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.

Meaningful Distribution: Involving Youth Media Makers Beyond Production

As educators, we hope to instill the idea that the media young people create can have a positive impact on others, but in reality that cannot happen unless youth media is distributed widely—with the conscious efforts of producers and mentors to go beyond the final production phase.
Youth media usually focuses on the three phases of production, which unfortunately cuts youth out of the distribution portion of the equation. Yet, a successful distribution project can provide youth media makers with valuable experience interacting with a critical audience, and witnessing the impact of their work—which is powerful.
Such an effort must be a conscious extension of the original product, and involve youth—ideally the original producers—every step of the way. An example of such a project is Reel Grrls’ 2004 film Coming Out… and its accompanying distribution campaign.
Reel Grrls & Coming Out
Founded in 2001, Reel Grrls is a Seattle-based, after-school media and technology training program that empowers girls to critique media images and to gain media technology skills in a safe, open environment, mentored by a network of multi-cultural women media professionals.
In 2005, three young producers created Coming Out…a short mockumentary about a straight girl who faces the challenges of coming out in a queer world. The film’s youth-infused humor and unique format flipped the often-painful coming out story as an aid to spark dialogue about homophobia and heterosexism. Although only one of the youth involved in the project was queer-identified, the three producers were extremely open during the production process, exploring the challenging issues within the film, placing them in the perfect position to contribute to next steps.

