REEL FATHERS/Real Families : A First-Time Youth Media Production Intensive

It is more and more common for organizations outside the youth media field to incorporate video and media production in their programs, which requires advice and partnership with youth media educators, community youth centers, and professionals.
For example, my organization REEL FATHERS focuses on the relationship between fathers and young children, teens, and incarcerated fathers and their families, using film screenings and facilitated dialogue as reflective tools to promote better father-child relationships. As research from the National Fatherhood Initiative indicates, 24 million children (one in three) live absent from their father. These young people are two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.
We realized that our efforts were not reaching teens enough, despite the range of community partnerships we had in northern and central New Mexico. We wondered if youth media could be an effective way to help young people explore the highly-charged, sensitive subject of fathers. Yet we were concerned that if we asked young people to create films around the theme of fatherhood, they would see the topic as too traditional or painful and thus, not participate. The outcome was quite the opposite, and transformed our approach to the teens and constituents we serve.
Partnering Organizations
New Mexico has some of the greatest poverty, unemployment, youth crime, teen pregnancy and school dropout rates in the nation. At the same time it has a booming film production industry. REEL FATHERS wanted to empower youth through media production to deepen the examination and healing process of their relationship with their fathers/father figures, while providing production skills that could lead to potential careers.
In order to identify, recruit, and effectively support teens in the community, we needed to form relationships to reach participants from local high schools. We already had partnerships with Head Start and United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and local groups that support incarcerated fathers and their families. However, we needed film and teen-specific support.
We approached the following organizations and individuals to partner with:
• Warehouse 21, Santa Fe’s teen art center, which provided the needed production and post-production equipment as well as expertise in designing educational programs for youth;
• GEAR UP!, a national college readiness program funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which provided access to 9th grade students at Capital and Pecos High Schools; and,
• Ed Radtke of Transparent Films as the filmmaker/educator, who brought passion and years of experience in leading youth media workshops.
Our aim was to create a two-week film intensive, where local high school students could tell their story through narrative, documentary, animation or experimental techniques. Funding for this program came from The Seabury Foundation, a Chicago foundation that wished to support REEL FATHERS’ work with disadvantaged youth around the theme of fatherhood. Once we established the above partnerships over a period of several months, we collectively promoted a father-focused media workshop, which resulted in 16 ninth-graders and two senior interns signing up.
At the first workshop, Don McAvinchey, a LISW therapist and coach with 18 years experience working with adjudicated youth and REEL FATHERS’ Director of Reflective Process, led a simple exercise to get participants to talk about their fathers. The first student to speak told us that she was currently homeless and described her abusive, often absent father. She also said how much she loved him, in spite of everything. Her story encouraged other accounts and observations. For example, in the closing circle a participant said: “I never knew my father. I never talk about him. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my chest.” The focus on fatherhood as a theme and focus for storytelling seemed to bring the teens closer together.
During the two weeks that followed, teen filmmakers met every weekday afternoon with lead artist Ed and Angelo Jaramillo, the regional coordinator for GEAR UP.

At Pecos High, seven students worked as one team on a narrative project telling a story they conceived and wrote about a girl getting ready for prom who confides in her friends that she’s pregnant, then has to share this news with her mother and father before her boyfriend arrives: A Prom Story.
At Capital High, students divided into three production teams. Three girls created Three Fathers, a documentary portrait of their fathers, two of them contrasting their birth fathers with their current, adopted fathers. Four youth took a true-life story one of them knew about a young woman corresponding with her father in prison and created The Letter. The young man who never knew his father teamed up another youth to create The Runner—an imaginative re-creation of his father’s experience on the day he, the filmmaker, was born.
On Saturdays, the two groups—one rural, one urban—would come together, along with staff from each school, the partnering organizations, and a few parents. At the second Saturday session, the youth screened their works-in-progress and received feedback and encouragement from Ed, staff, advisors and their fellow students. At the close of the intensive, the youth filmmakers created four moving and original works. A senior intern created a fifth behind-the-scenes documentary portrait of the workshop.
Following the program, the works were screened at special assemblies at each school—enabling parents, friends and peers to see the youth’s work and honor their accomplishments. The youth were proud to stand before the audience and comment on their work, answering questions about their creative process and how the filmmaking experience had touched them personally.
Two of the works—The Runner and The Letter—were selected to show at the local Santa Fe Get Awesome Youth Film Festival. One challenge we noted was the seriousness of approach and emotional maturity of our youth’s films made them stand out from the other entries. The director of The Letter, for example, exclaimed to me “Our [films] were the only depressing films!” The serious nature of their stories on fatherhood actually embarrassed the students.
This reaction leads us to believe that we must continue to develop partnerships with the youth media field—to learn how to encourage confidence, recognition, and ownership of the stories that teens produce, which comes with the kind of relationships that are created in a youth media approach. Currently, we are exploring a possible partnership with Youth Media Project, a radio-based organization in Santa Fe, NM.
