Putting the Pieces Back Together: Youth Media in a Fractured City

“Who lives here?” asked Moony as the car filled with five teen girls drove through Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. Veronica may have winced inside but she said clearly: “I do.” The dirty streets and closed storefronts near the historic Washington High School–the academic home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. –were a shock to Moony, whose suburban high school neighborhood looked quite different from Veronica’s urban one.
This anecdote reflects the reality experienced by teens living in Atlanta today—communities are separated from one another, and movement between communities is rare, as many public institutions discourage communication and community-building across social groups and geographic distance. For this reason, many teens experience Atlanta as a fractured city.
For democracy to survive, we have to find a way to have civil dialogue across differences. Youth media programs provide a space for young people to move outside of traditional institutions, and challenge segregation and stereotypes. With a dual focus on teambuilding and skillbuilding, VOX has created a set of practices that encourage diversity and inclusion.
Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion
In order to provide a space where diverse groups of young people work together and thrive, creating a media outlet that reflects their experiences and thus inspires a broad audience, VOX emphasizes the following:
Outreach. Workshops and interactive activities can help teens, staff and Board/volunteers identify who is at the table and whose voices are missing;
Transportation. A few teens can get rides from family members. Most use public transportation, so meetings and work sessions have to be in spaces accessible by public transportation. Rides are organized for those who didn’t have bus fare or when the walk from the bus stop is just too far.
A safe environment. A work environment where teens from different backgrounds together establish ground rules, organizational philosophies and ways of working together to which all agree; understood agreements about confidentiality, mutually agreeable definitions of respect that identify safety from hate language and put-downs, and a process for airing concerns or challenges.
Transcend barriers. Teens who work together to create their own shared goals (the nonprofit community calls this impact outcomes; we call it a “so what”) do so with a vigor that allows them to cross the invisible boundaries of race, economics, gender, faith, sexual orientation and age that often keep people separated. As writers and artists collaborate on articles and page designs, they can transcend the barriers that otherwise polarize them.
Teambuilding and diversity. As teens lead icebreakers, teambuilding games, and diversity appreciation activities, they foster relationships that forge into meaningful friendships and positive peer connections. As a result, they choose to spend time in the newsroom because it is a fun and positive place to work and hang out. Twice a year VOX also hosts a “cultural expression buffet” – a pot luck where students contribute a dish of food representing something they appreciate about their culture to help teens see their commonalities and honor their differences. Additionally, as a matter of necessity, the meetings also need to be fun, and students need to get to know each other well enough to come to consensus about stories’ name, design and content.
Recruitment and partnerships. Make sure that all collaborative program partnerships are with organizations and schools/classrooms that serve specific outreach populations of youth. Prioritize outreach to work with populations of teens growing up in foster care, who are refugees or immigrants, who are adjudicated delinquent and the least heard and least likely to participate in after-school programs. In addition, specifically and avidly recruit writers, artists, poets, and videographers who represent the diversity of the community the organization aims to serve.

Building Community through Youth Media
Crafting an authentic, safe space, getting to know each other as real, whole people, and breaking down barriers through collaborative storytelling allows teens to dissect issues such as power, privilege, inclusion, and exclusion. This process is supported by group activities, but ultimately grows from the process of designing and producing media representations that reflect teen experiences across social boundaries and communicate teen concerns to the wider community. Teen participants in VOX tell us that no other environment engages them with people who are different from themselves. The following suggestions stem from their feedback and comments:
Helping young people understand how divisions between race, class and gender operate. Sara Powell, an alumna of VOX, explains: “During a group diversity training, we were all given dots of different colors on our forehead. Some people received the same colors as others, and some did not. The only instructions we were given was to ‘divide.’
“And so divide we did, by color. Some people had no one with a same-colored dot, so they were singles. Two of them tried to band together anyway, and I tried to stop it, saying that they weren’t the same color. Afterwards, the goal behind the activity was revealed, and it was pointed out that we’d only been told to divide, and no parameters had been given to govern said division. The color-based division was of our own design.
“I got the point. It hit me in such a profound way that, 12 years later, I still recall that training. It made me look at the artificial boundaries we put up to shut out other people and experiences. It made me look inside myself at my own fears and prejudices. And it made me really grateful to be a part of VOX and thus able to have a share in the celebration of diversity it represents.”
Joining two young people from different backgrounds to work on media projects together. Rebecca Stein, a VOX writer, explains: “Being in Jewish, Orthodox schools my entire life, I had been exposed only to one main view about Israel’s tension with the Palestinians.
