me on this path—more so than the curriculum itself. Torrance York, Steve Goodman, and the whole staff created a culture of acceptance and understanding. They were open to what I was going through, and supported me.
YMR: Do you see the potential to expand programs like EVC into the traditional school structure and school day?
Mendoza: Well, right now I am doing research to develop ways in which EVC’s educational model can be replicated in all high schools. I’m finding that there is a big difference between how things work at EVC, and how youth media programs work within high schools. This difference is mainly due to the fact that all students at EVC selected to be here, and the high school students at schools are sometimes brought into the program without the option. However, I’m finding that once the high school students get more involved in the EVC-style work at their high school, they get hooked. They see that they are allowed to work in the building in a way they can’t during the school day. They have ownership of the space and a new kind of authority. They feel more comfortable and this helps them engage.
I am continuing this work, to find out how we can best create an EVC microculture within traditional school spaces. We’re also developing innovative ways to tie EVC curriculum into the high school core curriculum. We have coaches working with history teachers and global studies teachers, but also hoping to partner with math teachers.
YMR: What would you encourage other youth media educators to do for their students, as a result of your life experience and work with EVC? Mendoza: I encourage all of my students to look toward outside opportunities and open their minds to bringing different kinds of people into their lives. I encourage my students to strive to be well-rounded and exposed to lots of different careers and ideas, to find something that they are really good at, and to travel. This could be as simple as getting out of your own borough. Right now, I’m working with a team of youth to do research on the Liberian population in Staten Island—a community of New York City that youth might never see otherwise.
I also encourage my students to be self-reflective about their learning. I see that this helps them get engaged. I ask them to write down their expectations for learning or for the project, and to revise the list every two weeks or so. This practice creates a kind of self-awareness of the learning process. I also encourage them to keep working and keep moving, so that they have no time for self-doubt.