Photography in the Field: Empowering Youth and Affecting Public Policy

At Critical Exposure, a national non-profit based in D.C. where I work as an AmeriCorps VISTA, young people use photographs to share their opinions about issues directly affecting their lives: educational inequality, youth homelessness, teen pregnancy and the dropout crisis. Critical Exposure starts with youth empowerment workshops focusing on documentary photography and social advocacy. Once students learn the basics, they document issues important to them and show their images in exhibits, community events and through media coverage. Often these youth photographers and their images go beyond raising awareness to creating the public and political will for social change: the youth who have participated in our programs have, in many cases, been effective in using their photographs and voices to create tangible policy change.
In some respects still photography is particularly suited to social advocacy and youth empowerment. Photography offers the benefit of fewer steps in the production process than with film/video or radio, and it requires little more from the audience than a glance. Even so, its impact is visceral and immediate—often for both the viewer and the photographer. Yet, photography still remains on the outskirts of the youth media field. Photography must be valued as a key youth media medium. Through photography, young people can project their stories, images and viewpoints and reach decision makers to affect change.
As Christina, a 10th grade student in Philadelphia who worked on a Statewide School Funding Reform campaign, says, “This experience was very overwhelming for me because I had something as small as a 35 mm camera, but to me it meant so much more. The opportunity to take pictures was my first time to finally be heard, not only by my friends and family, but by the media and public. I learned that even the smallest camera can give you power to benefits society.”
Case Studies at Critical Exposure
Study Number 1
Imagine a photograph of a urinal in your high school taped with a piece of cardboard taped on which is written “Out of Order, Do Not Use.” The rest of the image is filled with the stark white walls of the bathroom; there is nothing in the frame to identify the location beyond the absolute basics: a boys’ bathroom with a broken urinal.
The photographer, Ken, wrote, “I hope when others view Out of Order it makes them think about how we feel when surrounded by visuals like the broken urinal. Although we are used to visuals such as this in our school, they affect our thoughts. We feel as though we do not deserve better. Therefore, we are less inclined to strive for better.”
Similar images of school facilities, such as bathroom stalls without doors, moldy ceilings, broken windows, and outdated equipment have been captured again and again by our youth photography participants. In D.C., students documented the physical conditions of their schools and presented their work to City Council members to encourage them to pass a bill that would increase school funding. The City Council passed the School Modernization Bill, which provides $3 billion over the next 15 years for school modernization, in February 2006.
Study Number 2
Critical Exposure teaches students like Ken to use photography to highlight issues that are important to them, and in turn, use their photographs and opinions to raise awareness. For instance, Critical Exposure worked with students in Pennsylvania to document the effect of underfunding in their schools. Their photographs were displayed in public spaces, including art galleries and the State Capitol, and were also used in a television ad and a YouTube video. Our partners in the project, the Education Law Center and Good Schools Pennsylvania, used the photographs in their campaign.
In June 2008, they achieved a significant victory: youth working with Critical Exposure helped push the Pennsylvania State Legislature to approve a historic $275 million increase in education funding for the 2008-09 school year and funding distribution methods changed. Baruch Kintisch, one of the campaigns lead organizers, said, “Without Critical Exposure, student voices would not have been heard in the same way. They inspired and taught us how to help students express their voices and helped us become much more focused on the power of students speaking for themselves, visually through photography and through their writing. Our campaign would definitely not have been as successful without their work.”
Critical Exposure has also worked with youth in D.C., Baltimore, Albuquerque, Austin and New Orleans. It uses an ‘arts as advocacy’ model that combines the creative and introspective characteristics of artistic expression with the transformative focus of youth advocacy to create a powerful tool for youth empowerment and social change. The arts are already an effective means to attract people’s attention and to transmit a message or point of view; combining the arts with advocacy, as Critical Exposure does, simply amplifies that message while using it for a specific end goal that will (hopefully) result in concrete improvements in the lives and conditions of our partner communities and schools.
Furthermore, Critical Exposure’s photo projects help form a bridge between youth groups and advocacy organizations that all too often speak on behalf of youth without incorporating youth voices into their campaigns. Critical Exposure’s photography projects bring youth voice to the forefront in a creative and empowering manner.
