New Ways of Seeing

A digital photography class at the International Center for Photography helps girls who have been in trouble with the law gain “a measure of control of their difficult lives,” the New York Times reports. “Art therapy has been used for years to try to give troubled youth a different perspective on their lives, and photography has long aided that process by lowering the barriers to entry: no need to know how to draw or paint, just a willingness to pick up a camera and try. But digital photography is now offering the added power of immediacy, instantaneous images that are proving especially effective for groups of girls like those in the program, mostly black and Hispanic, who struggle as much as or perhaps more than teenage boys with how they are viewed by society.”

Capital Gain

tree_150.gifWhen staff at the nonprofit YouthNoise decided to revamp their website as a social networking tool for activist-minded youth, they knew they would need a lot more money, and fast. Raising funds piecemeal was far from ideal—it would take resources away from launching the new site, and would slow the process at a time when social networking sites for youth, like MySpace and Facebook, were all the rage. So the investment group Omidyar stepped up, helping them devise a plan to secure funding upfront and in one swoop. In a pioneering move, Omidyar drew from a strategy more common to start-up businesses, applying a venture capital approach to funding the nonprofit.
In a style typical at for-profits, Omidyar, along with the Surdna Foundation, pitched YouthNoise’s new initiative to a group of corporations and foundations interested in social investment. It paid off—YouthNoise raised over $1.5 million in their first round. Five-hundred thousand of that went to the organization upfront, said Vince Stehle, program officer of nonprofit sector support at Surdna, and YouthNoise is slated to receive increments of the remaining one million dollars as they reach additional fundraising benchmarks.
The money has allowed YouthNoise to hire staff who can spend their time and resources working on the new initiative, instead of continuing to fundraise the old-fashioned way—tweaking grant proposals and meeting with foundations and corporations year-round. “Most nonprofits are funded differently than for-profits, and live hand-to-mouth without the capital to sustain growth,” explained Omidyar investment manager Dena Jones Trujillo in a press release. “By funding YouthNoise like a venture deal through a formal round, and conducting the same amount of due diligence, the consortium of investors is providing YouthNoise with the upfront resources to be self-sufficient.” For YouthNoise, self-sufficiency means eventually generating enough money to cover operating costs through channels such as finding corporate sponsors, or selling products over the web.
Staff at YouthNoise believe their latest fundraising approach is a viable protocol for other non-profits looking to secure money upfront to grow. Stehle from Surdna agrees. He has seen this “syndicate strategy” work for a number of nonprofits, including Guidestar, Network for Good, and Volunteer Match. “It’s a growing trend for a handful of select nonprofits that need expansion capital,” said Stehle.
Not only is it more efficient for an organization to pitch multiple foundations simultaneously, said Stehle, it also creates a “healthy dynamic” whereby the nonprofit has the opportunity to lay out their plans and make their case to a group of funders rather than responding to several different funders’ own plans “and having each funder say ‘this is our strategy, what can you do for us?’”
And funders tend to be more comfortable investing in a new and costly initiative when they’re not going it alone. “From the funders’ perspective, if we see each other getting in we can all join together and know our strategy isn’t going to be orphaned if we don’t complete the round,” explained Stehle, calling it “a strength in numbers” approach.
But Stehle as well as YouthNoise CEO Ginger Thompson acknowledge that it is not going to be the right approach for every organization, project, or funder. Thompson said this approach to fundraising works best for nonprofits that already have a proven track record and are planning to launch a new initiative. It is not useful for simply maintaining a program.
It also works best for organizations who reach many young people, as groups investing large sums of money to help nonprofits grow expect the organizations to eventually become self-sufficient, often through generating what’s known as “sustainable revenue,” whether it be through selling T-shirts on the web, or through corporate sponsorships. If a group wants to grow larger they need to be able to prove they have the capacity to stay larger, explained Stehle. It is no accident that the other nonprofits Stehle has helped use the “syndicate strategy approach” successfully—Guidestar, Network for Good, and Volunteer Match—are, like Youth Noise, “consumer-facing online enterprises,” that have the potential to reach large numbers of web surfers.
Thompson is nudging YouthNoise toward self-sufficiency by pitching the 113,000 teens who are members on the YouthNoise site as a valuable resource for businesses wanting to better understand youth or interact with them, or to partner with young people interested in activism. Instead of asking for handouts from groups investing in the site, explained Thompson, YouthNoise is researching ways in which they can benefit companies interested in social investing. The nonprofit has already partnered with Virgin Mobile to help raise awareness of homeless teens. For groups like Virgin Mobile, says Thompson, YouthNoise presents an opportunity to touch millions of young people who are eager to engage in social causes. It also helps young people associate the partnering companies with hip social responsibility, an affiliation that is becoming increasingly attractive to youth, nonprofits, and businesses alike.