What We Learned
Looking back, our first attempt at a media-production intensive helped us identify several important steps to encourage teens to explore stories of a challenging, personal nature. These might be helpful for other organizations that are not interested in starting a media-production component:
• Find partnering organizations that complement your organization’s strengths as program providers, particularly youth media organizations;
• Set up a long lead time to plan the program and promote it throughout the community and your partners’ networks;
• Work with a skilled facilitator, and if possible, an educator in the youth media field;
• Create a safe space and neutral, supportive environment for young people and allies to talk about the theme or focus;
• Provide teens the freedom to choose their production approach and encourage confidence and recognition;
• Find ways to celebrate the completed projects and provide lots of appreciation for the courage and creativity of the filmmakers.
Through our first media-production intensive, we learned that storytelling through media has an important role to play in the lives of young people. It is an expressive means for students to find their voice and to process emotions tied to personal, difficult relationships and issues.
Despite our initial concern that starting with an assigned topic would impede creativity, we found that an area of focus can act as a catalyst, inspiring young people to draw on their innate wisdom, courage, and creative instincts. As a group, teens worked together to transform shared, difficult experience in their lives. We have much to learn from the many organizations throughout the U.S. that are exploring ways to use media to more effectively engage young people. And, collectively, we can learn from the success of the youth media field, where young producers often depict intimate stories for the sake of expression and community/social change.
Deborah Boldt is the executive director of REEL FATHERS. She is an award-winning filmmaker with a longstanding, passionate interest in film as an educational catalyst. Her films have been shown theatrically, broadcast nationally on PBS, and have served as the basis for corporate and educational seminars. Deborah is an Aspen Institute Scholar, the recipient of an NEA Regional Fellowship, and a former board member of the New York Women in Film and Television.

In Search of Safe Passage

As a parent and technology professional raising a man-child in the Digital Age, I’m conflicted. Mainstream media has become the primary source by which we parents are informed about the world, while technology has lured our youth, into what we believe, is the dangerous world of the Internet.
Like most parents, I have heard horror stories of young men and women “hooking up” with strangers found on MySpace, FaceBook, and other web-based chat rooms. We see our children and their friends plug into technology many of us don’t understand: we don’t know what the tools are or what the next generation is using them for. Technology increases the sense many of us have that we’re losing our young people—not only to the digital age, but to gang and street violence, to high drop-out rates, to feelings of despair, alienation, and powerlessness.
At the same time, I recognize that technology is the very tool my son uses to explore and develop his social and cultural capital. It connects him with his peers, and it has the potential to play a larger role in his professional future.
Fortunately, youth media can be a critical bridge between parents and young people, helping alleviate many parents’ fears about where the digital world might be taking our children. Equally important, it can help provide young people safe passage from adolescence to adulthood.
Youth Media as Safe Passage for My Son
I personally experienced the role youth media played in my son’s life. Shortly after the death of my father in December 2007, I experienced the most horrific feelings of hopelessness. My son, once a cheerful, confident, and spirited young man, had become a withdrawn and dark stranger suffering from the loss of his best friend—his grandpa. I was helpless and didn’t have a clue as to how to reach him. He began to show signs of self-doubt and self-destruction.
Not only did I have to find a way to reach my son, but my son needed to begin his journey into adulthood. He was turning 16 and had not thought about his life after high school. Knowing his love for movies, writing, and reading, I found Community Television Network (CTVN) on Chicago’s After-School Matter’s website. After his acceptance into the digital video production internship program, both my son Teal and I began to heal through his youth media experience at CTVN. Teal did a 3- to 5-minute video about his grandpa, interviewing himself and my memorable experiences with my dad. It was powerful and “therapeutic” for us.
Youth media allowed Teal to re-direct his energy into the creative process of filmmaking and over the past year, developed a passion for editing. Teal developed critical life-skills during his time with CTVN. Often times, Teal would come home from “work” and share with me the cool things he learned in working with Program Director Tom Bailey or one of the older youth producers.
Unbeknownst to Tom and others at CTVN, Teal had developed a strong sense of direction and self-confidence through the mentoring and guidance that CTVN provided. Teal has sought advice from CTVN staffers about pursuing other internship opportunities to expand his learning and experience in editing. This confidence has carried over to his schoolwork and the way he views himself as a young man coming of age. As a result, he now attends the DeVry University Advantage Academy High School (DUAAHS) and is studying web graphic design. He plans to complete his degree at DeVry and take classes in film at Columbia.
Safe Passage & Community Television Network
Youth media offered a space for my son to explore and heal; specifically, it gave him safe passage. Researcher Joy Dryfoos and author of Safe Passages: Making it through Adolescence in a Risky Society (1998) defines safe passage as, “Assuring that children will be able to grow into responsible adults who can enter the labor force, become effective parents, and participate in the social and political life of the society.” In other words, safe passage means preparing children for the future and helping them make a safe transition from adolescence to adulthood.