Study Number 3
It’s easier to hand policy makers a hard copy of a photograph than to have them sit down to watch a movie or collectively read an article from a youth journalist. And, unlike writing or radio, our students’ photographs take outsiders and decision makers immediately to the issues.
For example, after seeing Critical Exposure student photographs in a campaign for an increase in funding for school facilities in Maryland, (Maryland) State Senator Nathaniel McFadden said, “As a legislator from Baltimore City, I believe that the compelling photographs and testimony from students working with Critical Exposure were an important factor in convincing my colleagues to support increased funding for public schools. In fact, we were able to triple the amount of money we received this year in Annapolis thanks in great part to their efforts.”[1]
Moreover, youth photographers have a unique “insider” perspective and, in most cases, first hand experience with some issues that other photographers who are not from their communities and who do not share their experiences would be less well equipped to document. In D.C., formerly homeless youth took photographs and developed testimony about the need for more funding to address youth homelessness. Due in part to the student testimony, members of the City Council publicly committed to allocating $4 million to youth services. Jim Hubbard, another leading figure in the field of youth photography programs and the founder of Shooting Back Education and Media Center in Washington, D.C., says that the homeless youth with whom he worked in D.C. in the 1980s capture moments impossible for an outsider to have ever perceived or experienced (Shooting Back, 5) [2]. There is no one better to document pressing issues than the youth who are most affected.
In addition, the intimate access that our youth have with the subjects they have chosen to document lends a weight and power to their images that would be harder to achieve for an outsider photographing the same issue. Instead of being passive subjects within a photograph, these youth are instead active participants in documenting issues that are important to their lives and learning to present them to policy makers.
Relevance: Photography as the Most Democratic Art Form
Wendy Ewald, a veteran photographer and teacher, writes in her book I Wanna Take Me a Picture, “Photography is perhaps the most democratic visual art of our time” [3]. The democratic nature of photography is especially true in regards to the accessibility of the medium. Photography is often more portable, versatile and accessible to youth than some other media forms. Moreover, it is not necessary to purchase expensive equipment to conduct photography projects. Instead, photography has become more accessible due to the ubiquity of small digital cameras, disposable cameras and, especially, camera phones.
The widespread availability of these options also means that many of our students are familiar with taking photographs of their friends, families, birthdays, and other events. This familiarity with taking pictures means that many students have, at the very least, a basic foundation of photography on which youth media educators can build. Once the basics of composition, framing, point of view and lighting and documentary photography are introduced, the road is paved for a smooth transition from photographing friends and family to documenting more serious issues.
At the same time, Ewald continues, “Photography offers a language that can draw on the imagination in a way we never have thought possible before”[4]. Photography can be used as an outlet for visual creativity and documentary storytelling, and as a building block for developing literacy and writing skills.
One of my students from the past year, a 20-year-old who has dropped out of school multiple times, created a pair of compelling images to tell a story: a dark, moody, black-and-white photo of seven liquor bottles on a windowsill in the shape of a half moon, alongside a photograph of a beloved brother in a vibrant, red graduation gown. The first photograph, says the photographer, “represents my pain and life struggles,” and the second “represents my brother in a way that words can’t.”
Suggestions for the Field
Youth photography projects provide a wonderful opportunity to make a mental shift from thinking about photography as fine art to using it as a tool for visual creativity, documentary skills, literacy and writing development, youth empowerment, social advocacy and policy change. I have always believed in the power of the still photograph to affect public opinion and, at times, instigate calls for social and policy change; I would not have worked as a student photojournalist and photo editor at my university’s newspaper for three years if I was not entirely convinced of the power of this particular medium.
Since making the switch from photographer to teacher, I have become convinced of something else: that youth photography programs are very effective at achieving change on an individual, community and statewide level. Instead of my students being the passive subjects of a professional photographer’s story, they have the opportunity to take ownership over serious issues that affect their schools and communities, and take the initiative in using their vision and photographs to advocate for policy change.
