The Chicago Youth Voices Network: A Tale of Collective Action

From the outside, it didn’t appear all that revolutionary. Crowding into the narrow meeting space above a store front overlooking a busy Chicago street were a group of diverse teens, standing and sitting on chairs and pillows, talking, laughing, and listening to each other spit a few verses of spoken word. The students represented distinct youth media programs across Chicago, brought together by the collective efforts of the staff of these programs.
Youth media practitioners act as conduits to bring young people together as they create media. However, despite the talent practitioners bring to helping create media produced by teens of a range of skills and interests, in practice they themselves have an incredibly difficult time coming together as a group.
This isn’t to say that practitioners don’t want to. Funding is sparse and small organizations, as most in the field are, see each other as competitors. Despite the relative challenge of competing for funding, practitioners time and again say that face-time and relationship-building with adult peers is one of their number one personal, field-wide goals.
But challenges exist. Youth media organizations tend to have different philosophies about how to teach teenagers media. Some are more focused on building technical skills, some more on teaching teenagers old-fashioned journalism, some on creativity and still others on teaching teenagers the more profit-oriented side of the industry, such as marketing and promotion. They tend to work as silos with their own goals and ways of doing things.
In October of 2006, youth media organizations granted by the McCormick Foundation formed into the Chicago Youth Voices Network (CYVN), which provides face-time and professional development for practitioners. Over the past two years, the group has become more unified and now shares skills, resources, and best practices. Recently, the network put together a brochure to collectively represent CYVN and signal new stakeholders, schools and other audiences to youth media, combining all of their diverse perspectives, mission and goals. Youth media groups across the U.S. can learn from our challenges and successes as we develop a model of networks and collaborations that unites us as a field.
A Funder Discovers the Youth Media Field
Before 2005, the McCormick Foundation, long-time funder of journalism training and leadership programs as well as press freedom activities and diversity in journalism initiatives, had never taken a serious look at funding youth media initiatives. At that time, coinciding with the Foundation’s 50th anniversary, the Program (one of five key funding priority areas at the Foundation) began to explore directing some of its $6 million per year budget toward youth initiatives. It was an eye-opening experience, says Mark Hallett, senior program officer for the Foundation’s Journalism Program.
“It was this wonderful discovery because we had no idea how rich Chicago’s youth media community was, and their work represented so many of the different things we cared about,” he says.
For Hallett, this sector had a fresh momentum to it. After years of supporting initiatives that often seemed to meet resistance with, for example, attempts to increase diversity in mainstream newsrooms, or encourage large media companies to prepare for the online world or to engage their communities better, the youth media sector was already producing valuable and relevant work that incorporated these broader goals. Hallett gravitates to what he calls ‘philanthropic acupuncture’—grantmaking where support is simply feeding an existing momentum rather than fighting resistance.
Hallett suggests that youth media organizations are on the cutting edge in many ways. For one, much of the way youth media practitioners do business is directed by the participants, while many schools are struggling to make their lessons more student-centered. Furthermore, video, photography and delivery of information are salient issues in the digital age—skills youth media groups are teaching. And finally, the perspectives that emerge from youth-produced media make us all aware of the many challenges that today’s youth are facing.
As the McCormick program officers (at that time Hallett and Sara Melillo) got to know the youth media organizations in Chicago, they were struck by the fact that so many were doing good work yet the organizations were fragile. Youth media organizations are typically small in operation and many executive directors skilled in their craft were not always successful fundraisers.
In order to make a larger impact on local, Chicago-based youth media programs, Clark Bell, the director of the journalism program for the McCormick Foundation, and his team decided that simply funding individual groups was not enough—that they had to support a network with professional development and training resources.
The Youth Voices Network
At the first youth media grantee network meeting, youth media practitioners filled out a survey in which they identified what they would want to get out of such a network. The ultimate takeaway from the survey was that they wanted to build relationships. Beyond that, they wanted information on how to evaluate programs and fundraise.
Hallett says that the Foundation’s hope, then as well as now, has been to help provide a forum for the youth media grantees that had to be practical and useful. Too often, foundations draw together grantees for show, without a clear idea of what they want them to do.
The meetings required an entire Friday morning every other month and are typically attended by adult staff. At first, they included intensive professional development and training from hired consultants. Topics included areas such as the importance of evaluation and how to build an individual donor base. However, they were useful, providing an opportunity to step back and ask questions.
As practitioners admitted to shortcomings and chatted about programs, a realization dawned on many: that they are all in much the same boat, passionate and struggling, and have the common interest of wanting to give teenagers in Chicago the opportunity to be a part of the media. But as little organizations in a big city, not one of them has enough manpower or programs to reach all interested teens.
This is how practitioners realized as a group that they are powerful. Last year, the Network not only brought together many of the teens they serve to talk with one another and to provide verbal feedback to youth media practitioners, but also conducted a self-survey about their own programs. Through that, the practitioners learned that they collectively touch 60 of about 100 high schools in the city, and, through participants and audiences, reach tens of thousands of teens.
Some other highlights of the survey were that the youth media groups are small organizations, typically with budgets between $150,000 and $500,000 and two or three employees. The McCormick grant of about $40,000 was one of the largest ones received by most network organizations.
