Interview: Beth Balliro

Beth Balliro is an artist and educator that has worked with urban youth for over 15 years. In addition to being a founding faculty member at the Boston Arts Academy, she serves on the RYMAEC advisory board, the youth media educator network in Boston, MA. She looks forward to joining the Art Education faculty at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the Fall of 2010.
YMR: Tell us about your background, and your current position at the arts high school.
Beth Balliro: I entered the field of arts education because of my interest in art therapy. I began my formal training as an art therapist in the early 1990s in the South Bronx. At the time, I was an undergraduate student. I found the therapeutic setting fascinating, but I also began to feel that all art education was, in some form, art therapy. I decided to transition to work in school settings.
I returned to Boston after college, and in 1998 became a founding faculty member at the Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public arts high school. In addition to teaching studio arts for the last twelve years, I have developed Boston Arts Academy’s CapstoneProject. To complete the Capstone Project, all seniors prepare a grant proposal to fund a community-based arts project of their design.
My interest in media education has expanded as a result of my involvement with the Capstone Project. So many of my students, in developing their Capstone Projects, have incorporated innovative new media into both their proposed projects and their final presentations. Essentially, my students have driven a demand for more new media in the classroom. Having observed this trend, I became involved in RYMAEC, the youth media network in Boston, to help other educators build their capacity to support media integration into school curricula.
YMR: Describe your role in RYMAEC.
Balliro: I have served as an Advisory Board member with RYMAEC since its inception. As a teacher of traditional media with an eye to trends in high school curricula and youth media, I feel I have helped to bridge the teachings of media educators with more traditional public school teachers who may be intimidated by technology but understand its potential for helping students succeed.
YMR: Describe the RYMAEC activities that are most exciting to you. How do you see these activities making an impact in your school district?
Balliro: I have been particularly excited about RYMAEC’s mic events. At these events, educators from a wide range of expertise share the ways that technology enhances their teaching as a means to achieve deeper student understanding. From our few innovator-gurus to the novice intern drawing from a great dedication to providing access to content to her students, educators have a forum to share their growth, struggles and innovations in a democratic and celebratory forum. It has been fantastic to be a part of this collaborative effort.
YMR: In your years of teaching, what have you noticed is most important for young people to learn and achieve as they are transitioning out of high school?
Balliro: A few years ago I presented on a panel regarding helping students gain “21st Century Skills.” This forced me to consider what specific attributes students must acquire for success in today’s world. In essence, students need to be able to navigate through information and cultural diversity with curiosity, follow-through, versatility, and confidence.
Breadth of knowledge is not important—it is the ability to ask questions and search for answers that will propel students toward healthy and fulfilling development. I have seen the sad reality of extraordinarily gifted artists enter the “scene” heralded with great promise—only to stop short because they lacked follow-through. Conversely, I have known young artists that weren’t the most innately skillful propel into amazing careers due to their ability to work hard and learn what they don’t know.
YMR: From your experience, where does media education fit in arts—and more traditional—education?
Balliro: My colleagues and I have identified a recurring type of student that traditional education has failed to serve—the student that lives most fully in a digital world. We began to see a pattern of young women and men, just two or three each year, that were technologically savvy and had “checked out” of school on its more three-dimensional terms. We struggled with ways to captivate these types of students, helping help them build the credentials to lead their peers and teachers into a new technological milieu. It has been frustrating and inspiring to see these young people forge ahead like a new techie avant-garde and it is our hope to lead them toward leadership and not eccentric isolation.
The experiences of these few tech savvy students, in particular, have shown me that an arts and media education, particularly one that emphasizes cross-disciplinary exploration, problem-solving, cultural contact and rigor, can reach the students that traditional education cannot. Moreover, as I’ve observed the impact of this kind of education on the outcomes of students’ Capstone Projects, I have become more and more convinced that media education, in addition to arts education, helps students develop the skills that will really help them as they transition out of high school into work or higher education.
Wrestling with problems and seeking innovative solutions has long been the work of artists, and it is what students need to practice in order to prepare for the complex world they will inherit. In addition, the critical skills of wondering and building joy among others are often overlooked, but may just be the most meaningful of all. Both media and arts education foster these skills in young people, and I am proud to work with both the Boston Arts Academy and RYMAEC to continue to move this work forward.

