Youth Media: Invaluable and Life Changing

Chrystian Rodriguez is a youth-producer-turned-media educator who currently works at Global Action Project (G.A.P.) in New York City where he writes curricula, develops community relationships, and works directly with a new generation of filmmakers. Since joining G.A.P. in 2004, Chrystian has facilitated a variety of programs with young people from different communities as well as identity groups. He has also devoted his time to co-organizing youth film festivals, coordinating and facilitating media literacy, production and political education programs locally and nationally; specifically, in conferences such as the Grassroots Media Conference, the Allied Media Conference and the United States Social Forum. Chrystian is also a pop-culture guru and has begun research on the subject in educational environments during his time spent as a fellow of the Youth Media Learning Network. He is also very obsessed with zombies.
With nine years of media education experience behind him, Chrystian reflects on his experience as a youth producer, his youth media genealogy and career trajectory, as well as his future goals to open his own youth media organization one day.
YMR: Your first experience with media production was a call-in TV show hosted by the MNN Youth Channel in New York City. What did you gain from this experience and how did it impact your next steps as a media producer and educator?
Chrystian Rodriguez: I had an early interest in connecting politics with media. It came about during a media class at my high school. It offered me a new way to understand what’s behind the media, its purpose and intentions. Even more than that, I started to think about the connection between filmmakers and what they are producing for an audience—what you want them to take away from the experience, the story, but also what you want your audience to take away about you as a filmmaker [and] your world view. My media class teacher took notice of my interests and recommended that I become a part of the MNN Youth Channel (YC); a youth media program within Manhattan’s public broadcast channel. And so, I began working as a volunteer supporting youth in production while exploring my own cinematic/broadcast interests.
I quickly moved from a volunteer to producer. I co-hosted a call-in TV show that critiqued current films and engaged young people in discussions about movies. Youth Channel staff recognized my ability to work collaboratively with other youth, beyond my technical skills, and so they asked me to become a peer trainer. Soon, I ran both technical and editing workshops for other YC participants. I enjoyed it but I was insanely shy, and so it was difficult for me because it was the first time I was in a leadership role and I needed to be able to facilitate and communicate in new ways.
YMR: Not long after, you transitioned to an executive producer role for “Defense Against Media Nonsense,” a role in which you taught yourself how to facilitate the production process with young people. In what ways did you grow through that experience? How did it change the way you view the world?
Rodriguez: Because the staff at YC was interested in my personal growth, they transitioned me out of the peer trainer position, and at age 18 I became the executive producer of a television show called “D.A.M.N. YC NEWS!?” (Defense Against Media Nonsense).” The experience was trial by fire and learning by doing and showed me that you have to grow into being an educator.
When I became responsible for producing—on my own—a 30-minute piece every two weeks, I quickly realized that the format was not going to appeal to a young audience. So I [led] a planning process with my YC peers. [The] vision and new format would soon be identified as an alternative youth news show. Being the point person was new to me—planning, coordinating committee meetings, and then managing production—and challenged me to bring my creative self to become an educator/media maker. Guiding the YC team [I had] to create a learning process for others. At this point there was no room for shyness.
YMR: Soon after you moved into an educator position at Global Action Project (G.A.P.). What were your first few years like? Did you find things that surprised, inspired, or intimidated you?
Rodriguez: I got exposed to NYC’s youth media landscape through the Urban Visionaries Youth Film Festival, which helped me build relationships with many organizations and learn from their different approaches and missions. That is how I got to the Global Action Project (G.A.P.), a youth media organization that works with young people most affected by injustice in order to build the knowledge, tools and relationships needed to create media for community power, cultural expression, and political change.
During the first few years working as an educator there, I developed a new perspective on youth media. I began to see that it wasn’t simply about the production process, but also about exploring identity and helping young people understand for themselves the ways in which they are affected or oppressed by media messages. Most importantly, I began to understand how media could be used as a tool for young people to think critically about the conditions that affect their communities and discover themselves politically.
The kinds of things that encouraged me at G.A.P. included stepping into a co-facilitator model, working in collaboration with another educator to bring our strengths and interests into the curriculum and our programs. A fundamental difference between co-facilitation and working alone is that, as a co-facilitator, you are in constant dialogue with another educator, negotiating facilitation style, communication, curriculum ideas, and hopefully, building best practices together. It also helps us become more accessible to the youth in the program because there are two adults to connect with. When it works, there is a stronger dynamic and peer analysis between facilitators about what young people need, what youth are bringing into the educational space, and how their experiences and knowledge can be incorporated into the media process. That also speaks to the popular education approach that G.A.P. uses.