“I wrote a VOX article on Israel’s military actions from a Jewish perspective that opposed the view of a VOX staff member who wrote from a Muslim point-of-view. It would seem that the two of us would find no common ground, but through our collaboration on a ‘history of the conflict’ and ‘relief organization’ sidebars, we were able to find areas in which we thought alike. Through this experience, I learned that it is possible to find common ground with those who, at first, may seem to have opposite views on the world than I do.”
Providing young people a platform outside of schools and families to talk about sexuality and how it differs among their peers. Simit Shah explains: “Like many people, almost everybody I interacted with was almost exactly like me. I never thought this to be unusual and the only regular dose of diversity was delivered through the TV set or the occasional trip downtown to a sporting event.
“For example, in my community and household, homosexuality was a topic that was either not to be breached or the subject of scorn and ridicule. Just a few weeks at VOX changed that, as I saw the realities and heard the stories. Granted, I think most people mature, along with their opinions and viewpoints, as they reach college and the real world, but being a part of VOX really accelerated that process for me.”
Encouraging young journalists to push beyond their boundaries. Co-founder Jeremy explains: “The process of researching and writing stories for VOX gave me entree into the lives of people to whom I might not normally have access. They recognized that as a journalist I could help them tell their story. By opening up to me to talk about teen pregnancy, sexual orientation, race or just their hopes of winning a local talent show these people made my world that much larger.”
VOX’s teambuilding and the process of sharing stories through journalism makes a profound impact on both the writers and their readers. Last year, VOX’s annual citywide readers’ survey found that 89% of readers said they were more understanding of people who are different from themselves as a result of what they read in VOX. Since community dialogue begins with interaction, youth media programs that allow diverse voices to speak and be heard are contributing to local and national social change.
Take Away
Youth media organizations may be the only place teens are compelled to examine their own experiences with bias and exclusion—and the power that communication and publishing holds for reducing the isolation that keeps feeling down about themselves and their communities.
By building effective bridges among groups, youth media programs can not only create a transformational experience for everyone involved but impact the community beyond even the work our teens unite to create.
Rachel Alterman Wallack, MSW, is the executive director of VOX Communications in Atlanta, GA. A native Atlantan, Rachel’s experience growing up in Atlanta and then writing for Junior Scholastic and Business Atlanta magazines inspired her to help start VOX Teen Communications with a team of volunteer teens and adults in 1993. Rachel earned her bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Texas in Austin, but knew quickly after working with teens at VOX that they needed much more than just an editor. She went back to school and earned master’s degree in social work at night in order to better support teens involved in VOX’s programs, and she has since volunteered and consulted with several local non-profits in the area of youth development, youth in governance and organizational leadership, and non-profit organizational development. Her role at VOX today is to guide strategic planning and Board Development, support adult staff to secure the resources for youth voice in metro-Atlanta.

More Than Ethnicity: Teaching diverse youth radio in Latina/o communities

“Wanted: A patient and charismatic instructor with experience in teaching journalism, media theory, and practicum to a group of 20 to 30 diverse students.” Sounds like an ideal job opportunity for an aspiring teacher, media professional or youth practitioner. So what’s the catch?
A youth media professional is not just a teacher but a combination of a technical educator, youth development expert, engineer, writer, counselor, youth advocate, and whatever else the demands of the day require. The responsibilities encountered by youth media instructors, independent of the medium taught, are complex and require the development of a culturally conscious curriculum. Teaching youth the skills necessary to work in media such as radio, requires the creation of teaching models that are sensitive and respectful of a diverse student body. Do youth media practitioners really come equipped to teach ethnically diverse classrooms?
Youth media classrooms are a combination of beliefs, attitudes, and values, which makes it challenging for instructors that create curriculum solely based on dominant American cultural patterns. A youth media program curriculum needs to be transformative, and allot for change and alteration throughout the extent of the course. Teachers must recognize that some students process information faster than others and learn differently from one another.
The catch to being a youth media instructor of a diverse classroom is that one must create their own model to teach and get to know students coming from multi-cultural, rich, poor, bilingual, mono-lingual, first generation, second generation, or recent immigrant backgrounds.
As a youth media producer, I have learned that the teacher, producer, practitioner or provider—however you refer to yourself in this growing field—has one main responsibility: to make sure young people learn beyond what he or she previously knew before enrolling in the program.
Youth programs are much more than instructional facilities; they are social hubs. At Radio Arte in Chicago, IL, recent immigrants learn from their native Chicagoan classmates and vise versa about American customs, mannerisms, pop-culture, sayings, history, geography, and even street grid patterns.