Media and Expression: An Approach for Helping Girls Process Trauma

When one of Teen Voices’ 16-year-old teen editors found out that she had lost her aunt and cousins in the Haiti earthquake, she stood in our offices, shaking and crying. She was one of many to get devastating news that day. The earthquake reached deep into Boston’s Haitian community—the third largest in the United States—where countless families lost relatives.
At Teen Voices, we recognize that providing a space to write, process, and speak—both in person and on the radio—can help girls process trauma while alerting media outlets that girls’ voices are critical to the global dialogue.
About Teen Voices
At Teen Voices, we serve approximately 200 low-income girls of color each year. Most girls are dealing with critical issues in their lives that require maturity far beyond their years.
We work with many girls who are dealing with poverty, parental abandonment, and terminally ill parents; some are teen mothers, some are experiencing emotional or physical abuse, and some are impacted by gang life and prostitution. A host of deeply personal issues call for the attention of an intergenerational support network, which is what Teen Voices provides.
Typically at Teen Voices, we encourage girls to think about the sexualized, marginalized images of women in the media. We support girls to examine the media’s fixation on beauty and challenge constructed norms of female identity. Girls recognize that they are not represented accurately in the media and that real stories and statistics take investment, research, and a viable outlet. Mentors and staff help girls to analyze the media, suggesting other, healthier options, and training on creating these options.
In the process, Teen Voices becomes an outlet for girls experiencing traumatic events in their personal lives. For every half hour spent working on a feature article, a separate half hour is spent discussing, say, the bullying that many girls experience at school. A 16-year-old mother focuses on her journalism skills for an hour, and then spends a second hour talking with her mentoring group about the challenges of mothering. Girls routinely enter our program shy, wary, and intimidated; two months later, they are affectionate, engaged, and driven.
Girls Respond to Haiti
The earthquake in Haiti directly impacted many of the girls we serve. Their voices were not represented in the news and it was clear that as a youth organization, we needed to respond to the trauma the girls were going through. We also felt the real lack of media representation for this community, and saw the girls’ frustration that their voices weren’t being heard.
In response, we put together a special feature that became a testimony of what the girls and their country lost, connecting the girls to each other through shared experiences and the written word. Their essays speak to a deeply wounded country, a sense of frustration with the way newscasters portray this country, and of course,an overwhelming sense of loss.
For example, in Sabrina Isaac’s essay, she writes, “This disaster will forever haunt me ‘till I take my last breath on this planet. I lie at night with pictures under my pillow that we took in July 2009, and I say, ‘They’re not really dead, they’ll come back to me. This is all a just a nightmare.’ Then reality sets back in, and I have to deal with knowing that they are gone forever.”
Isaac shared her essay on Boston radio station WBUR. An intense experience for anyone let alone a teen in trauma, the 16-year-old participated because she wanted to tell others her story. Getting girls’ voices on the air offered a much-needed diversification of sources on the Haiti disaster, giving a rare in-depth look at a global story from the perspective of girls.
Upon reflection, Isaac says she felt relieved that she was able to share her story through writing and on the radio, because she “felt like other people would know how [the earthquake] affected people firsthand instead of just hearing it on the news. Just by looking at it on the news, you wouldn’t really understand unless someone actually told you what he or she went through when it happened,” she says.
She says the experience made her feel more comfortable opening up, and helped her process her thoughts so she was able to focus more clearly on the day to day.
“It’s no longer something that’s always on my mind,” Isaac says. “When it happened, I didn’t do too well in school, it was just something I would always think about in school, [where] I would just blank out. Then after writing it down and talking about it, it was like, ‘OK Sabrina, you can do this, you can think about other things.’”
Lynn Celestin, another of Teen Voices’ teen editors, responds similarly. She says that writing and speaking about the Haiti disaster made her realize the benefits of talking to others about her problems.
“Now, when something happens to me, I share it,” Celestin says. “It’s easier to share it out because people can help you, instead of keeping it inside where nothing’s being done about it.” She continues, “Writing it down felt permanent. People got to see how I was feeling, and it was exactly how I felt. It wasn’t just me yelling, it was in writing.”
Celestin shared her essay about Haiti, and her thoughts on the media coverage of the earthquake, on Commonwealth Journal, a public affairs radio program produced by WUMB Radio on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. She describes the experience as nerve-racking but meaningful. Celestin taps into a key aspect of combining writing and speaking as a means to process trauma and amplify girls’ voices:
“Writing was one step,” she says, “and then talking about it meant everybody else could hear. When I knew they were finally listening, it was that much easier to say.”
For both girls, it was in part a public expression of pain that garnered them the air time to share their stories—not an easy or desirable experience, but a necessary one in the interest of adding their voices to the conversation. By giving girls a supportive environment, some training in writing and speaking, and a microphone, we will learn a great deal more about the young people in our communities. And through this combination of introspection and outward expression, we can establish a process for girls to share and make sense of their experiences.
Suggestions to the Field
Consider working with teens in your program on an exercise that allows them to process difficult emotions privately and publicly, in that order. Draw on community resources to support the girls in this process: seek input from youth workers, therapists, and writers who have experience working with teens.
Approach media outlets that are open to diverse viewpoints and will take young participants seriously.
Give your teen participants the media training they need to accomplish a successful interview. Run mock interviews with them ahead of the “real thing.”
Remind teens that they can stop writing or speaking if they feel uncomfortable. This ceases to be a useful exercise if they feel overwhelmed.
Next Steps
When we wonder why more women aren’t in positions of power in media, politics, engineering, mathematics, and countless other fields, we have to look at the options available to them on the newsstand, and the limited exposure their authentic voices receive on television and radio.
Amplifying real girls’ voices in television and print early will help us grow a new generation of women who can speak effectively to public affairs and communicate about their emotional wellbeing. Asking girls what they think, and listening to what they have to say, is the first step toward evening the playing field. It’s also the only way to capture the real experiences of young people, who have much to contribute to dialogue around world events like the Haiti earthquake.
Jessica Moore is the editor and publisher at Teen Voices, a print and online magazine created entirely by teen girls through a journalism mentoring program. Moore was previously managing editor of digital media for New York-based nonprofit Sesame Workshop, and senior education producer for U.S. News and World Report. She was also online producer for PBS NewsHour, working largely on arts and politics coverage as well as news content for teens. Moore is a contributing writer to the arts journal Big Red & Shiny, and is a member of the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Online News Association.