There are two other things that I’ve been part of that have helped to shape my approach to this practice. First is that I play a key role in constantly revising and applying G.A.P.’s curriculum (, which means that I’ve taken on both staff development support for other media educators across the field through trainings and workshops. Most recently, I worked with folk to revise the structure of G.A.P.’s core framework. Specifically, we worked to make sure that we communicate through our curriculum both the oppressive and libratory potential of media. It’s the idea of praxis—that whenever there is oppression, there will also be people working for justice by identifying the challenge, taking action, assessing the outcomes, and following up on what’s next that can lead to a victory. For us, the key component is the media’s role in this process, for better or worse.
Personally, I have also worked to develop a way to include popular culture in an educational space. I’ve done this for two reasons:
1) Pop culture is a powerful force in shaping the way we think; and,
2) It is crucial to young people’s daily experience—they are immersed in it—so educators must unpack pop culture with youth in the work we do.
I believe that as educators, we need to support young people in deconstructing pop culture without taking the joy out of consuming it. I had the chance to explore this idea through my time as a Youth Media Learning Network fellow by developing a workshop called “reframing pop culture.” The workshop was designed to challenge the universal concept of the “every man” hero reflected in mainstream media. By repurposing characters from movies such as X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Matrix, unrepresented communities like immigrant youth experimented with rewriting and structuring narratives to include their own stories and histories.
As an educator, I am continually learning. For each young person, what he or she takes away from the media production process is unique. There’s no one approach, and no single outcome. I want to give young people some of what I gained through my experience learning media production and analysis at a young age.
YMR: Sometimes G.A.P. requires young people to have challenging or uncomfortable conversations in order to arrive at a new understanding of a social issue. Can you name one project that stands out to you as both trying and fruitful? What did you learn?
Rodriguez: G.A.P. does a lot of political education with youth in the process of making media and supports young people to think about media as a kind of political entity. This means that the workshops sometimes lead people into challenging conversations, as they understand the existing ideological and political components of media. In the beginning, there is often a lot of push back from the young people, particularly if they’ve never had these kinds of conversations before, as they start to see that the conditions they face are not random, but have histories and systems in place to sustain them. Everything is not always peachy. This is about critical thinking.
And while some conversations are difficult, they’re also invaluable. And as an educator/facilitator it’s important that you shape the space for these conversations to be productive and positive for the development of young people as individuals and as a working group.
For example, a few years back I co-facilitated a group that wanted to make a video examining the relationship between beauty standards and race. It invited a conversation about privilege among certain social groups and the lasting impact of colonialism on concepts of beauty closely related to Eurocentric standards. This was a challenging conversation to facilitate in a racially diverse group of youth who rarely get to talk to each other across race and identity about this kind of issue, especially for mixed race youth identifying as white.
The reason it was hard is not simply about “difference,” but exploring identity through history, and supporting youth to critically reflect on who they are. The result was Beauty and the Box, a sci-fi narrative that critiques media’s role in shaping beauty standards. And while the final piece is not explicitly about race and beauty to the extent our conversations were, the process was essential to informing the piece—who they cast as the hero, and the contrasting worlds they created. Their relationships and conversations went way beyond the video and advanced the critical thinking in their daily lives.
YMR: What would you say to a funder that asks why youth media programs are important for urban youth?
Rodriguez: By “urban youth,” do you mean youth of color who come from oppressed communities? If we’re talking about youth media in general, then it’s about providing tools for youth to represent themselves and their communities for the simple purpose of telling a story that is not often heard. It’s a way for youth to explore and “put their voice out there,” but that’s not all it can be. Not all youth media organizations are the same.
For example, at the Youth Channel I learned how to effectively develop and manage production for broadcast in a way that was youth-generated, and at G.A.P. we have a very specific social justice framework. So for a funder, these kinds of programs create ownership tied to youth history, experiences, and identities. And the reason why that’s important is because, as youth are immersed in mainstream media it affects their thinking and provides a space to question and build their analysis of the world. Ideally, it gives youth a way to align themselves with advocacy campaigns through the production of messages used for social justice.
YMR: What three things would you like every young person to walk away with after going through a youth media program?
Rodriguez: I would like young people to leave G.A.P. with the tools, resources and the knowledge to use media practices for their own use—whether or not ideologically motivated—to have access to a supported process of identity exploration. I’d like young people to understand that knowing themselves is a large part of the media production process and leave with the understanding that media is a large part of our culture and society shapes we do. I would like them to have a better state of mind about how to read the media that we’re fed every day, what we’re apt to understand as our reality, and be able to reflect, and question, and to have a critical distance from it.
