The Twin Cities Youth Media Network

The Twin Cities Youth Media Network (TCYMN), which began in 2000, is the longest running network of youth media organizations in the country. TCYMN began meeting without funding, in 2007 gained funding, and has recently lost funding. Nevertheless, it will survive. TCYMN provides a case study for organizations and regions grappling with transitions in their funding models.
The History of TCYMN
Founding members of TCYMN are media practitioners from a variety of media genres, including experimental, documentary, music, narrative and installation. The original members were Dan Bergin from Twin Cities Public Television, Kristine Sorensen from In Progress, Nancy Norwood from Perpich Arts High School, Witt Siasoco from the Walker Art Teen Program, Mike Hazard from The Center for International Education, Nicola Pine from St. Paul Neighborhood Network, John Gwinn from Phillips Community Television, and Teresa Sweetland from Intermedia Arts. Dan Bergin explains, “The more formal connecting began after the 2000 NAMAC conference in the Twin Cities. We noted how connected the youth media groups from New York, Chicago, and Seattle were and thought we should be able to organize.”
As a result, TCYMN youth media practitioners met informally, eventually pulling together a screening of youth work from across their organizations. The screening developed into the annual All City Youth Film Showcase that premieres at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis every fall.
The members were diverse in their approaches and communities served, but they all shared the passion for youth media. Additionally, members began to see their individual work improve because they were sharing best practices and experiences among other youth media practitioners.
Staying up-to-date on the other organizations provided the information and encouragement to tell youth about other programs and expand the youth’s experiences. Slowly, the Network developed ideas to expand their work into a Public Television production, a website, marketing and networking for educators and practitioners, as well as to hire a part-time coordinator.
In 2007 TCYMN received funding for a two-year initiative to actualize these ideas and begin expanding the network beyond the founding members. The network saw an explosion in productivity. Membership increased from seven to eighteen youth media organizations. Attendance at the All City Film Showcase began to reach capacity, and TCYMN began to establish a clear presence with a website, monthly newsletter, one-hour Public Television Broadcast production airing throughout the state with DVD duplication, and attendance at “Straight Shot Youth Media Summit” in May 2009.
With this work came formalized meetings, an executive committee, clear policy on membership, agendas and benefits. The increased structure also created transparency and a central location for housing knowledge so it was less likely to become lost with transitions among organizations. It was now clear how others could be members and what they could expect with that membership. Furthermore, the structure created easy entry points for diverse staff from member organizations to become involved. For example, Americorps members or other new practitioners could join the monthly meetings and help with TCYMN projects. Nicola Pine reflects, “I felt like we [were on] a freight train full speed ahead—[we were] extremely productive and focused on our goals.”
At the same time, there were challenges. For example, TCYMN struggled to find the balance between the coordinator’s responsibilities and an appropriate level of work among the members to ensure members’ investment and evidence of need for their participation. However, with funding, the Network increased transparency and access to this community of knowledge, collaboration and shared opportunities for youth.
A Shift in Funding
TCYMN’s two-year funding came to a dry end in June 2009 because of a shift in focus areas for our funder. Temporarily, while TCYMN pursues new funding, members will move back to an all-volunteer run group and scale back Network-wide activities. However, TCYMN sits poised to continue with or without funding because of its strong roots and spirit of collaboration that began without funding in 2000. These roots, which connected youth media organizations and practitioners in the Twin Cities, nurtured relationships across genres, communities and organizational size.
The root of TCYMN’s existence is, first, the shared belief in the power of teaching media to and with youth. We know this is done better when we connect as a field, regardless of funding. Founding TCYMN member Nicola Pine explains, “The network really is an affinity group [of] committed artists and educators who share a belief in the power of media to change young lives.”
Funding exploded the productivity and reach of TCYMN, created structure, transparency, and a central location for knowledge in the field for the region—but not without the strains on informal relationships that come with more defined structures. For the broader field of youth media, TCYMN represents a successful, decade-strong model of community, cross-organizational support and maximizing opportunities for youth and practitioners within a local, regional network.
Twin Cities Youth Media Network
Joanna Kohler is the coordinator of TCYMN. She runs her own production company Kohler Productions and has been telling powerful stories through documentary video and audio projects since 1999.

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.