Though some may consider photography a more traditional medium than some of the new technology and forms of media, it offers certain advantages including accessibility, versatility, portability, cost and time. Photography is a great way to amplify youth voice and has many different formats and ways it can be used. Photography can be used to create traveling exhibits displayed in coffee shops, restaurants, schools and other venues, signs for protests or marches, YouTube videos, postcards to send to legislators, bus station posters, briefing books for policymakers, t-shirts, or even billboards.
Youth media practitioners should consider including photography as a component of their media projects. Photography can strengthen print and film/video programs, helping young people process what story they want to tell and how to get their message across. As a tool easily shared with others and linked between the visual and media arts, photography ought not to remain on the outskirts of the youth media field.
Emma is from Brooklyn, NY and is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was a photographer and photo editor for The Michigan Daily. She currently resides in Washington, D.C., and works for Critical Exposure, teaching photography and social advocacy to middle and high school students in the D.C. public school system.
[1] There was a $100 million increase in funding for school facilities in Maryland, and a doubling of school funding in Baltimore City from $21 million to $40 million.
[2] Hubbard, Jim, comp. (1991). Shooting Back. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, p. 5.
[3] Ewald, W. Lightfoot, A. (2001). I Wanna Take Me a Picture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, p.14. Wendy Ewald started Literacy Through Photography, a project based at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC, that encourages students to express themselves through photography and writing. LIT also runs workshops for educators and artists to train them to teach photography and writing using the LIT model. Critical Exposure’s co-founders and co-directors, Adam Levner and Heather Rieman, both participated in Literacy Through Photography workshops.
[4] Ewald, Lightfoot, p.14.
Ewald, W. Lightfoot, A. (2001). I Wanna Take Me a Picture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Hubbard, J., comp. (1991). Shooting back. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Levner, A. (2007) The Most Valuable Resources for Equity and Excellence: Students, Voices in Urban Education.

It’s a Big Screen After All? How Connecting with New Audiences Strengthens Youth Media

I am a youth media facilitator at Wide Angle Youth Media, a nonprofit located in Baltimore, MD that combines youth development and civic engagement with video and media production. As a tool for framing dialogue around community issues, youth media is capable of having a serious impact on audiences outside the field, but too often the distribution and the screening of end products preaches to the choir. I worry that the genre I help young people make will be inexorably marginalized, never really recognized as a legitimate and real form of media outside of youth media programs.
Though our youth receive many opportunities to share their work with others through local screenings, film festivals, public television, and online distribution via Wide Angle, many of the audiences for these events are not necessarily the people our youth would most like to talk to; for example, our young people are often more interested in receiving recognition from their peers. In finding out who young people want to talk to and strategizing ways to provide youth with the technical and creative means to best talk to that group, youth tend to make work that, reflexively, is more meaningful to themselves. In order to strengthen the field of youth media we have to find ways to improve how our end products are relevant to audiences outside our immediate networks; the challenges of doing this, in turn, should strengthen the quality of the media literacy training that our participants receive.
Youth Media Audience and the Small World Problem
At the core, I think we at Wide Angle are interested in relationships; we are interested in relationships as facilitated by media, as a means of connecting people to other people, connecting people to ideas, and for connecting youth to the world around them through the process of making media. However, as a result of the complexity of video production, the youth-development aspects of youth media and other issues inside the core group of youth producers often supercede the use of end media products to actually mediate between groups of people.
It can be difficult to gain the attention of new types of audiences for youth media. Wide Angle’s events and screenings typically target youth in our programs, their families, their friends, other youth and adults already involved in after-school programs, arts education, and individuals invested in nonprofits and funding. The audiences for this work tend to already value youth perspectives and hold generally liberal social and political viewpoints. We have worked hard to increase and diversify our audience, but the path of least resistance usually leads to said persons.
In order to reach new kinds of audiences and broaden recognition, we must seek out and build relationships with persons and organizations that bridge networks. Mathematicians and sociologists studying the so-called “Small World Problem,” which is concerned with how isolated groups of people are in fact connected, look for what are called “random connectors in a network”—essentially, people that are able to span subcultures and groups that tend to be insular. Such persons, psychologist Judith Kleinfeld suggests, “can vastly decrease the distance between points” (Kleinfeld, 2002). Identifying connectors between the youth media world and diverse audiences can be a complex and time-consuming task that may require a reallocation of staff and student time, but it is necessary in order to broaden recognition of the field.