[As educators, we must help youth] to understand a non-hierarchical model for media production—working collectively [as a] team to identify with and produce something that they can all connect with. When you build on an understanding about how work can happen in a non-hierarchical space, this can also directly be translated into our daily experiences in communication and working with other in our community.
YMR: What is your dream for the next ten years of your work in the youth media field?
Rodriguez: My dream for the next ten years? This is actually a question I asked myself not to long ago. I really want to be in a place where I will be working on my own media projects specifically connected to my ideological beliefs. I also want to extend my experience and knowledge as an educator, providing professional development workshops and/or presenting in lectures available for other educators. [One day, I’ll] create and manage my own youth media organization—a dream I aspire [to fulfill].

Challenging the Silences and Omissions of Dominant Media: Youth-led Media Collectives in Colombia

Diana Coryat, Global Action Project
The purpose of this article is to introduce scholars and practitioners of youth and community media to exemplary youth-led media projects in Colombia. It highlights case studies of two media collectives led by Afro-Colombian and Indigenous youth, who are producing media under difficult conditions fueled by war, violence and poverty. This article explores the following questions: how do oppressed or marginalized groups in Colombia use media to challenge the invisibility of their social and political identities, perspectives, and struggles in the media and public discourse? And, when they do receive attention, how do they challenge the dominant narratives that circulate in the mainstream media and public discourse about their communities? Thirdly, as Colombia is embroiled in an internal armed conflict, what are the challenges they and other mediamakers face within that difficult context?
Download Diana Coryat’s article here.

Youth Media is Coming Out

Growing up queer in a hetero-normative society is complicated, risky and tricky to navigate. More than a quarter of queer youth have dropped out of school, and a third have attempted suicide in the previous year, citing harassment as a reason. Twenty to forty percent of queer youth account for young people without homes—often because their families find fault with their sexuality (Wright, Colorlines).
For many queer youth (an inclusive term for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Intersexed, and Questioning individuals), looking or “acting gay” is fraught with dangerous social ramifications. The process of coming out and “becoming” queer is difficult to explore. As a result, it is sometimes safer to stay in the closet. Unlike their peers of color, queer youth are less likely to have a queer parent or family member to go to when oppressive comments take their toll. In general, queer youth have a difficult time finding the support of adults, family members, and peers because they risk abandonment, rejection, and abuse in “coming out.” Finally, many of the existing LGBT centers and queer social spaces predominantly cater to adults 21 and over.
Fortunately, queer youth are able to find support and community at youth media programs because they encourage young people to tell their stories and share their perspectives. For many queer young people, youth media programs allow for a confessional “coming out” as they build community in a safe and supportive environment—often alongside non-queer peers. Learning from queer youth experiences at these organizations, practitioners can get a better sense of how and why they should support queer youth media.
A Space of Becoming & Belonging
In almost a dozen interviews, almost every queer young person at youth media organizations remarked on the unique, close-knit community among queer peers and mentors. The prominence of this theme suggests queer youth require and value a safe space to confess their coming out story, explore and express identity, and essentially “become” queer within themselves, their homes, and communities.
“Becoming” is a term used by Lori MacIntosh and Mary Bryson two professors at the University of British Columbia, in their article “Youth, MySpace, and the Interstitial Spaces of Becoming and Belonging,” in the Journal of LGBT Youth. In their article, they identify how social networking sites like MySpace have become “everyday locations of engagement…changing the way [queer youth] are made visible [and are] recognized.” Establishing one’s identity as queer in a public space is essential to “becoming.” To that end, youth media programs are similar to virtual social networking sites and, arguably, better since they provide a physical space for becoming that youth desperately need in their lives.
For example, Daniel, an 18-year-old queer Puerto Rican-raised-Muslim, dropped out of school in 9th grade because he felt constantly harassed by peers and adults. Fortunately, together with six of his peers, he co-founded SupaFriends at Global Action Project in New York City and became part of a family of queer youth (and supportive adults) who shared their coming out stories by creating video pieces with a social justice component. Daniel (aka Gaydussa) explains, “SupaFriends helped me feel comfortable and safe enough to come out to my parents. To feel safe—not be judged, have fun, work together, lead and inform—[and] have a visible and visual coming out story is important.”
