Radio Stands Out

Imagine going back to high school, where stereotypes, rumors, and cliques run rampant like the spread of flu in the workplace. Maybe you remember what it felt like as a young person to manage the categorization that consumed your daily attendance at school, which perhaps was at times, embarrassing and hurtful, but more often silencing. What would it have been like if, during our youth, there were safe and accessible ways to communicate our self-expression, perspective, identity and voice?
Youth-made radio is unique because it provides youth producers a sense of anonymity and freedom to express oneself outside of the everyday routine of social politics. With only the use of voice and sound, radio allows young people a space to openly ask questions and discuss issues regarding their communities, social and political issues, and personal identity.
A sense of anonymity
Radio is a place for young people to explore expression, imagination and voice, no matter who they are or what their background may be. For example, Erin Yanke from KBOO Youth Collective in Portland, OR explains, “radio is a unique tool for all people because you are not judged by your appearance and it is one of the few mediums where the more you talk the more powerful you are.” Radio is the exact modality for young people to amplify their deepest concerns and explore their personal development offering fertile ground to construct and express their own identity.
In addition, radio is cheap, accessible, entertaining, and transmitted across radio waves locally, nationally and internationally. With advances in digital radio and podcasts, youth produced stories are accessible world-wide.
Because anyone can speak on radio without immediately disclosing their identity, young people have a better chance to be heard by adults in this medium than on television, in public, or even in print. These other mediums present images alongside opinions. Images sometimes cause people to discount the ideas presented because the person is too young, too poor, or too ethnic. While radio by no means tries to hide the value of these critical perspectives, because of the limited cues that identify people as a certain demographic, radio is able to captivate listeners to hear the messages of young producers. This aspect of radio helps adults hear the ideas of young people before judging them. For their opinions and ideas to have an impact on the larger community, young people need to be heard not just by other youth, but adults in the community.
In addition, the location of where broadcasts are recorded is not often identifiable, which again strips associations and pre-conceived notions based on one’s background, class or race. This is extremely important for marginalized youth; those who have been voiceless as a result of socially constructed ideologies. These young people have some of the most important and valuable perspectives on issues of injustice. Through radio, these young people can enhance their ability to analyze, critique, and speak out on issues and create solutions to the issues they uncover. In some cases, radio provides young people who cannot have a voice in the public—such as incarcerated youth—a platform to speak beyond the walls of detention centers. For example, in Portland, ME incarcerated youth at Long Creek Detention Center have the opportunity to travel to WMPG, Greater Portland Community Radio every six to eight weeks to broadcast their features and interviews live. Having the chance to broadcast beyond the walls of a detention center is powerful for young people because they can finally have their voices heard without the visual stigma attached to prison life. Radio broadcast for many of these young people is the only way to get their voices heard and their perspectives represented, to an engaged and widespread listener base.
The voices of marginalized youth are important because they bring to the table perspectives that are not often heard or considered in the mainstream media and public debate. Without youth radio, adults would miss relatable stories and experiences told by their fellow engaged and concerned citizens—youth producers. For example, Kaari Pitkin, Executive Director of Radio Rookies states, “[We] get an overwhelming response from adults affected by or relating to the story of a fifteen year old that they never would have expected to connect with.” Youth voice has a powerful effect on all people. Having a place to express their perspectives from the margins, and how they are a part of the struggle for equality in the U.S., is valuable for these young people. Since mainstream media is often full of voices who cannot relate to the struggle of injustice and representation, this opportunity for young people is critical for community members to hear a perspective that challenges pre-conceived assumptions regarding privilege, race, sex and class. Youth input can engage the public to involve their ideas, their action, and their perspective—an important step to valuing young people as informed citizens.
The flexibility of radio
Radio is a flexible medium that offers outlets needed by young people to express their ideas and opinions, depending on both the community and geographical/cultural context. There are over three dozen youth radio groups in the U.S. each of which provides spaces for young people to ask questions about their communities and personal development—starting with picking up a microphone in a sound room. From Portland, ME—where voices of incarcerated youth can be heard—to Portland, OR—where young people equally join a collective of marginalized communities on air, youth radio is the place to speak out outside of school walls.