Youth Media Stylistics
While interviewing students at the end of my first year at Wide Angle, I asked, “What would you like to do better in your next project?” The most common response was that they would like to make work that would appeal more to their peers. While this particular concern is a subset of the larger problem of the narrow audience for youth media, I think it is apt to frame the argument, especially in the context of how the style of our youth media is related to the audience we are able to cultivate. The youths’ reaction suggests that they believe their work does not receive sufficient recognition, and that, ultimately, the youth are not making the kind of work they wish they could. By being disconnected from their peers, or other target audiences, their work is ultimately disconnected from themselves.
Though Wide Angle’s video productions have included animations and scripted works of fiction, documentaries make up the majority of our catalogue. Most of our youth start with learning basic documentary style video because it requires less preparation before filming, it acts as a vehicle for learning basic camera technique, and it provides an accessible way of engaging with their community. But, after being involved several such productions, our youth became anxious to try and find new ways to communicate their ideas and to explore media.
In making youth media with middle-school and high-school students, we are engaging with an age group that is under tremendous pressure to conform and identify themselves in relation to popular tastes, especially in media. When youth begin to make their own media, it can be difficult to overcome their initial desire to reproduce what they see in dominant media. Trying to emulate what they have seen before can run the risk of being frustrating—there simply isn’t time, equipment, and expertise to recreate what they have seen in a music video on television; the desire to “compete” with popular media in this way can also stunt youth development by making youth less willing to experiment and explore.
However, it can be even more difficult to win over their peers who, being unfamiliar with media technology and production, have little patience for media that does not match up with what they are familiar with in television and film. Thus, when attempting to engage with other youth, we are not merely competing with pre-established views on the content of the work; we are also competing stylistically with expectations derived from dominant forms of media. We are engaged in renegotiating what “good” media is and what it looks like.
As a media educator, I am excited to explore different ways of making media, but, at times, the youth with whom I work have felt that they were expected to make documentary style productions because that is what they have made previously, and possibly also because other staff and I have a history of making documentary-style productions. As staff we had to reevaluate our own biases and be aware of how of our own tastes may dictate the expectations of the youth with whom we work. In order to keep both our youth and our audiences engaged, we must help young people to plant their own stylistic feet in the ground and to make conscious, critical decisions about the style of their productions.
Examples from Wide Angle
Although we do not have a large staff at Wide Angle, we have the benefit of a variety of different technical talents. One way we have attempted to keep staff biases from dictating style to students is by identifying youth interests first and then pairing them with appropriate staff. Guest artists and other organizational partners provide youth with the proper expertise to learn how to make the sort of media that really interests them.
Facilitators should work with youth to identify the stylistic skills they need in order to attract the attention of their target audience, while still addressing the content of the media they are making. We have found that this often results in a more exciting piece of media for both the youth and for their intended audience. Additionally, youth are often enthusiastic to learn new technical skills; working in this way gives youth in our programs a chance to specialize their skills and etch out personalized ways in which they can push our programs forward. At Wide Angle, our high school students have found the following ways to make media that appeals more to their own stylistic interests:
• Young people decided to rely less on verité aesthetics and begin doing more scripted work. When they do use documentary conventions, they have augmented the typical “talking head” interview style with animations, scripted montages, and other elements that add an additional layer of interest to the project.
• Our students have tried to focus more and more on youth perspectives and interests by avoiding over-reliance on “expert interviews” with adults. While these sorts of interviews were informative, our youth felt they did not appeal as much to their peers. Seeing people like themselves on screen sometimes goes a long to way to make a youth audience feel connected to the issue.
• Our students have become more aware that the subject matter and style of their production will dictate potential audiences, and that they should plan for their desired audience at the outset of production. Some of Wide Angle’s most successful projects have resonated with youth on the basis of their content. Schooling Baltimore Street, a documentary about youth activism in response to school funding cuts, provides a positive perspective on what is, essentially, rebelling against school authority to demand one’s rights.

