Social Justice Radio: A Strategy for Long-term Change

New Mexico is a state rich in diversity with respect to gender, race, ethnicity and social class. Yet, even though young people may share the same classroom, they may never speak to one another, let alone engage in a project or task together.
Youth Media is an important platform to challenge these overt divisions. But the platform is not the solution—the solution is designing youth media programs with an intentional social justice framework and community-building approach. This framework is critical in a society that still stereotypes, underestimates, and discriminates young people, people of color, populations from lower socio-economic status, and youth that live alternative lifestyles.
With intentional project design that is based on a social justice framework, youth media can sow the seeds of equity and facilitate long-term change in our communities.
KUNM Community Radio
New Mexico has one of the highest poverty levels in the country and one of the worst dropout rates along with high rates of teen pregnancy, teen violence and suicide. In addition, bleak statistics indicate inequity and a sense of “powerlessness” among youth. It is in this setting that KUNM launched its Youth Radio Project in 2004. Our social justice principles are rooted in the divisions we continue to see in our communities.
As a youth radio project, we train teens to approach journalism and broadcasting from a social justice framework. This is how it works:
• Teen participants go out into the community and participate in organizing/civic engagement activities—highlighting grassroots community organizing, youth activists, and peace makers.
• They are challenged to expand their understanding of social justice, democracy, inclusion, and equity.
• Then, they create radio segments, using media to give voice to local activism, which often extends nationally and internationally.
The radio station provides a venue for over a million listeners in central and northern New Mexico, raising awareness, dispelling stereotypes, and developing a sense of pride in the capability of New Mexican youth.
Afterwards, the productions are evaluated based on two key questions: “How was community served?” And “What did the youth producers learn about an issue or about the community?”
We attempt to bring young people across difference together, because we realize that they have been impacted by eight years of public educational policies, perpetuating the status quo and limited critical thinking in the classroom. And, they have been subjected to the values of pop-culture (reality TV) and corporate-owned mainstream media, which use fear tactics and survival of the fittest theory to distract from the real issues in our communities, promoting deception and manipulation. A sixteen-year-old in this country has had about half of their life influenced by these two factors, drastically affecting their identities and relationships with their peers.
In addition, the broader society still does not see young people as change agents, despite the many strides that the positive youth development field has made. Youth who are organizing against policies and structures, based in institutional racism and social classism, have very few venues to inform and educate the broader community of their organizing efforts, victories, and lessons learned.
Young people have a good handle on their reality—they are hungry for change and want to be part of creating change. They relish the opportunity to create socially conscious stories, and making an impact through the media.
Adult mentors in youth media programs are role models and allies that make a long-term investment in the efforts of the project and the young people they serve. For many young people, this dynamic is new and breaks the walls of adult vs. teen. This supportive dynamic, along with the opportunity to work with peers in an authentically diverse environment committed to social justice principles, helps teens see their commonalities and stick through the challenge of trusting one another.
In project evaluation and reflection, the youth participants express how they have changed as a result of being in this project. Jonquilyn Hill , an 18-year-old participant explains:
“I never really cared about social causes or issues before this project, I used to think more about going to the mall, hanging out with my friends, but now I see how I can make a real difference in my community and because of KUNM Youth Radio I have decided to pursue a degree in Journalism.”
Social Justice and Power Analyses
So what is social justice and how do you design a youth media project using social justice principles?
Conceptions of social justice can be broad, but in the youth media context at KUNM; we define social justice as living in a just world where every member of society has the basic human rights and equal access to all of the benefits of society.
Youth media organizations seeking to incorporate a strong social justice element into their programs first must commit to giving voice to the voiceless amongst youth themselves and be intentional in recruiting youth that would normally not be included in media projects. Beyond ethnic and cultural diversity, youth from various socio-economic classes, geography and life experiences should be included.
Second, youth media organizations must examine the power analysis of their local community.