The survey also identified key challenges facing the organizations: growing demand for services without the resources to support program growth (77%); over-reliance on grants, few individual donors (62%); limited budget and staff for fundraising (54%); rising operational costs such as health insurance and utilities (46%) and the need to improve organizational management systems (46%).
One major achievement of the network was the compilation of a brochure—funded by McCormick and led by True Star—to be handed out to teenagers at a high school fair. Presenting themselves as a singular type of program, rather than disparate entities, was powerful for the group. 10,000 copies were distributed. Network members take turns taking the lead on projects, which they find, is necessary to get the work done.
In addition, the network has spurred several collaborations. For example, in September 2008, The Five Freedoms Project and the Academy for Educational Development were looking for youth media educators to kick off a youth video in conjunction with a five-day leadership academy for principles, teachers, advisors and youth in Chicago.
After receiving a call for youth media educators, three members of the network responded—Open Youth Networks, Free Spirit Media and Community TV Network. As a team, they developed curriculum and identified mutual strengths and expertise to correspond with each task and training. The experience was a testament to the power of the network.
Mindy Faber, founder of Open Youth Networks and now the academic manager at Columbia College Chicago’s Department of Interactive Arts and Media, says: “I’m not sure in the past we would have been able to work as a team without really knowing one another. This was such a great way to engage with Chicago youth media orgs and share an experience of teaching side by side, despite our differences and approaches to youth media.”
Next Steps
After three years of funding and support, the McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program has made it clear that its funding of CYVN will likely cease over the next several years. Faber, whose group is part of the network, volunteered (and receives a stipend) to coordinate the network meetings this year. In upcoming meetings, leaders will talk about how the CYVN will work in the future. They are currently in the process of developing a collective mission statement.
At one point, there was discussion of forming an overarching not-for-profit with a mission and a budget, but the group decided against it. The feeling was that the CYVN’s strength is the fact that it is comprised of unique organizations that work together.
Some members think that working on projects together will help keep the momentum going and there’s even been talk about trying to get a collaborative project funded. Such a project has yet to be named and even the format is still up in the air. One idea is to have an end of the year presentation featuring work from all of the groups; another would have each individual organization produce a piece in their medium on a singular topic. All the work would then be brought together and presented.
Members of CYVN need to tell and amplify their own story. In the past, Faber notes that foundations have paid consultants and academics to figure out who and what youth media is. Sometimes youth media is put in the box of adolescent literacy organizations; while other times it is seen as a youth leadership building organization. Through CYVN, youth media can be in a position to define itself and its potential to more local and national stakeholders. Through CYVN, and capturing the unique practices and work of the many, the myths of youth media are replaced with facts and appealing outcomes.
Presenting in this way, CYVN can transform youth media from being a gaggle of struggling organizations to being a vibrant force to be reckoned with.
Suggestions for Future Youth Media Networks
Hallett says McCormick is now looking at expanding its support of youth media—and perhaps spearheading similar networks—in Los Angeles and New York. But in other cities, creating such a youth media network might require grassroots efforts.
If a local funder is invested to support a network, at the least, a stipend for a coordinator and food at meetings must be compensated. Organizations should decide on a regular meeting time that is convenient for most of the members. And at meetings, time spent on peer-to-peer training is extremely beneficial. At present, CYVN does not require outside consultants and instead, look to one another for skills to share.
“What the field is missing is the glue that will hold it all together—and what we’ve found, is that working together, that common desire and impetus, is the glue we were looking for,” Mindy Faber explains.
Faber, echoed by other practitioners in the field, suggests that on the field-wide spectrum, it will take a leader to bring the field together, both locally and nationally. Faber describes such a leader as one with “a larger and shared vision of what is possible; a leader that loves the field enough and is respected by members within the field…that will work on the various steps to strengthen the field.”
Moving Forward
Beyond capacity issues and competition for funding, all across the U.S., youth media practitioners have a sincere desire to share face time and learn from one another as a group. The CYVN is one success story, with many others to follow. For example, this year Youth Media Reporter is bringing six individual regional cohorts of youth media practitioners to collectively document best practices and issues/challenges in the area. Each cohort kicks off with an in-person meeting. Practitioners might consider continuing these meetings after YMR, say monthly, to share updates, resources, and skill-sharing—they might even review the articles they publish and how their suggestions could support other local youth media colleagues.
So far, few regions have come up with their own pathways to design coalitions—for example, the twin cities youth media network. Other cities have attempted to meet as a group, particularly in the Southwest and Southeast but have yet to find the right “glue” that fits their local cohort. Uniting the field is only a few steps away, but it needs the kind of leadership that will ensure a shared vision to strengthen collective work and the power of youth media practice in the future.
Mark Hallett is a senior program officer in the journalism program of the McCormick Foundation. Mark joined the foundation in May 1995, and coordinates grantmaking in a number of areas, including youth media and scholastic journalism, free press and First Amendment initiatives, and community and ethnic media. He is a native Chicagoan and has lived in Mexico, Norway and Spain. He is an avid photographer and serves on the boards of Erie Neighborhood House and the Erie Elementary Charter School.
Sarah Karp is the coordinator for Columbia Links.