While the core of youth media does not focus on “safe passage,” it often achieves it. Based on my first-hand experience with CTVN, students gain invaluable real-life work experience using professional, high-end tools such as Soundtrack Pro, FinalCut Pro, boom mics, HD video recorders, and more. They also learn to negotiate group dynamics, develop leadership abilities, and view mainstream media with a critical eye.
In an interview with Bailey, the role youth media plays in helping young people safely transition from adolescence to adulthood is evident. He explains, “Last year, we worked with 15 high school seniors at CTVN. Out of those, 11 are in college. The program really shows students a future in the industry. They finish a project where they can see their work pays off, [which supplies] positive reinforcement and motivation. You can develop meaningful relationships with the students that lack that kind of encouragement at home or in school.”
Youth media organizations like CTVN provide more than digital video production training. They mentor, guide, and motivate youth to strive for greater academic and professional aspirations—something often missing from the lives of at-risk teens.
What Youth Producers Say
Youth media helps fill a void and creates a safe place where teens can be productive, but still “hang.” During an informal small-group discussion with 20 high school teens employed as youth interns through Chicago’s After-School Matters (ASM) program, a few of the teens shared their comments about where they would be if they were not at CTVN: “’I’d probably be downtown just hanging out.’ ‘If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have anything to do.’ ‘I’d probably be at home sleeping.’”
In many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to find young people hanging on street corners with nothing to do. I believe youth media can inspire change for these young people and create alternate spaces for them to put their time and energy to better use. Given that many teens hang out in groups, they can leverage this group dynamic to structure a meaningful and concise way of communicating, through youth media. CTVN youth producer William Colon explains that he and his crew “contribute their voices to a larger community” while promoting positive youth images through media. A recent video project, for example, emphasizes the importance of youth participating in art as a positive alternative to gangs and drugs while telling their stories of oppression, death and pain.
Youth media provides both young people and parents the “why” behind their actions. Youth media can afford parents insight into the psyche of young people—with the hopes of using what we learn to create safe passage solutions based on what they need and feel and not solely on what we want for them.
So Where Are the Parents of Youth Producers?
Because youth media has shown itself to be so important in the lives of many of our teens, I expected the audience, as in years past, for the spring screening at CTVN this year to be packed. Sure enough, about 30 teens attended—but only five parents showed along with about six other adults (instructors and youth media practitioners).
I wondered if parents were still at work, but the screening was at 6:30 p.m. I wondered if youth producers possibly did not inform their parents about the screening; or, perhaps the location was too far for parents to attend. I couldn’t help but wonder: are we re-living DJ Jazzy Jeff’s (Will Smith) 1988 youth anthem, “Parents Just Don’t Understand”—20 years later?
While I still don’t know why more parents didn’t attend the screening, I am confident that those who weren’t there missed out on an important opportunity to connect with their children and other young people. As the mother of one youth producer said, “I had no idea what kind of work [my daughter] was doing. I mean I know that she has always been technically inclined, but I had no idea the level of work these kids produce. Other parents need to know about the work these kids are doing. This is a good program!”
Building the Bridge
Youth media can bridge the “generational gap” that exists between parents and young people. While I’m confident youth media organizations are creative in their outreach to youth, perhaps a joint collaboration of youth practitioners focused on parents will increase youth media knowledge among adults. Attendance to local events like “Healing the Hood” in the Little Village community is a venue youth media can showcase youth works to help parents see their children as burgeoning adults with informed, thoughtful opinions on anything from the environment to politics and school policy.
In the future, a Youth Media Summit specifically for parents would be a useful way to engage parents, youth, and other youth media practitioners in a meaningful dialogue about collectively supporting youth media as a catalyst for safe passage initiatives in our schools and neighborhoods. I believe this type of forum would help break down barriers and lead to real solutions that will:
• Reduce parents’ fears and misconceptions about youth media
• Open or improve communications between parents and youth
• Increase parent involvement in youth media initiatives
• Spark discussion about linking youth media and safe passage in communities plagued with gang and youth violence
Next Steps
In a time where we are losing our young people to violence, creative solutions are needed to connect parents, teens, and the community out of the digital fog. What will inspire a youngster from Englewood, the Wild Hundreds, or Westside to put down a gun and pick-up a video camera? How can youth media serve as a catalyst for change while helping parents become more aware of what’s going on in the world beyond mainstream media? We live in a time where practitioners, decision-makers and concerned community stakeholders need to explore the integration of safe passage initiatives into youth media projects to save our youth and our communities.
Babylon S. Williams is an undergraduate student at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago, Illinois pursuing her degree in Community Development. She works as a professional for an instructional technology firm and is a member of Family Focus, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), and the Midwest Education Regional Association (MWERA). Babylon is also the proud mother of her 17-year old son, Teal Williams.