Ask questions such as:
• Who holds the financial power in my community?
• What are the statistics, who is fairing well and who is not?
• Who controls the media and the messaging in our community?
• Who represents our community?
Organizations should not stop there. Turn the lens on your own NGO or media arena. Ask questions such as:
• Who holds the power in the organization?
• Who controls the funding?
• How would you rate your level of racial/ethnic diversity, gender equity representation of the community you serve?
Doing a power analysis of your own environment is particularly important for youth radio projects that are operated out of public radio stations, whose regular audience and contributors are often educated, middle-class, dominant culture, privileged members of our society.
After conducting this power analysis look at your weaknesses and what areas need to be strengthened for long-term community change as your NGO/Media outlet is a vehicle for long-term change. Choose four or five social justice principles as areas that programmatically you can make a commitment to and create intentional program design around.
It is also helpful to engage the principles of multi-culturalism and inclusion when designing an equitable, inclusive environment for youth media production.
Suggestions to the Field
Educators interested in designing an intentional youth media project committed to social justice and long-term change has to look at the areas that have not quite “made it” from a social justice framework. Some of these areas to consider are:
Gender Equity: How do you create a gender balance in skill development for the participants? Make sure that your program participants have a gender balance and mix up tasks and roles. For example, the first cohort of Youth Radio Participants included young females of color who were more then willing to be engineers, producers and script writers but did not want to be on air . We created a practice that there had to be gender balance in all areas of our programming. So there is always a female host and a male host for each of our productions.
Race/Ethnicity: Are you representing your community? Is their a mulit-cultural balance in giving voice to under-represented groups in the field? Answer the questions and make sure that your recruitment process is based on multi-culturalism and inclusion. Look at your pool of applicants and fill based on what racial/ethnic gaps exist. For example, if several Latino or Caucasian youth have applied, target recruitment efforts to Native American, African American and Asian youth.
Social Class and Geographic location: In addition to race/ethnicity, consider reviewing and analyzing youth participants based on geographic representation, school demographics and socio-economic class–all key to a social justice recruitment approach. For example, in New Mexico, there is an important correlation between class and geographic location. As you serve your program participants, ensure that the “voice” of communities across social classes are considered.
Inter-generational Connections: Youth and adults who form equal partnerships are better able to bridge social justice issues—together, they can partner for long term investments in change. For any youth programming the issue of Adultism and priviledge has to be on the table. The KUNM project structure provides three tiers of inter-generational connections: the teens and mid-school youth participants, young adults (19-25) with radio experience who work in a mentorship capacity, and professional adults in the broadcasting and/or youth development field. Mentorship is designed in the project so that every participant is involved in the learning process.
Sexual Orientation, Life-style and life experiences: The project is diligent in how the air time is shared and utilized in order to get many different voices and stories out to the audience. Youth who represent all areas of our community are included not only as producers but also on the air.
Civic Engagement/Youth as change agents: How can youth media break the stereotype of young people as unengaged, apathetic and self-centered? Mainstream media has been extremely effective at portraying teens in a negative lens that encourages fear. One way to combat these archetypes is to have youth media producers focus on amplifying their peers that are community activists and organizers, illustrating youth perspective on community issues. This is an excellent strategy to combat these stereotypes and model peer leadership and shared empowerment.
Next Steps
Youth do not generally see themselves as capable of creating social change. We know that if people cannot experience power at a young age, there is more of a chance that they face a lifetime of feeling powerless. But if young people can experience an environment that is just and equitable, encouraging them to be storytellers of social justice, new realities and possibilities will emerge. Youth media programs have an incredible opportunity to re-direct patterns of powerless and power, for young people now, and for future generations to come.
Roberta M. Rael, a 10th generation New Mexican is the Project Manger for the KUNM Youth Radio Project and the President of Inspired Leadership Inc. She has over 20 years experience in Community Building work and is the proud mother to her teen-age daughter, Lucia Martinez.