Media Savvy Arab Girls Respond to the Mainstream

Across the country, young media producers are creating works expressing their perspectives on and experiences of immigration, often directly combating negative portrayals put forth by mainstream sources.
For example, a radio documentary, “The Migration Project,” produced by KUOW (a Riverton, WY radio station) and Generation PRX (a project of the Public Radio Exchange to support, connect, and distribute youth-produced radio), focuses on issues of identity in the lives of young immigrants, while Global Action Project recently launched a video detailing the military recruitment of immigrant youth. Both these pieces challenge mainstream media narratives. But what happens to a youth media organization when directly attacked by a powerful media source not because they cover immigration, but because their own immigration status marks them as a “terrorist threat”?
Arab Women in the Arts and Media
This is precisely what happened to Arab Women in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), a community organization in Brooklyn, NY that offers media training to young women ages 14-18. AWAAM also makes the “Intifada NYC” shirts that received much media attention in fall 2007.
In brief, when New York Post reporter Chuck Bennett asked Deborah Almontaser, founder and then-principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (a new public middle school offering studies in Arabic and English), about the meaning of the word, intifada, Almontaser responded that the word’s Arabic root meant “shaking off” (The Post, August 9 2007, “City Principal is ‘Revolting’”). She acknowledged the word’s negative connotation, arising from its use in the Middle East, and explained: “I don’t believe the intention [of the shirt] is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression.”
The Post then published a series of articles linking Almontaser to AWAAM, which was depicted as an extremist and Muslim organization (AWAAM is in fact a feminist, Arab American, but not necessarily Muslim, organization). The Post claimed that AWAAM was “hawking T-shirts that glorify Palestinian terror,” and accusations echoed across the right-wing blog-o-sphere. Although the only connection between Almontaser and AWAAM is that the (now) ex-principal (Almontaser resigned as principal of the school in August) is a board member of a Yemeni-American organization with which AWAAM shares space, with one loaded interview question, the Post was able to weave AWAAM into the web of anti-Arab/immigrant feeling mounting in the city in opposition to the Khalil Gibran Academy. Quite suddenly, the women of AWAAM found themselves the target of media attention.
Hostility Unmasked
The anti-immigrant feeling revealed by the confrontation with the Post was not news to the young women of AWAAM—indeed they encounter such attitudes daily. A radio piece that the teens produced a year before, entitled “The War At Home,” documents such encounters. In the documentary, one young woman discusses strangers’ prolonged gazes at her hijaab—the scarf worn by many Muslim women. Another recounts an incident on the subway where a woman threw her coffee on a group of Muslim high school students. Throughout the piece run the kind of comments these young women hear all the time: “Take that stupid rag off your head, you terrorist,” or “Go back to your country.”
The Post incident occurred at the end of AWAAM’s summer media program. Young women organizers had spent several months preparing to inaugurate the Brooklyn chapter of the Coalition for Muslim Holidays, a diverse initiative working to include Muslim holy days as official New York City Public School holidays. With the publication of the Post article, reporters began gathering outside the doors of the building where the summer media workshops took place to get the story on the organization that had made the “Intifada NYC” shirts.
In another context, it would have been a singular opportunity for showcasing youth work, but the environment was anything but a safe space. Spelled out by the Post and amplified by rightwing bloggers, anti-Arab sentiment was now aimed directly at AWAAM and its youth media constituency. When the organization’s website was hacked into, the threat became even more intense.
Safety and Expression
AWAAM Director Mona Eldahry was put in the difficult position of having to negotiate between the safety and free expression of the young women she served and “outing” them as producers on the website. After conferring with parents, colleagues, and the girls, she decided that the environment was too dangerous for the young women’s work to be published online. AWAAM removed the names of the young female producers from work on the organization’s website. In addition, an entire summer’s youth media work was not posted, and the screening to accompany the Muslim holidays coalition was cancelled. Says Eldahry, “I felt like it seriously handicapped us because our asset is the media youth produce.” The organization faced further challenges as educators had to shift their focus from programming and fund raising to coordinating press releases, participating in interviews, and monitoring the website.
In spite of the strain on the organization, the youth media-makers were resilient. They were enraged, according to Eldahry, but defiant. Their response was, “We cannot be silenced.” Taking action into their own hands, the young women of AWAAM did exactly what they had learned during the summer—they made a video, countering the attacks, documenting the truth, and reclaiming their voices. Manipulating the constraint of anonymity, they shot the video, entitled “Silenced by the Media,” without including their faces, resulting in chilling images of decapitated bodies and dissociated voices telling the truth about the scandal and Almontaser’s resignation.
Conclusion: Combating the Negative Images of the Mainstream Media
The spirited response of the young AWAAM women to the media’s uninformed and negative portrayals of their work is one encouraging example of how alternative media can and must respond to the mainstream news outlets.