Do It Your Damn Self! National Youth Video and Film Festival

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where world-class universities sit alongside low-income residential districts, local teens from one public housing complex were tired of being rejected from adult festivals and decided it was time to start their own.
Since that critical moment in 1996, the “Do It Your Damn Self!!” National Youth Video & Film Festival (DIYDS!!) has been screening youth-produced films from around the country to an audience of the general public every November.
While some suggest that youth media programs should prioritize the use of media products and their impact on audiences over youth development (Sloan, 2009), we found the opposite to be the case when running a festival. Consistent among our findings is that supporting youth leadership is fundamental—even for a festival that aims to reach a growing audience.
We found that when we ran DIYDS!! in a way that put the primary focus on generating audience for the films, the needs of teens in our own program were neglected and we lost the investment of our core group of leaders. Putting youth development at the center of the festival’s goals, allows DIYDS!! to retain a true youth voice and not become a festival run by adults making assumptions about what youth need.
History of the Festival
DIYDS!! is the longest running youth-produced and youth-curated film festival in the country and attracts over 1,100 youth and adults to public screenings and workshops each year. According to its founders, the mission of the festival “was, is and always will be, to give youth producers like ourselves a place to be heard.”
The core elements of the festival have included: engaging a group of youth to screen entries and select a final reel, presenting the festival to youth-only as well as general audiences, and encouraging as many featured filmmakers as possible to travel to Boston for a weekend of events.
DIYDS!! is curated and organized by youth from the Community Art Center, which operates year-round arts programs for children and media programming and internships for teens. For many years, there was a core group of youth who had grown up in the Community Art Center’s afterschool program who led the festival each fall, supported by one full and one part-time staff member. It was the teens that provided institutional knowledge of the festival process. In its ninth and tenth years, when the festival was at its fullest capacity, up to 50 teens would surface to help make the festival happen. Among their many roles, they led discussions during festival screenings, inspiring hundreds of young people to share their stories and influencing the impact these stories have on the audience.
However, over time, the core group graduated from the program, and there was no strong pipeline of new leaders, partly due to organizational instability. Supporters and adult allies appreciated the raw voices presented at DIYDS!!, and pushed for more venues for the festival, beyond what the teens had the capacity to present.
We realized that promoting the festival had taken priority over our training program for youth, and questioned whether the festival should continue as an effort of the Community Art Center, should be handed over to another agency to run, or whether it had even run its course. Our model needed to change.
Challenges to Youth Participation and Leadership
DIYDS!! has always promoted youth leadership, but the level of youth involvement has shifted over the years as adults began taking on larger roles: connecting with schools, organizing events, and promoting the festival. As the staff and volunteers saw their work as independent of that of the teen leaders, tensions arose between responding to the input of youth leaders, and the potential expansion of the festival.
As the festival grew, the youth became disconnected. Helping DIYDS!! by increasing distribution and seeking larger venues was not addressing the needs of the Cambridge teens who presented it. We needed to resist the push for bigger, better venues, and to retain a focus on the artistic and developmental needs of the teens in our midst.
As a result, the teen program moved the curating of the reel to the summer, freeing up time and energy for other projects in the fall. In an effort to offer more space for the growth of youth leadership, we lengthened the timeline of the festival planning process to one full year. The scale has stayed relatively the same for the past few years. As a result, the goal of deepening the experience for Cambridge youth and sustaining a high level of quality has become a higher priority.
Screening youth-produced media in order to raise awareness among adults has become our secondary goal. We found that the interest of the general public is considerable, and we can leverage that interest to give Cambridge and national youth producers a larger forum to communicate their message, but it should never be at the cost of offering consistent support to youth. As one teen expressed after being asked to serve as a Festival Committee Chair, “but I just learned how to make a website. How can I be in charge of a website for a whole national festival? What if I can’t do it?”
Now, we are building a new core group of leaders, exposing a larger pool of teens to both filmmaking and media literacy, alongside festival planning and developing criteria to judge films. We have also piloted new festival events in response to youth input and will continue to increase youth investment by implementing their ideas.
Although we no longer see the influx of as many teens at festival time, we have succeeded in building a loyal and dedicated group of youth leaders invested in the festival. Fundraising and staff time will be focused on supporting this core group as they continue to deliver DIYDS!! with a unique presentation each year.

