Media and Expression: An Approach for Helping Girls Process Trauma

When one of Teen Voices’ 16-year-old teen editors found out that she had lost her aunt and cousins in the Haiti earthquake, she stood in our offices, shaking and crying. She was one of many to get devastating news that day. The earthquake reached deep into Boston’s Haitian community—the third largest in the United States—where countless families lost relatives.
At Teen Voices, we recognize that providing a space to write, process, and speak—both in person and on the radio—can help girls process trauma while alerting media outlets that girls’ voices are critical to the global dialogue.
About Teen Voices
At Teen Voices, we serve approximately 200 low-income girls of color each year. Most girls are dealing with critical issues in their lives that require maturity far beyond their years.
We work with many girls who are dealing with poverty, parental abandonment, and terminally ill parents; some are teen mothers, some are experiencing emotional or physical abuse, and some are impacted by gang life and prostitution. A host of deeply personal issues call for the attention of an intergenerational support network, which is what Teen Voices provides.
Typically at Teen Voices, we encourage girls to think about the sexualized, marginalized images of women in the media. We support girls to examine the media’s fixation on beauty and challenge constructed norms of female identity. Girls recognize that they are not represented accurately in the media and that real stories and statistics take investment, research, and a viable outlet. Mentors and staff help girls to analyze the media, suggesting other, healthier options, and training on creating these options.
In the process, Teen Voices becomes an outlet for girls experiencing traumatic events in their personal lives. For every half hour spent working on a feature article, a separate half hour is spent discussing, say, the bullying that many girls experience at school. A 16-year-old mother focuses on her journalism skills for an hour, and then spends a second hour talking with her mentoring group about the challenges of mothering. Girls routinely enter our program shy, wary, and intimidated; two months later, they are affectionate, engaged, and driven.
Girls Respond to Haiti
The earthquake in Haiti directly impacted many of the girls we serve. Their voices were not represented in the news and it was clear that as a youth organization, we needed to respond to the trauma the girls were going through. We also felt the real lack of media representation for this community, and saw the girls’ frustration that their voices weren’t being heard.
In response, we put together a special feature that became a testimony of what the girls and their country lost, connecting the girls to each other through shared experiences and the written word. Their essays speak to a deeply wounded country, a sense of frustration with the way newscasters portray this country, and of course,an overwhelming sense of loss.
For example, in Sabrina Isaac’s essay, she writes, “This disaster will forever haunt me ‘till I take my last breath on this planet. I lie at night with pictures under my pillow that we took in July 2009, and I say, ‘They’re not really dead, they’ll come back to me. This is all a just a nightmare.’ Then reality sets back in, and I have to deal with knowing that they are gone forever.”
Isaac shared her essay on Boston radio station WBUR. An intense experience for anyone let alone a teen in trauma, the 16-year-old participated because she wanted to tell others her story. Getting girls’ voices on the air offered a much-needed diversification of sources on the Haiti disaster, giving a rare in-depth look at a global story from the perspective of girls.
Upon reflection, Isaac says she felt relieved that she was able to share her story through writing and on the radio, because she “felt like other people would know how [the earthquake] affected people firsthand instead of just hearing it on the news. Just by looking at it on the news, you wouldn’t really understand unless someone actually told you what he or she went through when it happened,” she says.
She says the experience made her feel more comfortable opening up, and helped her process her thoughts so she was able to focus more clearly on the day to day.
“It’s no longer something that’s always on my mind,” Isaac says. “When it happened, I didn’t do too well in school, it was just something I would always think about in school, [where] I would just blank out. Then after writing it down and talking about it, it was like, ‘OK Sabrina, you can do this, you can think about other things.’”
Lynn Celestin, another of Teen Voices’ teen editors, responds similarly. She says that writing and speaking about the Haiti disaster made her realize the benefits of talking to others about her problems.
“Now, when something happens to me, I share it,” Celestin says. “It’s easier to share it out because people can help you, instead of keeping it inside where nothing’s being done about it.” She continues, “Writing it down felt permanent. People got to see how I was feeling, and it was exactly how I felt. It wasn’t just me yelling, it was in writing.”
Celestin shared her essay about Haiti, and her thoughts on the media coverage of the earthquake, on Commonwealth Journal, a public affairs radio program produced by WUMB Radio on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. She describes the experience as nerve-racking but meaningful. Celestin taps into a key aspect of combining writing and speaking as a means to process trauma and amplify girls’ voices:
“Writing was one step,” she says, “and then talking about it meant everybody else could hear. When I knew they were finally listening, it was that much easier to say.”
For both girls, it was in part a public expression of pain that garnered them the air time to share their stories—not an easy or desirable experience, but a necessary one in the interest of adding their voices to the conversation. By giving girls a supportive environment, some training in writing and speaking, and a microphone, we will learn a great deal more about the young people in our communities. And through this combination of introspection and outward expression, we can establish a process for girls to share and make sense of their experiences.
Suggestions to the Field
Consider working with teens in your program on an exercise that allows them to process difficult emotions privately and publicly, in that order. Draw on community resources to support the girls in this process: seek input from youth workers, therapists, and writers who have experience working with teens.
Approach media outlets that are open to diverse viewpoints and will take young participants seriously.
Give your teen participants the media training they need to accomplish a successful interview. Run mock interviews with them ahead of the “real thing.”
Remind teens that they can stop writing or speaking if they feel uncomfortable. This ceases to be a useful exercise if they feel overwhelmed.
Next Steps
When we wonder why more women aren’t in positions of power in media, politics, engineering, mathematics, and countless other fields, we have to look at the options available to them on the newsstand, and the limited exposure their authentic voices receive on television and radio.
Amplifying real girls’ voices in television and print early will help us grow a new generation of women who can speak effectively to public affairs and communicate about their emotional wellbeing. Asking girls what they think, and listening to what they have to say, is the first step toward evening the playing field. It’s also the only way to capture the real experiences of young people, who have much to contribute to dialogue around world events like the Haiti earthquake.
Jessica Moore is the editor and publisher at Teen Voices, a print and online magazine created entirely by teen girls through a journalism mentoring program. Moore was previously managing editor of digital media for New York-based nonprofit Sesame Workshop, and senior education producer for U.S. News and World Report. She was also online producer for PBS NewsHour, working largely on arts and politics coverage as well as news content for teens. Moore is a contributing writer to the arts journal Big Red & Shiny, and is a member of the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Online News Association.