Finding Youth Voice in Print Media: The power of zines in a digital age

What is the value of teaching youth to create print media in an increasingly digital-based world? How can youth develop their written voices and develop strategies to creatively express their opinions and speak back to power? From 2002-2004 I was an educator at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. There I ran a 4 week long Zine Camp for teenagers ages 12-18. Zines are small, self-published magazines that are accessible to youth in a do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion.
As a teenager growing up in a rural area, making zines enabled me to connect with other young people around the country. They provided a forum with which to express myself and discuss issues surrounding feminism, queer identity, mental health and political activism. From my own experience, I knew that making a zine and participating in zine communities could provide young people with important skill sets and opportunities to express themselves creatively. Thus, my envisioned goal of Zine Camp was to teach youth about the history and contemporary status of independent print publications and how to express themselves through making their own personal zine.
Zines are important in a digital age. They serve as creative spaces to share feelings, opinions, ideas, and artwork in a self-made booklet. For many youth, having physical documentation of their thoughts, feelings, and work is very important. Just as many people learn differently, are drawn to visual or spatial thinking versus written and coded understanding, zines provide hand-made alternatives to youth made technology. Whereas some young people may be drawn to video, film, radio, and music, there are many young people who may defer to a more introverted and reflective medium, which zines provide.
The power of zine culture provides zinesters a community, which acts as a vessel for idea exchange, collaboration, shared experience across difference and physical distance, and dialogue for introverts, extroverts, and creative types in between. Plus, anyone can make a zine with paper, glue, sharpies, and access to a photocopier (available in most public libraries, convenient stores, and office jobs).
Despite the affluence of computer and internet-based technology, not everyone has access to a computer or the Internet. In zine communities, youth who do not have access to technology, youth in marginalized or disparate communities, and youth who may have access to such privileges, are all a part of the greater zine culture. Zine communities provide zinesters (of all ages) despite differing levels of accessibility a medium to be part of youth voice and social change.
The Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) is a not-for-profit, membership organization in downtown Portland, Oregon that serves the needs of self-publishers with an extensive zine library, computers, workspace, photocopy machine and letterpress print shop. They offer low-cost workshops that cover a wide range of the independent publishing processes—from the basics of creating a zine to how to use an old-fashioned tabletop letterpress. Because of its central location and established educational partnerships with local schools and organizations that serve youth, Zine Camp was a natural evolution of the IPRC’s many educational offerings. In contrast to daily workshops IPRC typically offers, Zine Camp enables young people to develop a long-term relationship with the center and a deeper understanding of the zine making process.
When I created Zine Camp in 2002 by proposing the idea to IPRC as a semi-professional zinester, teaching young people about the process of creating their own self-published magazine served two main goals. The first goal was to recognize and value how voice and expression are forms of empowerment. The second goal was to encourage young people to become more media literate and analytical.
The five youth enrolled in Zine Camp in 2004, for example, were encouraged to express themselves, whether it was about skateboarding, the music they loved, or frustrations with school. One zine camper, a former homeless young woman and slam poet, used the zine format in a different way, to collect and publish her poems and photographs. In her zine, a natural outgrowth of the voice and empowerment that she normally felt from just writing and performing slam poetry was enhanced through a more tangible record of her work. Through the process of making her zine, her personal record was collected, shared, and documented.
Zine publishers often find zines as outlets not just for expression, but as a means of connecting with one another. As Collete Ryder-Hall stated in her zine Looks Yellow, Tastes Red, “I realized one of the most profound effects of publishing a zine…was that it showed me I wasn’t alone, that we have similar experiences.”
Built into Zine Camp were strong media literacy components; youth compared and contrasted zines at the beginning of Zine Camp each summer with glossy, mainstream magazines. Campers quickly learned that the format and content of zines gave the creator complete control (in design, timing, approach, and process). In contrast, glossy magazines were determined by market-driven decision makers and teams that worked to digitally manipulate images to appeal to consumers in the mass populous. Having to create their own zines, each summer youth became more aware of the decisions that go into making a publication including writing, editing and layout. This enabled them to better understand the power of their own artistic devices, the importance of skill-development, and how media can be used as an expressive tool.
During the camp, campers were encouraged to review 3-5 zines, from the IPRC’s library, each week for ideas and inspiration. During each meeting they reported back on 1 or 2 of their favorites to all the campers. This turned campers into active readers and critics of media produced by other young people. By viewing zines as something they could draw inspiration from, campers were part of a burgeoning movement of other young people in youth media, beyond the zine community. If zines have such a powerful community and history, what other forms of media may be out there to collaborate or learn from? By informing zinesters to a long history of self publishing and involving them to participate in communities of like minded people, their horizons of ways youth can unite artistically expand. At Zine Camp, reading and reviewing zines helped campers see new ways of analyzing and understanding other forms of mainstream and independent media.
At the end of camp we hosted a public reading and culminating party at Reading Frenzy, a hip, local, independent bookstore. Campers shared their completed zines with each other, the audience of friends, family, and community members, to show them off and feel proud of their accomplishments. Youth need to know that they matter. One major way youth media professional can affirm youth is to recognize their accomplishments and expressive work in both private and public domains. By publicly recognizing youth for their zine-making, the Portland community became more informed of perspectives youth in their community experienced – which is part of involving youth voice to enter the concerns of community members.
As well as being a celebration and method to connect youth with adult allies in the community, this public event gave zine campers a goal to reach for and served as a concrete incentive to finish their projects. By having the event outside of the IPRC, it further tied zine campers to a creative community and showed them there was a larger, potential audience for their work and expressive voice.
Part of the success of Zine Camp actually occurred at the beginning of the program. Young zinesters were expected to create ‘mini zines’ on a single them the first week. This enabled them to move away from the idea that a zine needs to be ‘perfect,’ and launch into the endless possibility of their creative ideas. It satiated young people’s desire for instant results – a feeling often encouraged by web sites and blogs.
Making a mini zine presented to zine campers what was to come and enabled them to explore the creative possibilities of a zine without being overwhelmed by the process. For example, after making several more “basic” zines in camp, a former camper began including multiple colored spray paint stencil paintings in her zine, stretching the format farther than even I, a zine maker for 8 years, could imagine.
Having quick and successful projects at the beginning of programs, such as the mini zine approach at Zine Camp, is a method other youth media professionals ought to consider in their longer term youth media projects and programs. Short projects that coincide with larger programmatic pieces benefit both the level of creativity and productivity in young people as well as the general positive outcome of organizations which serve youth media makers.
Creating zines enable young people to emerge with finished “products” they can be proud of. A zine is a physical object that serves as a record of a moment in an individual’s life. Therefore, completing a zine can give young people a concrete sense of accomplishment, the importance of documenting their own history and their social and political beliefs, provide a space to express their feelings and perspectives, and involve them in alternative and like-minded communities.
While zines are not the only form young peoples’ written self expression can take, they certainly merit an important place in the youth media landscape. When youth are encouraged and taught how to create print media that reflects their ideas and perspectives they are better equipped to understand how mainstream print media represents perspectives of those in power.
Working on a zine builds youth confidence by using self-expression in written form. The process of making a zine creates new ways of media making that serves youth from a variety of personalities and identities, and encourages their involvement with both zine and local communities. A very accessible medium, zines provide an alternative space from blogs and websites for youth to document their thoughts, feelings, and creativity in empowering, media driven ways – even in a digital age.

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