• A recent Wide Angle production, Young Love?, uses a variety of tactics, including a game show parody and other satirical elements aimed at the depiction of romance in television and film to examine youth perspectives on sex and relationships. In this instance, the media connects well with youth because youth are central characters in the work, the work addressed topics of interest to youth, and the projects made use of stylistic elements that break out of the documentary mold. Additionally, our youth made use of genre and style parody as a workaround for not being able to actually reproduce the look and feel of a work of mainstream media, and as a means of commenting on the conventions of mainstream media depictions of romance.

• Teens in our programs have become more aware that their identities as youth provide them with filming opportunities that would not be possible for adults working in a professional production environment. In Wide Angle’s Division Problems, middle school students documented youth gangs in Baltimore, featuring street interviews with gang members.

Recently, some of our students began a production on teen gambling at their public high school. It would have been next to impossible for an adult to gain access to a public school to make a film on this topic. It is important that our youth, as well as outside audiences, understand that youth media can be qualitatively different than adult media and that youth have a powerful ability to explore issues in ways that are not open for adults.
Suggestions to the Field
In order for youth media to expand into new audiences and new viewer demographics, we have to be “random connectors,” making work that is able to bridge groups and cultural tastes towards different genres of media, and develop outreach plans that are able to cross subcultural interests and affiliations.
• In understanding that youth have different privileges from adults, it is important to think of how youth can be the “random connectors” that are needed. Last year, our youth produced a short video on surveillance cameras in Baltimore City and managed to get an interview with the official in charge of the program. No police representative would probably have done such an interview for a typical grassroots media production, but because the department was interested in talking with youth, we were able to get our foot in the door, even though the youth did not ultimately share the department’s opinions on the surveillance issue.
• Placing the focus on the youth-development aspects of youth media and other issues inside the core group of media producers often relegates the use of their products to a grant-obligated afterthought. Focusing on the use of the media should improve the quality of the students’ education by requiring youth to view their work as having a public life and to consider how they would like their media to impact others. Without these components, youth media loses its civic relevance and becomes indistinguishable from arts education.
• For Wide Angle, the simplest way in which we reach new audiences is by piggy-backing on other organizations’ events. These sorts of small-scale and short-duration partnerships allow us to tap into someone else’s network with minimal fuss.
• At the same time our youth have worked to make their media more appealing to their peers, we have to consider the way in which their peers may be accustomed to viewing media. There may be basic media literacy hurdles to be crossed before the average high school-aged youth is willing and able to have a dialogue with or about a film. Therefore, selecting the right venue or situation in which to view a film is as important to making good use of our end products as the stylistic decisions we make in production. For instance, youth may have better engagement with a work of youth media if it is shown and discussed in a well-facilitated classroom setting.
• Festival screenings remain one of the main ways in which small, independent media gain recognition within their field. There are a growing number of youth media festivals at local, national, and international levels, but these are often separate from larger film festivals. Larger festivals often have a youth film category that consists of adult-made films designed for a youth audience. Increased involvement of youth media as a film category at such festivals would be an indicator of the growth and development of youth media as a field.
I became involved in youth and community-based media because, as an artist, I found it difficult to make a significant impact on people’s lives from within a gallery setting. Video and other forms of media can speak in a vernacular that can be more accessible for a general audience.
Making and using youth media encourages relationship-building and civic engagement.
Screenings and presentations of youth media encourage discussion, and youth media can sometimes initiate dialogue on an issue in a way that adult-made media cannot. As youth media practitioners, we must work to keep youth media relevant to people outside our field. We must preserve the civic aspects of youth media that distinguish it from arts education and from youth development, for it attends best to these roles at the very time it is of greatest use to the larger community.
David Sloan has worked as a community-based media artist and activist since 2006, when he assisted Cira Pascual Marquina to curate the Headquarters exhibition at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He received his MFA in Community Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2008 and currently works with youth as a media literacy educator with Wide Angle Youth Media and the Baltimore Algebra Project.
Works Cited:
Kleinfeld, Judith. “Could it be a Big World After All? The ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ Myth,” Society. University of Alaska Fairbanks: January / February 2002.

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