Hook ‘Em with Technology, Keep ‘Em with Relationships

Young people build social skills and positive relationships through media technology, specifically the creation of radio and TV programs. It is through these positive relationships that young people begin to see possibilities for themselves beyond the low expectations set by the media and community. “Media. That’s what it took, [to] really get me to ask questions and get to really know other people and what they’re all about,” says Jason, a high school student that participates in the Youth Media Workshop at the University of Illinois based WILL AM-FM-TV.
The excitement of using technology and the possibility of making a TV or radio program prompts young people to apply for the Youth Media Workshop (YMW). After five years of working with youth in the YMW, our experience has shown us that the positive relationships created are as important, if not more important, than the media technology skills gained by young people. Youth media programs must focus on building these positive relationships as the basis of their work and improve upon not only young people’s lives, but those within the community.
Youth Media Workshop
Since 2003, WILL AM-FM-TV, the public broadcasting service of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has taught potentially underserved African-American youth how to make radio and TV programs through YMW. The YMW connects local young people in middle school and high school—the Hip-Hop generation—to older local African-Americans from the Black Power and Civil Rights generations. YMW participants interview these older residents and turn their interviews into media products that are broadcast on WILL, archived in public and local school libraries, and shared in the community at local events.
Building relationships between young black youth and their communities is important, said Bikari Kitwanna, author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. Said Kitwanna, “If young people…turn their backs on Blackness, if they do nothing but engage in self congratulatory narratives and music about themselves…or that they have any future by talking negatively, then they are not our future; they are our fate.” Youth media programs and adult allies are part of the solution.
YMW uses media technology as the hook to get youth involved and engaged. But our focus on positive peer-to-peer and youth-to-adult relationships provides young people a living reflection of self identity that counters the negative media images that too often define youth and the black experience.
Media Stereotypes of Black Youth
Students who participate in YMW are well aware of media images of African-Americans especially in Hip-Hop videos. When asked how males are portrayed in Hip-Hop, Veronica answered, “Hard core, uneducated, always using slang words, like they can’t talk. And it downplays them a lot, like they’re very ghetto and loud [and] just don’t care.”
Media has a profound effect on the self-image of African-American youth who consume twice as many hours of television a day compared to their white peers. In their article, “Cultural Collisions in Schools,” Floyd D. Beacham and Carlos R. McCray (2004) suggest that television is an important part of many African-American youth’s lives. Black youth, in particular, watch seven to eight hours of television a day, as compared to four and a half hours for white youth (Browder, 1989). Additionally, in the Beacham and McCray article, Lawson V. Bush (1999) notes, “negative images presented in all of the media conspire with many hours of television viewing to produce a negative effect on Black children’s self-image.” Rather than be defeated by these statistics, through YMW, young people use video and radio to tell the history of local school desegregation and African-American social activity through the stories of people who lived through it.
When asked what effect these media images have on themselves and on attitudes about African-Americans, Veronica added:
“I would say that it makes [young people] think that they have to be hard and loud and tougher than the next kid, so they always have to prove something to somebody else. I think that adults just hate the way that people are coming up today now, because now they’re going against everything that they’ve worked for. Everybody has always tried to tell kids to go to school and get an education, and don’t stay in the ‘hood. You know, get something better for yourself. And all of the videos are showing us in the ‘hood, selling weed, selling dope, smoking and drinking all the time. And it’s not the right thing to do.” When young people have the opportunity to interact with their community, craft their own media, and represent their collective identities, positive change is bound to occur.
Intergenerational Dialogue
In one YMW project, teens videotaped a community meeting featuring filmmaker Byron Hurt and a screening of his documentary, “Hip-Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes” that challenged media stereotypes of masculinity, misogyny and homophobia. They’ve produced a video about attempts to revive a community drum corps for African-American youth as a way of providing leadership for black teens. Because of the inter-generational relationships they’ve developed through the program, their social skills and level of confidence have improved, as well as their grades.
As interviewers for a media project, participants are allowed to be curious and ask questions of adults. When given a choice of whom to interview, many of the participants chose former teachers that they had already established relationships with. YMW provides a safe zone for students to learn about more about themselves through the experience of others.
For example, Yakera, an 8th grade participant saw herself differently after interviewing and editing the oral histories of older African-Americans in her community. She explains, “A lot of these people that we interviewed, they were told to take shop and cooking and stuff. They were told they weren’t college material. So this project, in hearing all those other people’s stories, [I am] going to make sure I [am] college material.” The YMW created a pathway between Yakera’s generation and the Civil Rights and Black Power generations by using media as the intersection point. These kinds of intergenerational relationships give young people aspirations beyond the expectations that seem to surround them.
Keri, a college journalism major and mentor to youth media students, observes that being in a media project gives students permission to talk to adults in their community in ways they would otherwise not have thought of. She explains, “One of the students, Jason, interviewed his saxophone teacher. Normally he just goes there to have his lesson for a half hour or an hour. [Getting] to ask him about his personal life and what he’s doing and how he got to be where he is—[lets young people connect with teachers they] see every day but they never get to ask them these questions.” Giving young people permission to talk with their elders in deeper ways, even those with whom they have existing relationships, is vital to their development.