Executive Director Malory Graham suggested to the youth producers and mentors involved with the project that Coming Out… had the potential to live on outside of its initial screening and create an impact through distribution. Once prompted, the producers were excited to remain involved and were an integral part of generating the outreach and distribution model that would eventually be put into action. Our youth hadn’t yet thought about what would happen to their film after the final screening. By planting this seed, we invited them to utilize their creativity to envision the next steps in the filmmaking process.
As educators and mentors we faced many questions and challenges in extending the project beyond its production. The Reel Grrls spring program in which the film was created had ended. Did that mean the film itself was the product, or could we push the process to a further end? How could we keep the youth producers involved, and who would ultimately define this involvement? We recognized that carrying out this campaign would require long-term commitment, continued engagement, and the willingness to explore non-traditional modes of getting the film’s message out.
Our approach to shaping a distribution campaign around Coming Out… was not a typical one, although Reel Grrls has used a similar model two other times. The first took place the previous year and was led by an adult facilitator, which was not as successful.
We realize it is unrealistic to pursue an extended distribution campaign for every film created. These opportunities require a unique cocktail of content displayed, invested youth, funding, time and energy, and the ability to frame a film for extension into youth-led distribution.
Outreach and Additional Funding
We could not have started those conversations without the humor component.
—Malory Graham, Reel Grrls’ Executive Director.
The three student creators of Coming Out… emphasized their desire for their film to speak to both straight and queer audiences. We began by brainstorming what an extended distribution campaign around the film would look like, and came up with a list of organizations and festivals that could be allies in continuing the project. Although LGBT festivals and organizations would be ideal distribution partners, everyone agreed that for the film to reach its full potential as an outreach tool we had to look beyond these niches.
We all felt that Coming Out… made the challenges of being a queer young person appear to be a more universal experience, and that it was one that could resonate with many people who don’t share that experience. For this reason, the young filmmakers decided that leading discussions in schools and community groups would provide a greater and more far-reaching impact, using the film as a centerpiece to a set of guiding questions. With this input from the youth, the project mentors wrote a grant for the Coming Out… distribution project, naming two of the original producers as facilitators.
A year and a half later, funding was secured. In the interim, Reel Grrls championed Coming Out… on the film festival circuit. It won audience choice awards and festival curators began to specifically request it for submission. The project mentors remained involved with Reel Grrls, revising and submitting our initial grant to several different organizations.
In 2005, our persistence paid off. The Pride Foundation, a Northwest organization awarding grants and scholarships to leaders of the LGBT community, presented Reel Grrls with a $5,000 grant. The project allocated funds to hire Reel Grrls graduates to: create a discussion guide for the film; facilitate peer-led screenings and discussions for school and community groups in Washington State; and distribute the DVD and discussion guide at no cost to organizations across the U.S. interested in mediated dialogues about homophobia and heterosexism. The Pride Foundation was hugely supportive of this model, especially emphasizing the need for youth to occupy central roles and receive financial compensation for their work.
Re-Engaging Youth to Take the Lead
After securing funding, the next challenge was re-engaging our youth. For this project to work it had to be youth led and adult supported. Of the film’s three initial creators, we were only able to track down one who was still interested in taking part in the distribution campaign. We offered the role of the second youth facilitator to a graduate of the most recent Reel Grrls program, who was now an accomplished youth media maker committed to social change and questioning her own sexuality. We hired a Reel Grrls graduate from 2003, now studying graphic design, to design the discussion guide, which needed to be professional and eye-catching to young people and reflective of the aesthetic of the film.
Ultimately we, the mentors, followed the lead of these young people in exploring how to affect a young audience’s understanding of queerness and heterosexism. As a group, we researched and created content for the Discussion Guide that would accompany Coming Out…, which included sections on terminology, setting ground rules, and follow-up activities and resources. Some adult members of the group pushed to use the term “gay” in the guide, but the girls insisted that they preferred to identify as “queer,” and that this term was more inclusive and would bring more young people to contribute.
The youth producers also led the charge to make the discussion guide more accessible to middle school aged students, since young people are now more likely to come out (and experience harassment) at that age. For this reason the guide contains separate comprehensive question sets for pre and post-video discussion questions specific to both middle and high school age (and older) audiences. The section for pre-high school age students includes more general questions like “Have you ever had to tell people something you didn’t want to about yourself? What kinds of anxieties did you feel? How did you feel afterwards?”
Audience outreach goals for our project were also set by youth and mentors together, and included partnering with a variety of organizations, reaching a wide range of ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations (including straight-identified audiences unfamiliar with queer issues), and communities outside the Seattle area less acquainted with or having less access to queer support networks. Our youth facilitators took their roles seriously, and requested specific trainings to aid them in facilitating discussions, which were donated by the National Coalition Building Institute It was great to partner and work with an outside community organization to offer this support that went beyond the skill set of the mentors for the project. As the adult project leader, I was always ready to step in if needed but, thanks to the training the facilitators received, the producers held their own.
Between August and November of 2006, the Coming Out… Discussion Project presented nine screenings and discussions, meeting or exceeding all of our outreach goals. Over the next two years, Reel Grrls partnered with national LGBT and youth organizations to send out targeted press releases and mailings, ultimately distributing the film and accompanying discussion guide free of charge to over 50 schools, non-profits, and community groups throughout the country.
Response and Impact
“I had never before experienced a discussion that was directed towards youth and led by youth as well. At times it’s easier for students to open up and say what is on their minds when they feel like they are just having a talk with their peers.”
-Monica Olsson, youth facilitator
The biggest lesson of the Coming Out… project was also our biggest success. Providing youth media makers the opportunity to take ownership of an extended distribution project makes their work accessible to other young people, allowing the film to have a greater impact. The Coming Out… discussion and outreach campaign was hugely successful—not just in audience response but the positive effects it had on the youth facilitators, who became more confident in their abilities as the project progressed. These girls were forced into challenging situations, like speaking to a roomful of 6th grade boys, and leading discussion among a group of college students.
One of the youth leaders noted that, for her, the project “was a learning experience. By virtue of leading this discussion I was able to question myself internally. Due to this experience, I feel more comfortable speaking in front of groups and my peers.” Meredith Stone, whose organization hosted one of our discussions, echoed the power of this peer discussion model. She explains, “It meant a lot to see what youth are doing out in the community, and [it] opened doors [for] youth to think about exploring their own ideas in different ways that didn’t previously seem possible.”
Get the Message Out
Youth media educators have the potential to amplify the impact of youth produced media by extending projects beyond production. For such a campaign to work, projects must be chosen carefully, and youth must be involved throughout the process. Adult support should come in the form of mentors that the youth know and trust, and who are as committed to the process and the film as they are. The Coming Out… project took what most of us already know—the importance of treating young people with respect and valuing their time and ideas—and extended it into the fourth realm of film production—distribution.
Cutting short the life of a film that has the potential to make an impact does not have to be a missed opportunity. By focusing more on youth-led distribution, young people can develop the skill of engaging viewers—in this case, inventively using humor—to get their message out. It is up to educators to identify a group of committed youth raising strong content-specific films, and plant the seed, hand them the reins, and be ready to support them all the way.
Lila Kitaeff is a media activist, freelance writer, videographer, radio DJ, and Technical Director for the Reel Grrls program. She has been active with Independent Media Centers throughout the United States and Mexico. Along with PepperSpray Productions, a Seattle-based video collective, she coordinates a weekly television show that airs on over a dozen stations nationwide, and submits documentary work to the national Free Speech TV Network. She also produces socially progressive video work via her own business, Longshot Productions. She believes in using media as a tool for social change and passing on the tools of media production to as many people as possible.
Learn more about Reel Grrls at See the film profiled here and others created in this program at