Investing in Futures: The Need for Youth Media Funding

In 1996, I began a job as station manager for the City of Oakland’s government access channel. When interviewing for the job, I discovered that the entire staff had learned production through the Oakland Unified School District’s educational cable access channel. As student teens they learned how to script, light, shoot, direct, and edit after school. Equipped with analog and digital video production skills, they easily moved into government access channel positions, which required increased responsibility. Many remained in their communities and were looked up to as television professionals.
I recount this memory because it points out many underlying facts that are often overlooked when describing youth media programs. First, all of these students graduated high school; in fact, it was a requirement that they maintained passing grades and attended classes to work at the station. Most of them came from poor, single-parent households. Many of them had to contend with gang violence; at the time, Oakland had one of the highest gang-related murder rates in the country.
Despite these challenges, they, and many others who worked at that high school educational access channel, went on to skilled jobs or college. The program instilled life-skills needed for the workforce—stressing attendance, attire, and commitment—and more importantly, it allowed a group of students to conceptualize, create, and evaluate their own work. It imparted skills not measured in current “standards testing” (pushed by federal legislation like No Child Left Behind), yet it prepared them for 21st century digital age jobs.
According to a recent study from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranks 15th in reading literacy, 24th in math, and 21st in science, trailing most other industrialized nations). As a nation, we are losing the knowledge base required to function in the global economy. As we already know, most digital work is transnational and dependent upon telecommunications devices, from computers to mobile devices (cell phones, iPads, etc.).
Lacking basic reading, math, and science skills, American youth will find it increasingly difficult to compete in a global economy where critical thinking will become central to the ability to earn income. As the writer and filmmaker Douglas Rushkoff simply states, “If you are not a programmer [one in control of the means of production] then you are one of the programmed [one of the consumers]” (1). We must ensure that youth are actively engaging in media production. Both formal and informal programs need to be resourced to help this next generation become engaged citizens, creators, and employees.
Twenty-five years ago, media literacy took root nationally through formal and informal educational institutions. Today, although young people have technology at their fingertips and are able to create and share media with ease, often their works re-produce archetypes, mimicking commercial media and incorporating—without question—assumptions about gender, race, class and sexuality (e.g. yet another music video glorifying consumerism and objectifying women).

Young creators need to challenge themselves to create new visual and social constructs.

Funders often ignore the importance of investing in youth media and visual literacy. They might have children who are already digital natives. They have seen what their children can do—possibly, these children set up their parents’ email, Facebook or Twitter accounts. But this does not mean that these youth are media or visual literate, which youth media programs and curricula provide. Making the case that simply knowing how to operate technology is completely different from being aware how technology works and influences. That is one of the challenges in our digital world.
Unfortunately, media education—which is so central to the current generation’s knowledge and adequate navigation in a media and consumer-driven landscape—is not a core curriculum in K-12 education. The U.S. Department of Education and private foundations are overwhelmingly reluctant to take up the charge.
As a filmmaker, arts administrator, and observer of our culture, I find myself asking: Why would anyone with knowledge of the 21st century workforce and its need for critical thinking not put media education at the forefront of educational strategy?
Having devoted the majority of my life in the service of creative production that challenged the status quo—be it in form or content (a 60’s debate)—I believe we have the responsibility as adult practitioners to carry forward alternative, independent media arts legacies so that subsequent generations gain the ability to develop their own voices, perspectives, and issues in order to engage the larger culture through media.
Here are a few ways I believe that youth media education should be expanded and supported:
Youth media must be part of core curriculum in grades K-12. This requires teaching how to make media as well as linking production with the important component of “reading” media: How do you understand the biases and assumptions of the media that you watch? This literacy is no different from the literacy of learning how to write (to become active, a producer) and learning how to read (to develop comprehension/critical thinking/evaluation skills). National standards need to be developed, adequate technology must be provided, and teacher certification requirements in the media arts need to be created at the university level.
Existing informal youth media programs, in media arts organizations, community centers, after-school programs, need to be fully funded to provide programs and services to more young people and to provide livable wages and professional development training for youth media practitioners. This latter must include reflection time for practitioners about their work. Additionally, evaluation tools based on best practices need to be developed so that practitioners working in youth media can measure student learning and outcomes. Evaluation must strive for program improvement and advance the field, not simply “track impact” for the sake of reporting to a funder.
Web-based clearing houses of information are needed to track curricula, evaluation toolkits, best practices, and social media exchanges so that practitioners, worldwide, can learn from each other. Such professional peer networks become value-research platforms for developing the needs outlined two suggestions above. This could be as simple as the Evaluation Toolkit currently available on NAMAC’s Youth Media Archive that provides information on youth media evaluators, methodologies, instruments, and final reports.
Link youth media to new models, new technology and new approaches. For example, in teacher or practitioner training, why not model the best practices of software developers, who use team approaches with short-term goals and horizons, along with continual evaluation during development? Because more complex learning modules need to be developed to respond quickly to new technologies, we must experiment—and be prepared, at times, to fail. When media literacy was the talk at the 1985 NAMAC Conference, precious few organizations had computers. Now more apps for mobile devices currently exist than could be used in a lifetime, and they continue to be created at breakneck speed. The next innovation is around the corner.

Perhaps one of the greatest services youth media programs provide is to help students/clients become content-creators, no matter what new platform emerges to carry their messages.

Let’s face it, this is not going to be cheap. It will require large sums of money for proper capitalization—long-term, cross-sector commitments from government, foundations, and corporations. It will also require innovative approaches. We need a major singular goal, similar to the Kennedy administration’s vision to go to the moon that required not just capital investment, like this one will be, but also a national rallying point with vision. It is time to think big, to be mindful, and to be driven.
Jack Walsh is executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts + Culture (NAMAC) and a filmmaker. NAMAC’s work with youth media included a three-year initiative that developed toolkits for practitioners, invested in youth media leadership development, and created a longitudinal mapping study of the youth media landscape that surveyed youth media providers in 2003, 2005 and 2008 and is available at
(1) Douglas Rushkoff’s presentation “Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age” at SXSX Interactive Conference, March 12, 2010.