Importantly, youth media programs also allow queer youth to control how they define and express their identity. Jeff McHale, creative director of Split Pillow—a non-profit motion picture and media literacy education company in Chicago, IL—states, “Creating art, whether it be film, theater, music or fine arts can be a therapeutic [process] for many queer youth.” He continues, “Giving them the opportunity to create their own [media] allows them to make the kind of [queer representation] that they wish [and] want to see.” Through youth media, queer youth can be part of a more positive, visible and recognized representation of queer identity and culture.
By claiming a queer identity and then collectively representing it, queer youth can accomplish what MacIntosh and Bryson identify as the next stage in development: “belonging.” Belonging occurs when a public community develops and becomes “the space of movement.” By screening films, airing radio shows, or recording songs, queer youth media achieves that space by reaching a public audience. Often, this audience is interactive, inciting community and belonging. For many queer youth, this opportunity to be recognized is life changing.
Social & Political Impact
Through youth media programs, queer youth are finding the space not only to look inward but to create media that questions societal norms, challenge oppressive outlooks, and inspire a change in perspective. For many queer youth, this is their one shot at getting a message out. By working with other young people, queer youth discover inventive and collaborative ways to interact with and affect their audience’s perspective.
Queer youth produce media that serve as models for how to combat homophobia and stereotypes in powerful, sometimes playful, and, most importantly, effective ways. Most, if not all, queer youth media are tailored to both queer and straight audiences, broadening dialogue across difference. Professor Mary Gray, who focuses on youth media at Indiana University, suggests, “Queer youth challenge mainstream media, [demonstrating] that they are politically savvy and already at the forefront of community activism [with] a host of other young people. They aren’t just concerned with their identities—although they are certainly important—they’re also concerned with what’s happening in the world.”
In 2007, Daniel at SupaFriends and two other queer youth producers created an animation called Three Queer Mice. Their piece was based on their approach to, and research of, nursery rhymes. Daniel and his co-conspirators imagined what it would be like to have grown up hearing queer tales. So, they changed the words in the rhyme, revealing the stories of three queer “mice”—a gay mouse that leaves school “because his gender expression was in disregard,” a transgender mouse that gets arrested for using the “wrong” bathroom, and a mouse representing Sakia Gunn, who was stabbed and murdered in 2003 for being a lesbian.

After screening the film at Urban Visionaries Youth Film Festival, a straight peer came up to congratulate Daniel on what he felt was a “really good, clever, and eye opening” film. This conversation meant a lot to Daniel, as it not only proved the film did its job but also connected him to a seemingly impossible audience to reach. As a result, Daniel believes that youth media is part of social change. He explains, “If you’re queer and making media and you have a certain issue you want to approach using media—that is social justice.”
Liza Brice, a young woman who has interned at various queer radio programs explains, “[Young people] need spaces to be involved [in] transformative change to undo oppressive pressure and in doing so, produce something liberating.” In Seattle, WA, three young producers at Reel Grrls worked to create a liberating and humorous approach to homophobia and stereotypes in the mainstream. The team of queer and straight young women wanted to encourage audiences to examine prejudices in a non-threatening manner by asking the question, “What would it be like to live as a straight person in a gay world?”
Dedicated to “all those still in the closet,” Coming Out… is a mockumentary video the team produced that illuminates the impact of heterosexism and homophobia on the identities of queer youth in a strategically welcoming manner. The film serves as an important example of the approaches queer and non-queer come up with when they work together to address a social issue.

Recognizing the power of the film, practitioners at Reel Grrls pushed beyond the typical extent of a youth media video program so that the producers could engage with youth audiences at schools. Wanting the producers to be part of distribution, they identified ways to support and gain funding, inviting the producers to create an accompanying distribution guide—which one of the producers co-taught—to several middle schools, high schools, and universities (See Lila Kitaeff’s accompanying article). Their anti-homophobic curriculum alongside screening Coming Out… provided important insights as to what collectively queer youth and their families and friends experience in the “coming out” process and how to address homophobia.
If it weren’t for youth media providing an opportunity to make media in such a specific space, queer youth may never have access to a public audience (that includes family and friends). Queer youth need an audience to receive their messages, witness their stories, and see that they, too, belong. Like in Daniel’s case, Global Action Project provided the type of public screening that could make Three Queer Mice accessible to a straight peer. Because these instances are rare—partly due to mainstream media, peer pressure, conformity, cliques at school and fear of rejection or violence for being queer—queer youth benefit immensely from youth media programs.
