Why Youth Media Needs a Social Worker

I began my work in the field at Youth Noise Network, a youth radio project based in Durham, North Carolina. In October 2008, I started working at the Art + Media House and I began to think more deeply about what it means to do youth development work through youth media. After completing an Advancing Youth Development Training, I’ve learned to think of youth development as a stool held up by three legs: services, supports and opportunities [1].
As a youth media educator I’m confindent in my ability to create opportunities for young people to make media and express themselves, but I’ve felt less sure about how to help young people overcome the challenges they face at school, at home or with their own mental health. At the Art + Media House we have a social worker on staff, in the role of youth developer, who works in tandem with instructors to make sure young people get the services and support they need.
I was intrigued by the provision of a social worker on staff and was intrigued to learn more about the genesis of this position and its impact on the work of the Art + Media House. As this situation is quite unique, I realized that practitioners in the field might benefit from an interview with Art + Media House Director, Marie Moll, and Social Worker/Youth Developer, Priscilla Mendizabal.
Can you tell me about the history of the youth developer position?
MOLL: It’s always been a piece of our work. When we did art and media programs out of the Latin American Youth Center’s main building, social workers were available two floors above. If you wanted to refer someone to a social worker, the young people were familiar with who worked upstairs. [However,] when we moved over to the Art + Media house [around the corner from the main building] the kids began to identify with this space and the connection with the Latin American Youth Center did not naturally follow.
We worked the way we would have at the main building, providing art and media classes, but when the work unearthed challenges young people were facing making that connection to social workers at the main building was much harder because the kids didn’t feel a part of it.
Staff time became heavily divided between running the program and dealing with a lot of the personal things that came up, which put us in jeopardy. It seemed like we needed a social worker on site who knew the kids, who was accessible, and who could be their liaison to all of the services at the Latin American Youth Center.
WATSON: When you say in jeopardy, I imagine that there were so many individual needs that it was detracting from the teaching.
MOLL: That’s exactly right. Teachers would be on the fly in their class because they had been in someone’s school all day. And maybe they didn’t get to follow that through all the way because they had to get back to teach.
WATSON: How have things changed as a result of having a social worker on staff?
MOLL: We’ve become better at being able to serve young people. Now when we become aware of any young person who needs extra support, all the instructors know to funnel that through Priscilla. And Priscilla, in a more systematic way, is making sure young people are getting what they want and need. It was a little more ad hoc before. [It] has allowed our teachers to focus rather than feel spread too thin.
WATSON: I just thought being spread thin was how it was in the youth media field based on my past experiences. Now I feel a little bit spoiled working at an organization with a fulltime youth developer/social worker to support students. Marie, you’ve worked in this field for over 15 years, do you feel like this is a common thing that youth media educators face? Or is there something about the Art + Media House that draws things to the surface?
MOLL: In some respects what makes this place different is that we have our own space and we work day after day with the same kids. Whereas I was part of a video production team that did youth media work and we would go into a place like the Latin American Youth Center that had a network and support systems. [So, when things] would come up and we would have that youth center’s team of social workers and staff to say “this conversation is coming up.” The youth center we partnered with was responsible for following up with individual youth.
WATSON: Based on what you said it seems important for youth media projects that partner with youth organizations to check with those organizations to make sure that they are adequately equipped to follow up with participants and provide support. And it also sounds like consistency has a major impact.
MOLL: Right, versus being a participant in a program with adults who will be here for the next ten weeks and then they will be gone because they are going to another youth center and running another program. There are a lot of programs that operate that way and that’s great, but we are different because we have a home base which means that we can have ongoing relationships for years with young people.
WATSON: Priscilla, how would you make a case for youth media to someone who is very focused on social services?
MENDIZABAL: Media projects make it easier for participants to talk through things. It is the fuel for wanting to explore something, wondering how it can be different.
It’s about self-expression. It’s about giving them somewhere to talk, and the space to come up with what they want to explore. I don’t want to get so big about it, but it’s almost like therapy. You are getting to explore an issue, but you are softening it up because you are simultaneously learning how to develop film or how to use recording equipment. You are able to take a problem or a subject and disect it as you learn the production process for whatever format. And when you go through the steps you aren’t really realizing that you are also processing this big issue and its affect on your life.
WATSON: Youth media is powerful to me because you are feeding two birds with one seed because young people are expressing themselves and they are talking about the challenges they face. When they express those things through media projects it’s also getting out to the wider community. It helps young people to transform and explore themselves, but it also has an impact on their community because they are bringing seldom heard voices and ideas into the public realm.