Teaching a diverse group of students is a major undertaking for youth media practitioners that are not fully aware of their student’s cultural practices, beliefs, and patterns, and how these influence their ability to learn and produce. In this article, language, diversity and curriculum will be explored using Radio Arte as a case study in order to understand how youth media practitioners can effectively reach differences across youth in Latino/a communities.
Radio Arte
Urban settings are cross-generational and a wide range of students at Radio Arte come from grammar school, high school, college, trade school, an alternative school or in some cases, have never even attended school. However, cultural differences between the Mexican born Spanish speaking students and the English/Spanglish speaking 2nd/3rd generation youth hinder the interaction that exists between both groups and ultimately makes the learning process slower. After only a week of class, most students separate themselves according to where they were raised, their shared experiences, and the language they speak most fluently.. Consequently, the teacher is forced not only to teach a profession, but also to encourage interaction among his/her students.
Imagine yourself, on the first day of class, in front of a roomful of Latino/a students between the ages of 15 and 21, where Spanish is a predominant language for some, while others only understand Spanish as a second language. And before your eyes, differences surface that divide the classroom. For example, at Radio Arte educators have observed and witnessed segregation amongst Latino youth. However, unlike divisions because of skin color or different interests, Latino youth in Chicago self-segregate based on where they were raised (Mexico or America), the language they prefer to use (English or Spanish), and their age group.
Students at Radio Arte are predominantly Latino, a reflection of the community where the public station is located, but ethnicity is only one factor in a demographic with many differences. We can count on enrolling a roomful of socially, ethnically, and economically diverse students with varied levels of educational proficiency that all want to learn radio, but have to be taught the same concepts differently for them to understand.
In order to address the cultural context students bring to their work at Radio Arte, producers have identified various patterns among their Spanish-speaking, recent immigrant students, which have helped them in structuring and planning their three month training course. Radio Arte offers two courses simultaneously, one in Spanish and one in English. Every year, 15 students are recruited for the Spanish class and 15 for the English course. The overall concept and information provided is the same for the English and Spanish class, but the class exercises, supplemental hand-outs, emphasized topic areas vary from one class to the other depending on the students’ interests and knowledge of community issues.
Cultural approaches
Radio Arte is unique in that it is a bilingual radio station and the majority of the people within the reach of the station’s frequency are recent immigrants, familiar with a Spanish journalistic style. In most Latin-American countries, group activities are encouraged, classroom discussions are vital for topic development, and contact with the facilitator outside of the classroom is commonplace. These values have been evident in Radio Arte’s current Spanish speaking class. When given the choice of working in groups or individually, students prefer to work on group projects and suggest combining their productions into one larger documentary.
The English classes, which are mostly composed of first and second generation Mexican-American students who have attended school in the United States for the extent of their educational careers, tend to be more independent, working on commentaries and opinion pieces that express their individualism. As opposed to their Spanish speaking counterparts, the students in the English class emphasize competition and are more conscious of time restraints. Students in the Spanish class are more likely to continue the discussion after class is over and produce audio presentations that tell stories and are rarely argumentative.
Additional differences are for example, when producing a commentary; English speaking students are very direct, blunt, and frank when structuring their scripts. Each paragraph includes a premise, examples, and a concluding argument. Spanish speaking students often engage in conversation, opposed to a brief recap, as a means of discussing the content in an audio production. The choice of words, language, writing techniques and delivery styles of each student are also a reflection of their diverse backgrounds. Spanish–speaking students will tend to depend on detailed observations when telling a story as opposed to English-speaking students who are more likely to include interviews and testimonies in their productions to describe what took place.
Overall, in Latin–American classrooms students use cultural filters to interpret information and assignments. For example, an American student might take the topic of freedom of expression and produce a piece about early hip-hop, while a recent Spanish speaking student might take this opportunity to write a commentary about women workers in Mexico protesting against police corruption. Classrooms become communities where language, customs and life experiences shape student produced radio pieces.
As a result, instructors for both classes not only have to teach journalism but be open to the different styles and backgrounds of their students. Spanish speaking students born in Mexico will need to learn about American media while English speaking students engage with their Latin American culture and peers. An instructor must be sensitive to these differences and be approachable, open to suggestions, and extremely receptive.
By considering the differences that exist between both groups, Radio Arte’s course facilitators have been able to improve student retention and promote participation. Whether it is teaching students how to perform interviews, edit audio or write commentaries, developing a curriculum for a changing society requires that the instructor asses the different ways that students capture and interpret information. Promoting open dialogue allows the practitioner to become aware of the habits, customs, and personal styles of young people.