Another example occurred at an October conference in New York entitled “Building Bridges: How African-Americans and Immigrants Can Create Social and Economic Justice Together,” where Hugh Hamilton, host of “Talk Back,” a noncommercial call-in radio show, discussed how mainstream media’s negative and false representations of African-Americans and immigrants reinforce stereotypes and foster fear, contributing tensions between the two groups who have many similar interests and face similar challenges. In response, an educator in the audience spoke passionately about the important role youth media could play in challenging those stereotypes and helping reframe the immigration debate, in particular.
With the 2008 presidential race gaining momentum and with immigration reform increasingly central to the campaign, there will no doubt be many opportunities in the coming year for youth media organizations to mount projects and campaigns to counter the mainstream media and present a more balanced view of this important issue.
Note: On October 15, 2007, Debbie Almontaser reapplied for the position of principal at Khalil Gibran International Academy. AWAAM is currently seeking mentors and space for their weekend media trainings this fall.
Grace Smith is interning as Assistant Editor at the Youth Media Reporter. Born and raised in Baltimore, Smith lives in Brooklyn where she makes queer performance art and tends chickens.
For more information:
Khalil Gibran International Academy
Islam and Media Stereotypes
The New York Immigration Coalition

Creating Conversation: Baltimore Youth Explore Audience in the City

It is critical for young people not only to produce their own media segments, but also innovatively bring the issues they raise to a broader and engaged audience. BeMore TV, a student-run media project dedicated to showcasing young people’s ideas through public access in Baltimore, MD, works to entertain, empower, and enlighten the public about issues important to youth. Realizing that television brought limitations to public discourse, young people at BeMore TV find that public access is not always the most accessible medium to reach a local community. Thus, young people at BeMore TV have sought innovative ways to distribute their episodes to a variety of audiences through the internet and grassroots distribution strategies.
BeMore TV is a project of Wide Angle Youth Media, an organization founded in 2000 by Gin Ferrara, who recognized that Baltimore “needed an organization that would do youth media in an ongoing, sustainable way.” Young people need to use media on a larger scale to address issues within their local community. She explains, “Often young people are the target market for what they are seeing on television. [They] need to be able to respond to that.”
Two interns from Wide Angle—Lendl Tellington and Kyle Halle-Erby—conceived BeMore TV after successfully producing a documentary on student-led activism as a response to the education crisis in Baltimore in 2006.
Their documentary, “Schooling Baltimore Street,” made students realize they needed to use media to educate the public on issues that affect Baltimore from a youth perspective. Tellington, now Coordinator for the BeMore TV program explains, “We wanted to find a way to develop critical work that talked about youth issues, but at a faster rate because ‘Schooling Baltimore Street’ took us almost a year to produce.”
With the guidance of mentors such as Ferrara, students researched and developed a plan for a television show. They traveled to New York City to consult other youth media organizations such as the Global Action Project, Listen Up! and the Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
After much discussion with these organizations, BeMore TV decided to air half hour episodes that would feature segments about a specific theme by youth across Baltimore. Submissions for the show—solicited across the city—would provide a platform for many young voices and give BeMore TV a finger on the pulse of issues affecting Baltimore youth.
Youth issues, public access
Tellington and Halle-Erby decided to use public access television—a medium regularly viewed by many Baltimore teens—as a means to generate discussion in the local community. Airing the show on Baltimore’s Public Access would make these voices available to a wide range of people on a recurring basis. As a result, a diverse audience in the city would be exposed to the opinions and perspectives of young people, particularly on issues the young people themselves deemed of significant importance.
Co-founder Tellington describes his vision for the show’s role in the city: “Baltimore is probably one of the most geographically segregated cities, as far as having communities primarily black, and then primarily white. There are so many different communities, and they really don’t talk to each other. BeMore TV is trying to produce work about youth, and motivate communities to talk about issues affecting youth, because most times in the news, [youth are portrayed] in a negative light.”
After successfully producing two episodes since 2006, students at BeMore TV found that Baltimore’s Public Access was not particularly public or accessible. Explains April Montebon, a MVP intern, “BeMore TV is only on Baltimore’s Public Access, and that’s only for people who have cable and who live in the city, so we had a very limited audience.” The lack of a permanent schedule provided further complications to reaching an audience. Though BeMore TV’s purpose was using television to increase access, it would have to explore other vehicles to distribute their work and increase its viewer base.
Outside the city
The youth and practitioners at BeMore TV and Wide Angle confronted these challenges through innovative dissemination techniques on-line, on paper, and in the community.
First, the youth at BeMore TV took advantage of the nationwide popularity and user-based ranking systems of sites such as MySpace and YouTube. Douglas, a student who has been working with Wide Angle Media for three years, currently working on a marketing campaign explains, “We post our videos online, so people can view and rate them. [As a result], we get more viewers; have film makers across the country and across the world as MySpace friends, increasing access to our videos.” For young people, networking on-line to showcase these episodes increased their ability to market media to a variety of demographics across the World Wide Web.