Community Art Center Video for Advocacy Day from Paulina Villarroel on Vimeo.

Suggestions to the Field
Know your goals. If you want to screen youth media in order to raise awareness among adults about prominent youth issues and youth’s ability to create interesting media, throw your energy into marketing, promotion and educational supports. If your goal is focused on developing young people, spend time collaborating with local groups, organizing youth leadership and creating environments where youth can come together to network and exchange ideas.
Provide significant support along with significant opportunities. Start where the youth are and let them drive the process forward. Where youth are taking risks or being asked to lead, educators must instill appropriate supports to ensure they succeed.
Collaborate and leverage partnerships. Find partners who can help generate an audience in addition to supporting youth with internships or volunteer positions. Look to colleges, independent theatres, libraries and community centers as potential screening venues. Hold school-day screenings predominantly for youth, giving them a chance to connect with and question their peers.
Build the Field. Use the gathering of youth and their supporters to continue to build the field and address relevant issues. Survey audience members and find ways for supporters to contribute, promote or act on what they experience. Bring together adults who work with youth media producers to support and learn from each other. Provide forums for discussion of content as well as design, to allow viewers to open their minds and create bridges of understanding.
The survival of DIYDS!! speaks to the impact of youth media, and even more so to the importance of gathering youth together to share stories about their lives. Young people still struggle to have their own voices heard, to tell their own stories in their own words.
Raising youth voices, particularly those who have been marginalized by poverty, language, culture or geography, is realized in the convergence of youth who can come together through their filmmaking—learning, growing and reshaping the world around them by participating in it.
Eryn Johnson is the executive director of the Community Art Center in Cambridge, MA and has worked for more than 12 years as a youth advocate and manager in youth-serving arts programs including ZUMIX, Inc. and Proyecto Ak’Tenamit in Izabal, Guatemala. Prior to managing the Community Art Center, Eryn was director of education at Citi Performing Arts Center. She has presented on arts and youth activism for the New England Women’s Studies Association Conference, the ArtCorps Program and at Tufts University. She has her BA in Theatre from Oberlin College and her Master’s in Performance Studies from New York University.

Melina O’Grady is an education consultant with roots in Boston and San Francisco. She is on the Advisory Committee of the “Do It Your Damn Self!!” festival and currently resides in Boston, where she is working on an anthology of youth workers telling their stories.