Older adults in the community who have no relationships with young people absorb the same media stereotypes about young people as others do. But by capturing the oral histories of older African-Americans through the YMW and donating these interviews, transcripts and radio and TV programs to local libraries, young people are showing older adults in the community how they are giving back to the community. For example, a parent and community member who taught team building skills to YMW students on weekends had this to say about the importance of engaging youth through media: “I think it’s important…[for] the community—the awareness [that] there are some students trying to do some good…we have to get behind them and [support] them.”
Peer-to-Peer Alliances
Young people need a space to work together across the oppressive lines that racism operates with teachers, peers, and the community. In moderated discussions with local African-American youth, they explain how their African-American peers often give negative feedback when they participate in activities considered “white,” such as band, drama club and the school newspaper. By pairing graduates of the YMW with current YMW participants, a pathway for positive peer-to-peer relationships is formed that reinforces and supports a culture of communal learning. These peer connections have the potential to continue throughout their academic experience, continuing to create and build new relationships among African-American peers.
A teacher who mentors eight African-American male students in an after-school radio project modeled after Story Corps explains how relationships between students of color have changed for the better:
“A lot of these African-American kids didn’t know each other, didn’t particularly like each other. And by being in this program together, they’ve really managed to [say], “Ok, that guys ok now.” I’ve found that these guys really feel they are brothers on some level. They feel a strong connection with each other. There are kids that I have been teaching for two and three years who have talked more in this program than I have heard them talk in the entire time I have known them. For whatever reason, they can let their guard down and they can let themselves come out. A lot of these kids come to school they put their hood up they walk through school and they try to get out as soon as possible. To actually give them an opportunity to take their hood down, be themselves around other people that they can feel safe around. That’s a really good thing.”
Peers who take on a leadership role also take note of this change. For example, a former program participant who came back a second year to help teach a new group of Youth Media Workshop students said: “Being a peer educator taught me that I have to step up my game, I have to have a positive attitude when I come into the working facility because I have young students [that] look up to me in order for them to stay focused and do what’s needed.” The positive relationships between adults and young people from interacting in media projects can lead to opportunities for larger leadership roles for young people in the community.
For example, YMW participants presented their findings at school board meetings and advocated for themselves and their program. Their public presentations brought them visibility and credibility and was one factor that lead to an $8,000 contribution by the school district to the YMW.
When the YMW wanted to bring NY filmmaker Byron Hurt to Urbana, IL for a public screening and panel discussion of his film, “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” adults in the program encouraged a student to write Mr. Hurt a letter describing the YMW and inviting him to come to Urbana. The student’s letter was one of the main reasons why Mr. Hurt, who was only screening his film in major cities at the time, came to Urbana, a mid-sized city in the cornfields of Illinois.
Similarly, when Melba Beals, author of “Warriors Don’t Cry,” and one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, came to campus to give a talk during the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, adults in the YMW took a few young people to her talk and book signing. One student was so moved by the experience that she started an in-school book reading club for girls that she named, Books Before Boys. As a result, the YMW affilated teacher provided classroom space for the club and supported the school’s decision to purchase copies of Ms. Beal’s book for participants in the book club.
Positive Links
In exit interviews with student participants in the YMW, male and female students consistently say the program boosted their social skills and self-confidence; leading to friendships among their peers. They name these experiences as their most valued achievements.
Media and technology are the hooks that catch the attention of underserved young people to youth media programs. But the hook is just a starting point to a greater end goal. Young people desperately need positive relationships. Youth media fills an important step in truly amplifying youth voice by connecting the many voices that have never had the opportunity to connect with compassionate teens.
Young people can re-create their own representations of their culture and identities if practitioners consciously create pathways that connect youth to one another, to adults, and to community members. The positive relationships that develop have the power to alter the harmful messages in a heavily saturated media climate.
Kimberlie Kranich, co-director the Youth Media Workshop since its inception in 2003, is outreach coordinator for WILL AM-FM-TV. She has 19 years of experience in radio and TV production, and leads WILL’s community outreach efforts. She received a master’s in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University.
Dr. Will Patterson, founder and co-director of the Youth Media Workshop, is the associate director the University of Illinois African American Cultural Center. A native of Champaign, he grew up in the same neighborhoods as many of the students in the Youth Media Workshop. He has a doctorate in educational policy studies from the University of Illinois, a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Illinois State University, and a bachelor’s in broadcast communications from Columbia College in Chicago.

Beachum, F. D. & McCray, C.R. (September 14, 2004). “Cultural Collision in Urban Schools.” Current Issues in Education [On-line], 7(5). http://cie.asu.edu/
Kitwana, Bikari (2002). The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. New York: Basic Books.
Bush, L. V. (1999). Can Black Mothers Raise our Sons? Sauk Village, IL: African American Images