Continue reading Capital Gain

The Digital Divide in School

“According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, students should be technology literate by the time they complete eighth grade,” the Public Education Network Weekly Newsblast summarizes an article in Government Technology.
But not every child has equal access to technology. “Often, schools in affluent neighborhoods offer students a richer technology experience than schools in poorer districts. Moreover, a technology gap exists—and some say continues to grow—between America’s middle and lower classes. Many observers believe technology can improve learning—but only if it is correctly deployed and thoroughly understood…A successful, technology-rich school must integrate technology into the curricula,” not just in students’ weekly trips to a school’s computer lab.

New Funding for the Field

Adobe Systems Incorporated recently launched its new youth media program, Adobe Youth Voices, designed to help underserved youth “develop critical skills necessary to become active and engaged members of their communities,” according to an Adobe press release on the initiative. Adobe has earmarked $10 million in funding for the project over five years, and is donating software and encouraging employee volunteerism. Adobe will support the program in collaboration with Arts Engine, Educational Video Center, iEarn, Listen Up!, and What Kids Can Do. The program will also have a youth advisory board.

Getting in the School Door…and Staying There

streetside_150.jpgMost youth media organizations wanting to reach a diverse group of young people consider, at some point, collaborating with schools. “Let’s face it,” says Kathleen Tyner, who teaches at the University of Texas and helps bring media education to schools, “schools are where the kids are, and the kids are hungry for this.”
But partnering with schools can be tricky. Schools have their own culture and language, which can be difficult to penetrate. Once in the door, maintaining relationships with teachers and administrators is vital to a program’s success, and generally that responsibility falls squarely on the nonprofit. But with know-how and some strategizing, it can be done. The following are tips from youth media groups who have made school partnerships work.

Be Sure It’s for You

Make sure partnering with schools is in line with your organization’s mission and long-term goals. If your mission is to change the representation of youth in the media, it would likely be a better investment to partner with a local media outlet. “If a youth media organization really clarified their goals and purpose, they might decide that they aren’t educators but activists, in which case working with schools might not be for them,” says Tyner.
But if your mission is to get more young people exposed to your curricula or to youth-produced media, working with schools can help.

Identify Who You Want to Work With

Consider starting in an after-school program. These generally have less bureaucracy than do schools, making them more receptive to partnering with nonprofits. And demonstrating your program’s value to teachers and administrators in an after-school setting can be a first step to integrating into the school day.
If your organization’s goal is to reach as many schools as possible, or to bring media-making to underserved schools, consider training teachers. San Francisco-based Streetside Stories, which has worked with schools for 14 years, runs 8 days of classes in about 10 different schools a year. They teach students and teachers alike, so that when they move on to a new school, the teachers continue their work.

Identify What Subject Area You Want to Work In

Figure out how exactly you want to contribute to the school day. “Is it helping a language-arts class videotape spoken-word poetry performances, or helping a social studies class with a video about the Vietnam or Iraq war, or a math class as it captures how many times a wheel rotates per minute?” asks Dave Yanofsky, programming director of UthTV. Yanofksy used to head Just Think, which produces school curricula. “Unless teachers can see and understand exactly what part of their curriculum media production will fit into, it will be a hard sell.”