Though networking and marketing videos on-line taught youth at BeMore TV important skills, the internet did not lead to enough local dialogue with community members in the city of Baltimore.
As a result, in conjunction with using MySpace and YouTube, young people researched local trends in media distribution specifically for the city of Baltimore. Using a do-it-yourself distribution guide ( put together by four Baltimore youth media organizations—Wide Angle Youth Media, Creative Alliance, Kids on the Hill, and Megaphone Project—youth at BeMore TV learned that they had to have more face-to-face contact with the local community. Ferrara at Wide Angle explains, “We found that the Internet is a really great way to get outside the city, but inside the city, you have to go to people’s homes. You have to go to the neighborhoods and do events either at a school or at a church or an after school site… for people to really see things.”
Such findings inspired a student-written grant for a new community outreach plan, which April Montebon helped to write and obtain. In order to reach a wider audience the students came up with a yearly plan: they would make two episodes each year, which would be aired at public screenings, and help teach three workshops each year, using a peer-to-peer model. In this model, students assist the Mentoring Video Project at Wide Angle to teach youth about technology. At public screenings, youth present each episode, lead discussion on the topics they raise, and use the time to get a sense of possible future themes.
Inside the city
Montebon explains the importance of community screenings in this new approach: “The reason for a screening is, you can [sit at home and] watch something on TV… but it takes another step to have a type of forum. I think what the community screenings are supposed to serve, is a platform where people can start a sort of discourse.” Airing a youth-made TV episode in a community context, such as a public park, museum, or neighborhood event, creates a potential for dialogue. It is easier for people to talk to one another about youth-led issues in a group setting, as well as engage with youth media makers on the issues they raise.
The screenings provided a context for learning more about the local audience of Baltimore, which as times, were challenging. The youth at BeMore TV believe in the issues represented in each episode. In a youth media organization, young people are supported for such ideas, but in the community at large young people often face challenges of stereotypes and condescension.
Two types of community reactions posed challenges to the success of the screenings. Recounts Tellington, “When people hear about youth media, it’s like ‘Aw, the kids [are] telling stories with cameras,’” which does not take the issues young people represent within their video seriously. On the flip side, Tellington explains, “Last year there was an individual who came to the screening, which was presented as a community screening, not as youth-made work. This person got there and said, ‘I thought this was a community meeting,’ and broke out and left.” Convincing the community that youth perspective is as valuable as any other to community success is often difficult.
BeMore TV believes young people often have more of an understanding of local city issues before these issues become part of mainstream news coverage. For example, Ferrara states, “We were talking with students about issues in schools way before it became a city-wide discussion.”
Since most Baltimore residents do not realize youth are often the first to recognize real issues, BeMore TV is working on its audience to embrace young people as informers and influencers of important issues within the city of Balitmore. While Ferrara openly admits, “I’m really grateful to have some idea of what’s going on for young people in Baltimore,” the rest of Baltimore still needs to listen to what youth have to say.
The latest episode on hip-hop, the trailer for which students have already shown at two city-wide events, marks a transition in BeMore TV’s approach to representing and distributing issues raised by young people.
The episode uses hip hop to both entertain and talk critically about issues. Using hip hop draws the local Baltimore audience to learn about critical issues while having fun, which aligns with the mission of BeMore TV that values entertaining and enlightening the public about issues important to youth. “We’re trying to make a transition,” says Tellington. “We found a component in hip hop that is very entertaining, that people can relate to. We are trying to use that as a vehicle to talk to more communities. [It is about] finding that [arena] where you can talk critically, and use entertainment to get your message across.”
While results of adding entertainment to BeMore TV’s episodes has yet to be assessed, BeMore TV’s multi-faceted approach to disseminating media products is an example of how youth media organizations might distribute media and affect a local audience.
The young people of BeMore TV show how sometimes it is not only about making a media product—such as airing episodes on local television—but also working to realize the goal of community dialogue. In Baltimore, MD youth find that distributing their episodes on the internet, on television, and in local screenings increases access and distribution of the issues raised in their videos.
Learning from challenges of these different approaches, youth continue to find ways to get their voices heard—helping to bring vision and perspective to the local community in Baltimore. Youth media practitioners can support young media makers by offering insight, sharing research and findings on channels of distribution and audience, as well as advocating for youth media at public and community-based screenings locally. Young people of BeMore TV are not simply representing issues in the local community; they are finding inventive ways to inspire conversation while using multiple distribution strategies to increase the range and impact of their media—with a twist of entertainment.
Grace Smith is the Assistant Editor intern at the Academy for Educational Development. She is a writer who grew up in Baltimore, MD that recently moved to New York from New Orleans.