In the U.S., outside the domains of school, youth radio programs provide a space for young people to facilitate creative approaches to ideas and shared knowledge. Claire Holman explains, “Schools really have limited 1st amendment rights. We [at Blunt Radio] are not encumbered by the kinds of limitations a school would have.” At youth radio programs, young people can freely express their ideas independently or with peers to design, produce, and execute stories on air, without the formal censorship of schools and other institutions.
Sam Chaltain, Executive Director of Five Freedoms Project explains, “In the U.S., rights for students in schools are not coextensive with the rights of adults however; the first amendment does not preclude anyone from starting a youth radio program.” U.S. based youth radio programs, capitalize on citizens’ freedom of speech as granted to them by the 1st Amendment. These programs, which are mainly offered after-school, provide a space for young people to process and question knowledge in a public forum. Learning how to put one’s thoughts on air teaches young people how to represent themselves, their beliefs, and their perspectives—no matter who is listening.
Around the globe, radio is used flexibly for the needs of young people, often used as a means to engage young people—who either attend or cannot attend school—with their communities. For example, at Voices of Youth (VOY) in Sierra Leone, radio is encouraged for young people—many who are illiterate—to make sense of and create grassroots change after a decade of war. These young people use radio to share their valuable perspectives in a country where 50% of the population are between the ages of 18-35. At VOY, radio is a major source of communication for young people who cannot read or write to be heard by peers and adults in the community. Using radio in this way provides marginalized youth both access and a platform to share their thoughts as they engage with communities in Sierra Leone that tune-in to Citizen Radio.
In Switzerland, Radiobus needs to use radio as a supplemental element integrated into school curriculum in order to teach young people how to fuse technology with processed information. Because Switzerland does not have many after school opportunities for youth voice nor the same school-based limitations as the U.S., young people can access radio in schools as a way to process knowledge and enhance classroom learning. Denis Badman from Radiobus explains, “Few possibilities are offered to youth to try and practice media. [Schools] owe it to themselves to give students a solid and pragmatic education in media.” From the perspective of Radiobus, youth radio is a flexible tool to enhance education while engaging young people in the effective use and practice of media. Because radio can be used innovatively for the amplification of youth voice, it can be tailored to marginalized youth and the different contexts of their communities around the globe.
Radio is the lynch pin of the youth media field. Because of its ability to provide anonymity for youth in an image-based society, amplify young people’s perspectives to large adult audiences, and use flexibility to engage youth around the globe in and outside schools, youth radio must be supported. Youth radio gives young people a head start on learning how to amplify their voices to a large, unknown audience—which prepares them to present ideas in the public eye, regardless of age, race, sex, class, and other forms of discrimination. Kaari Pitkin, Executive Director of Radio Rookies in NYC explains, “The process of reporting a documentary on something you care about, or that is important in your life, is a process of claiming your own story, often of self-discovery, intellect, and curiosity.” As a result of the important and innovative space radio provides young people, it is important to invest in this arena of youth-led media. Funders that value the voices of marginalized youth and their perspectives ought to support youth radio and not let the power of radio be cast aside, regardless of new and emerging technologies that attract the majority of media funding opportunities.
With radio, one has the freedom to construct content, an opinion, or a message—no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you are from.

Girls Write Now: A Showcase of Intergenerational Learning

At first glance, The Library of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York looks like it sounds—old, austere, and a bit secret. It sits tucked away on New York City’s “literary row,” stomping grounds of The New Yorker magazine, Harper’s magazine, and the Algonquin Hotel during their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. The stately exterior opens up into a graceful chamber of warmth, wood and learning. It does not look like it would be the setting for a vibrant display of intergenerational learning. Talented, fearless teen writers—whose thoughts are too often tucked away like volumes on the library’s shelves—and adult, professional women working in publishing, education, media and the arts would come together to share co-written stories. But, on the evening of January 24, 2007, the Library challenged more than one misconception by hosting the Second Annual Girls Write Now (GWN) Winter Pair Reading.