Advising colleagues on diversity
Recently, I received an email from a producer at a youth-driven news organization. The message read, “Our city has a growing Hispanic population, and several immigrant populations including Burmese, Islamic and Somalian. Would you be willing to advise us on developing a curriculum that would help us teach youth of all cultures?”
My immediate response was three-fold; “Outline exactly what information you want your students to know, be patient and open-minded, and recognize, respect, and accept the different methods that students are accustomed to being taught in their native countries or homes.” By devising a curriculum that is elastic to culture, customs, and language, instructors have the advantage of being able to adjust many sets of norms and values of their diverse student body.
According to Larry Samovar and Richard Porter, authors of Communication between Cultures, “Learning styles and language diversity affect how students learn and participate in the educational process.” Therefore, the methodology instructors partake in a diverse classroom will play a large role in determining what a student learns and if he/she learns anything at all.
Youth media producer checklist: Additional observations to consider when developing your multi-functional curriculum:
Understand your vocabulary and remain neutral: This doesn’t mean that you have to limit your word usage, but eliminating catch-phrases or clichés will help students of varied educational levels and language preferences understand the message that is being conveyed.
Provide students with supplemental hand outs, pictures and bullet-point descriptions that describe the different equipment being used and common terminology. Some students are visual learners and others are more hands-on. Students in the English class at Radio Arte learn by making mistakes. They prefer to perform a live intervention on the radio without watching a disk jockey do it first, while recent immigrants usually ask the instructor to demonstrate the process and show them how to go “live” on the air a couple of times before trying on their own. In American schools, students are taught that “Practice makes perfect,” and therefore the English class students, expect to make mistakes a couple of times before being able to read a commentary flawlessly live.
Use different points of reference for different audiences. Recent immigrants prefer to visit businesses and organizations, perform interviews, and use local Spanish newspapers to do research, while the English class resorts to television websites, books, professional journals, blogs and online newspapers for their information.
Pay attention to the diverse spectrum of knowledge in computer access and technology terminology. By now, most people who use computers on a daily basis know how to burn an MP3 file or a WAV file onto a simple CD-R, using Windows Media Player or I-Tunes. Not true for some students. To make matters more complicated, some students only have access to computers once a month and knowledge of terminology is extremely limited. One possible solution is for youth radio programs to encourage students to teach young people in their community the skills gained in radio training courses.
Develop exercises that can involve both English and Spanish speaking students, by using audio without words, such as gathering sounds to represent words. In radio, sound is crucial for the development of a story, independent of the language being used.
• In a diverse classroom setting where the student must report and discuss topics that involve people of all types, being aware and knowledgeable about human traits and customs is necessary. Therefore, the objective of any curriculum developed for the ever-changing media classroom should be to teach students not only about production techniques and best-practices, but also life-skills and intercultural communication.
Before walking into a diverse media-oriented classroom, youth media instructors need to include four essential items in their backpacks and/or portfolios, including a flexible curriculum, a list of possible exercises that encourage interaction between diverse students, a good dictionary, and of course a notepad to write down observations.
Diversity is inevitable, and should be fostered, but just as the last names on a class roster change, the meaning of the word diversity is subject to interpretation. In community radio, it is not just the sound of the announcer’s voice and the language that he or she speaks that is important, but the context, sources, production and delivery reflects the culture of each story.
Training a diverse group of youth in an adult-oriented medium is an ambitious task that requires an instructor to be open-minded, patient and appreciative of individuality. Above all, the instructor must remain objective, promote uniqueness, and acknowledge the interconnection that exists between people of different cultures. Youth programs and media practitioners must mirror the needs and interests of the community they intend to serve. From observing the radio courses taught at Radio Arte, diversity is undoubtedly an asset that adds to the classroom dynamic if cultivated and harvested by the instructor’s exercises and ability to adapt to a culturally diverse audience. Diversity within a youth media classroom inspires an exchange of ideas and experiences, which contributes to and influences the content and creativity of media products. To ensure that the messages being delivered are understood, instructors must consider the differences in perception, world views, values, verbal, and non verbal, practices of each student when working with a diverse group of students.
Irene is the Training Program Director for Radio Arte 90.5fm Chicago, a bilingual public radio station and a radio disk jockey for La Kalle 103.1 and 93.5fm, a Spanish language commercial radio station. She educates undocumented immigrants of all ethnicities through a monthly column for “Extra Newspaper,” providing weekly articles on sports and local events for “La Raza” newspaper and produces two “live” radio programs- “Without Borders” on Radio Arte and “STEREOTIPO” on La Kalle 103.1 and 93.5 FM in Chicago. She also has produced a program on women’s affairs, entitled “La Femme” for young girls between the ages of 15 and 21.