Understand Standards

Schools are under significant pressure to have students master the state standards, or learning benchmarks, on which they are tested. Identify how your lessons coincide with standards in the subject area you wish to work in. When creating curricula, staff at Streetside Stories review the state standards listed on the California Department of Education website. When approaching new schools, executive director Linda Johnson shows teachers and administrators which standards each of their lessons meets. “Schools are under such stress, but you can’t help them if you don’t understand their discourse and their priorities,” explains Johnson.
Johnson advises sticking to state subject standards, as opposed to national standards, as those are the ones schools are held accountable to.

Articulate Your Goals and Values Clearly and Quickly

Those in youth media have seen firsthand what a powerful learning experience making-media can provide, and how engaged teens become when viewing or reading media made by peers. But don’t expect a school administrator to intuit this. When making your pitch for why you should be added to the school’s mix, articulate your goals and how they will help schools meet their own goals, clearly and quickly. “It’s not enough to say that you’re giving students a voice. You need to say what that means and why it’s important,” says Tyner.

Include Lessons for Teachers

Don’t expect teachers to know how to use your media. Make it easy for them by creating lessons to accompany it. “Creating some sort of curriculum that’s either a writing exercise or a discussion is going to highly increase the likelihood that youth media will get used,” says Jill Shenker, who has created curricula for a traveling art exhibit on homophobia produced by the youth media group Free Zone.

Partner Strategically

Shenker recommends that organizations wanting to get media into schools partner with groups related to the substance of that media. “There are all kinds of groups in schools. Many Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs are trying to address all the forms of oppression that affect queer people, whether it be class or race issues,” says Shenker.
Free Zone partnered with the GSA clubs in California schools to distribute its traveling poster project. The GSA clubs at each school often decided where to display the exhibit and how to use it. The approach worked well—Shenker says the exhibit went to about 500 schools. Going to clubs directly instead of the teachers, says Shenker, has an added perk: “it carries on the youth leadership mission of it all.”
Free Zone, like a handful of other youth media groups including Educational Video Center in New York, also partners with national organizations for educators who spread the word about the group’s work at conferences and in education catalogues.

Become Part of the School Culture and Maintain That Partnership

Get to know the school schedule and secretary. Attend teacher meetings and communicate clearly to teachers and administrators what they can expect from you—how often you will be there, and for how long. Keep your promises. “To work successfully in a school an organization needs to not just bring a program, but become part of the school culture and environment,” says Johnson. “They’re really busy environments that can be chaotic. The onus is on you as a nonprofit partner to reach out.”

Devote Ample Staff Time to the Project

Shenker worked on getting the Free Zone project in schools 20 hours a week. Educational Video Center has a staff member devoted to teacher development. Streetside Stories has a staff of nine—about half of whom work full-time, and it’s part of everyone’s job to reach out to schools, says Johnson.
Working with schools takes time. Devote plenty to it.

Document Everything

There is a dearth of information on how making or engaging with youth media helps young people learn, making it that much harder to get lessons learned in the field into schools. To build a body of knowledge, Tyner urges groups working with schools to document everything—challenges and resistance they meet in schools; which methods work in class and which flop; and how media in the classroom affects student-teacher relations, classroom dynamics, and learning experiences.
Conduct student and teacher evaluations, create a report on what you’ve learned, and distribute it to others in the field. You can also use your findings to approach new schools. Ultimately, says Tyner, “Once people see that it really can contribute to the school day, you have a better opportunity to integrate it across the curricula.”
Above left: Streetside Stories staff have been working in Bay Area schools for over a decade.

Continue reading Getting in the School Door…and Staying There

Singing Praise

A new study finds that teachers who control a classroom through expressions of disapproval for poor behavior “may have a short-term effect on student behaviors, but praise appears to have a longer-term effect and to be more generally effective at influencing student actions,” the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development reports. “By focusing praise or approval on acceptable academic and social behaviors, teachers may be able to more effectively manage their classrooms.”

In the News

The What Kids Can Do website scans newspapers across the country daily to maintain a bulletin of current news highlighting the contributions of teens. Two recent entries spotlight youth media in action: in Oregon, high school students raise awareness of sexual abuse through film, and a New Jersey teen has created a social networking website,, to compete with