“We haven’t had this kind of energy here in a long time,” said Janet Wells Greene Ph.D, Director of The Library. “I love it…Part of our mission [here at The Library] is to promote an understanding of urban work, and we think this is a great opportunity to honor the craft of writing and the occupation of writer.” She concludes, “This event [was] an opportunity to see reinvention of apprenticeship in action.” Maya Nussbaum, Executive Director of Girls Write Now comments, “[The reading is] a wonderful opportunity to see the Girls Write Now community in action…The spirit of our mission is perfectly encapsulated in the collaborative pieces written and read aloud by our mentor-mentee pairs.”
Girls Write Now
Founded in 1998, Girls Write Now (GWN) is a New York City-based non-profit committed to helping New York City high school girls discover their voice and have the courage and confidence to share it with the community. Through one-on-one mentoring, workshops, readings, and events, Girls Write Now provides a safe and supportive environment where girls can expand their natural talents develop independent voices and build confidence in making healthy choices in school, career, and life. In today’s society, young women are often silenced by all consuming images and messages in the media that stereotype and objectify women. Women are a target group of consumerism, thus, most marketing strategically promotes women as objects to “appear” or “attract” rather than to act, build alliances with each other, or support and develop their talents and interests.
Research in adolescent development consistently shows that relationships with caring adults other than parents can make young girls significantly less likely to engage in drug use, underage drinking and sex, and more likely to succeed in school, peer, and family relationships. Mentors benefit from involvement with the program as well. Adult mentors report that their experience in the program increased their self-esteem, as well as their sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Additionally, studies indicate that mentoring improves morale at work and relationships colleagues, friends and family.
GWN matches at-risk high school girls who have a love of writing with professional women writers. The goal: to help these girls develop their unique voices, their writing skills, and the confidence to tell their stories, as well as the ability to make healthy life choices. GWN is the only youth program that combines a rigorous, but fun creative writing curriculum and girls-only programming within the context of mentoring that benefits mentees and mentors alike.
Mentors & Mentees
The Winter Pair Reading was designed to celebrate the collaborative creative work of GWN mentors and their teen-age mentees. GWN mentors and mentees presented only collaborative works for the event, specifically single pieces written by a mentor-mentee pair, or two complementary pieces written separately by the mentor and mentee but read together. Many of the night’s poems, stories and essays were born in GWN workshops, which are followed by take-home exercises for pairs to do together.
Ebony McNeill, a Brooklyn teen attending an adolescent employment and educational program and her mentor, freelance editor Karen Schader developed their collaborative poems from a writing exercise in which they walked together through a neighborhood, observing it with all of their senses except sight. This exercise allowed both women, despite their differences in age and experience, to work as equals. By observing their surroundings with different senses, they view the world in new ways—a great leadership perspective.
Other mentor-mentee collaborative topics ranged from the sweet stuff of teenage dreams to memories of growing up and everything in between. Emceed by Penny Wrenn, Talent Director of GWN, the night kicked off with a pair of earthy and heart-wrenching poems about chances in love not taken by Anna Witiuk, a junior at New York City’s Beacon High School and her mentor, teacher, author, and literary agent Caron K. Stengel. This is Anna and Caron’s second year working together in GWN. Their pride in working together is easy to see during their performance and shows the power of linking women across generations.
Ebony, Mona, and each of the other 28 girls enrolled in GWN meet with their writing mentors weekly for one school year to develop their skills and understanding of the writing process. Pairs are made by a “matchmaking committee” consisting of board members and veteran mentors who consider geography, genre interest, and the unscientific but no less meaningful “x-factor” (or chemistry) between a mentor and mentee (members are alerted to the presence of the matchmakers, encouraged to share their preferences, but warned there are no guarantees the matchmakers will grant them).