What Practitioners Can Do
Catering to queer youth requires a lot of care, focus, time, and on-going support. Queer youth need a lot of attention and room to take the lead. The formula for a successful educator relies on a delicate mix of personality, style, empathy and dedication. Almost every queer young person interviewed mentioned a practitioner at his or her organization who really made him or her feel supported, who listened, and who allowed for a space to say whatever he or she wanted. The practitioners that made the most impact were extremely available and understanding. They backed up queer youth, joined forces in their struggles and hopes, and believed in their ability to make a difference. But most importantly, the instructor did not judge them. Finding the right practitioner to cater to queer youth requires professional development and training, resource and time allocation, dialogue, and a compassionate listener.
Practitioners should keep in mind that outside of youth media organizations, it is often not easy to identify queerness or allies. Rejection, violence and other exclusionary social reactions to queer sexuality keep many youth from openly discussing sexual orientation. For non-queer youth subject to oppression, the likelihood that they can turn to an understanding and empathic parent or adult is much higher than that of a queer youth who, unfortunately, risks the same social rejection within their own families. As Zaida Sanabia, a youth producer at Beyondmedia in Chicago, IL explains, “Without [adult allies] it would take a lot of courage for a young person to bring up queer issues [and represent that in media].”
The beauty of youth media organizations is that queer youth can be supported while engaging with other young people expressing their stories. As youth producer Ana Lopez at REACH LA reflects, “We are so different, but we’ve all had similar struggles in finding ourselves.” Lopez’s claim that all young people have had struggles provides the necessary backdrop for queer youth to unite common experiences that, ultimately, bridge the homophobic divide.
With the help of facilitators, young people can engage in conversations not commonly found in every day discourse that positively examine the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality. Kali Snowden, one of the producers (and main character) of Coming Out… explains, “Oftentimes we create a lot of negative energy by talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia.” She continues, “[We need to] be more light-hearted, all inclusive, and recognize we all take part in oppression.”
McCarter at Split Pillow suggests that practitioners “Have everyone sit around and talk about issues [which] reinforce the fact that queer and straight youth have more in common than they sometimes think.” Professor Gray explains, “conversations about queerness among non-queer youth [are] incredibly valuable. Getting all young people to look at their attitudes about sexual and gender difference gives them a chance to see how they are both different from but not that unlike their queer peers.”
Practitioners can also learn from the few organizations that have queer-specific programming, such as Reel Grrls in Seattle, WA; Beyondmedia, Radio Arte, and Split Pillow in Chicago, IL; Global Action Project in New York, NY; and REACH LA in Los Angeles, CA. And in the U.K., there’s Queer Youth Radio.
Gina Lamb at REACH LA suggests the following to practitioners working with queer youth:
• Set serious group-decided ground rules. Identify space that is positive, safe, and away from outside drama.
• Do not tolerate oppressive comments. It is the responsibility of the group to call out discriminatory language.
• Everyone has participatory buy in (think the film The Breakfast Club) and can be vulnerable to each other.
• Facilitators must be ready and prepared to deal with tough topics, which will require resources and collaborative teaching.
• Reach out to other programs for training.
• Be a supportive and accepting adult ally, advocate and role model to queer youth, knowing that many do not have access to such adults.
Next Steps
Youth media is one of the best tools to support queer youth to build a positive identity because the focus of programs often encourages youth to claim and represent their identities despite harmful stereotypes projected by mainstream media. By providing a space to process becoming and belonging, youth media affords queer youth to finally amplify their stories and share their points of view among a community. Steven Liang, a teen activist in L.A. explains, “[Our stories] really foreshadow what could become amazing change in the future. If [queer] youth don’t tell their stories and document who they are and where they’ve been, then there won’t be much to look back on in the future.”
But their stories, in fact, radically affect the future. As Professor Gray explains, “[The] most revolutionary use of new media by queer youth is to connect with and circulate the range of stories and disseminate political strategies via new media.” These dialogues have the potential to build coalitions, partnerships between youth media and national LGBT organizations/Gay-Straight Alliances, and tap into major youth-led anti-hate movements—echoing the grassroots foundation of the youth media movement in history. Youth media educators who believe in supporting young people need to make a concerted effort to empower queer youth. With the support of youth media programs, queer youth can create media that confronts stereotype and bias in their own lives and in the greater society.
Ingrid Hu Dahl is the editor of Youth Media Reporter and a founding member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn, New York. She has an M.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies and is the guitarist in the band Boyskout.
Macintosh, Lori and Mary Bryson, “Youth, MySpace, and the Interstitial Spaces of Becoming and Belonging,” Journal of LGBT Youth, Vol. 5 (1) 2007.
Wright, Kai, “Risking it All to Find Safety,” in Colorlines (Issue no 44: May | June 2008)
Reach LA’s Queer Youth Crashpad