MENDIZABAL: I love this work when youth media reaches out to youth, when we set up opportunities for youth to communicate to other youth.
WATSON: I think of the radio show that we did about bad days when two out of six kids in the class had just lost loved ones in the last 24 hours to violence. I came in and asked “What do you want to do your radio show about today?” And they wanted to do it about bad days. It was a really great show where they talked through their experiences and the things they had gone through. They gave each other advice about how to deal with it. And they interviewed you at the end to get some concrete information about resources and services. And you were in a position to help me follow up with the students in the class to make sure they had the support they needed. For me that was a shinning youth media moment.
WATSON: Marie, what benefits or changes have you seen as a result of having an on-site social worker?
MOLL: Priscilla’s job encompasses so many things. She is the face of the Art + Media House when we go out to the schools. She is the person who guides them through the process of getting involved here. And she makes the effort of getting to know every young person here and building a relationship. What she’s doing is setting the ground work so that if something ever does come up kids know her door is always open and you know her already. That relationship can deepen if something comes up.
And she is a great resource because she knows how to get them connected to services. But it’s not just a “drop you off” – [she] checks in with both young people and the practitioners they work with.
WATSON: As a case manager, describe how you work with the Art + Media House teachers to help your clients get through [difficult times]?
MENDIZABAL: I like the team approach at the Art + Media House. It can be hard because people worry about confidentiality, which is a good point, but sometimes when there is problem I like to ask my co-workers what they think a solution could be. Or to work with the teacher to create opportunities for that student to practice overcoming certain challenges.
WATSON: What times or in what situations do young people need the services of the on-site social worker?
MOLL: The Art + Media House attracts kids who are coming here for an afterschool program first and foremost. Different from some of the Latin American Youth Center’s social service programs or our housing programs, kids aren’t coming ready to bare their souls. It is through [our] programming [that issues] come out. We have kids whose lives might be in some sort of fragile balance where every once and a while life throws them something that throws their life out of balance and that’s where we and/ or Priscilla can jump in.
WATSON: And it’s not just about picking up the pieces when things fall apart. Priscilla is all about working towards the future. I love that if I’m working with a student who wants to go to college I can work with Priscilla to make sure that happens.
MOLL: Her official title is youth developer, and to me that’s different than the stereotypical image of a social worker with a clipboard whose taking notes or running a therapy group. When people think of a case manager they might think of a social worker whose approach is something like this: “You have a problem, you are going to talk to me about it, and I’m going to help you solve it.” But Priscilla is not just about dealing with whatever crisis you have, she is a resource to help kids grow personally.
WATSON: As the director of the Art + Media house, what suggestions can you offer practitioners in the youth media field about hiring/working with an on-site social worker?
MOLL: If your program doesn’t include social services or if you work with programs that don’t have integrated social services, it is important to get to know your community and what’s available out there so that you can at least offer up some resources to kids around different issues. If you are a site based program, more and more people with social work backgrounds are working in different settings and they have multiple skill sets, like a social worker who understands the value of media, yet who maybe produces media themselves. Find someone with a combination of skills to be a part of your team, but who would really focus on support and services.
WATSON: You’ve been in this field for a while. We are in tough economic times. Would this be just another position that youth media projects would have to fund, which leads me to wonder how critical it is to have somebody with the skills of a social worker and case manager at a youth media organization?
MOLL: If you are trying to do youth development, you can’t be doing it without someone like Priscilla on staff, not without jeopardizing your program because instructors are trying to do too many things. There are different kinds of youth media projects. Some are more focused on using media as an advocacy tool around certain issues. Some are more focused on teaching art and media skills. It depends on where you fit in the paradigm of youth media. If you [lean more towards] youth development then it’s important to provide supports and services.
In my mind first and foremost, we are a youth development agency; art and media are our tools for doing youth development. Participants are gaining real life skills so that even if they never follow art or media as a career they’ve gained a lot of other skills and lessons [in the process].
WATSON: As youth media educators it’s important to make sure that the young people we work with have access to adequate supports and services, and someone committed to advocating on their behalf. Hiring a social worker might not be something that every youth media project can do or wants to do, but cultivating connections with social service projects is a good first step.
To best serve young people and the busy life of practitioners, it is important to faciliate opportunities for young people to build relationships with adult allies trained in providing social service.
Tennessee Jane Watson lives in Washington, DC where she teaches radio and multimedia production to teens at the Latin American Youth Center’s Art + Media House. Watson spent four years at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University producing documentaries and coordinating Youth Noise Network, a radio project.
[1] Academy for Educational Development, Advancing Youth Development Curriculum