This simple, but unique approach has worked to build a strong community of writers to nurture one another and their creative freedom. “The relationship between girls and their mentors is symbiotic,” said Nussbaum, “As pairs work together, they become apprentices of each other, learning the art and craft of writing through life experience.” The workshops provide fertile ground for learning as the community of mentors and mentees collaborate under GWN’s guiding principle of writing as a communal enterprise — to be created and shared.
Intergenerational Learning through Mentoring
The intergenerational learning fostered by this approach is built on multiple layers of commitment that mentees and mentors make to each other — and to GWN — each season. The first of these layers is between each pairing and the organization itself. Carefully screened candidates undergo a rigorous application process, which includes detailed applications, writing samples, and reference checks. GWN seeks mentors who have impressive academic and writing resumes, as well as a demonstrated commitment to teaching, tutoring, or mentoring girls, and the drive to contribute to the organization’s growth. Mentees must demonstrate a commitment to growing as writers, regardless of their skill level upon entering the program. Upon acceptance into the program, each new member signs a series of forms confirming her commitment.
The second layer is a commitment between the mentors and the idea of teaching and learning through the mentoring process. Each mentor undergoes an intensive full-day training conducted by the Girls Write Now program board in conjunction with experts from Columbia University, NYU, Community Word, Girls Scouts of America, Planned Parenthood NYC, and Urban Word, among other community institutions. This training serves as an introduction to adolescent development, diversity issues, mentoring tools, editing and revision for teens, and writing workshop facilitation.
The mentor-mentee pairs seal the third and final commitment shortly after they are matched at the start of the season’s first workshop. Each mentor-mentee pair signs a mutual agreement explicitly outlining the responsibilities of their writing partnership and through it, their commitment to learning as a team. Mentees learn the nuts and bolts of writing, while their mentors are reintroduced to the magic and art of creative writing, free of the limitations often imposed by professional writing. Mentors are often surprised to find within their pair writing sessions a spark to ignite their own creative passion, and — through knowledge obtained by working with a teen girl — the tools to approach their work in new ways.
Weekly pair writing sessions are punctuated and informed by monthly, genre-based full-group workshops, featuring whole-group, pair, and small-group activities. The workshops are carefully balanced between spirited fun and curriculum rigor. Each workshop begins with an icebreaker to warm members to each other as well as to the idea of writing for four hours on a Saturday afternoon. One recent prompt was “My character for the day is [insert lovely, fun, or energetic color + food you like the sound of].” No one wants to miss reinventing herself as “Rainbow Meatball” or the chance to be introduced to “Royal Blue Hot Dog.”
At the close of each workshop, we engage in “Warm Fuzzies,” which are constructive, anonymous comments shared by all mentors and mentees around the circle. “Warm Fuzzies” begin with a prompt, such as the following from the fiction workshop: “If you could fly off with any character from today, who would it be and where would you go?” The anonymous nature of this exercise help to remove the mentor/mentee labels we initially assign, allowing for true reflection and intergenerational learning. It also fosters an environment wherein the relationships between mentors, mentees and the entire community transcend racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries in a city where many young people rarely leave their neighborhood.
In response to the fiction workshop prompt, one participant said: “I’d take off with black strawberry, the girl whose eyes change color. I would go to the park and watch people with her. I bet her eyes would show me great things.” Another member, prompted at GWN workshop to “name one thing in the world you would like to see change and how you would help make it happen,” put it this way: “I want people to stop being so skeptical and to not give up on their dreams just because their dreams are taking too long to get realized. How am I going to change this? By not giving up on mine.”
These statements echo GWN’s greatest achievement: mentors and mentees learning from one another as peers. Girl-only programming, with an intergenerational approach to mentoring, creates a space for communal voice, collaboration, and social, gendered change.
Michele Thomas lives in Brooklyn, NY and works as a K-8 writer and editor in children’s educational publishing. She is also a mentor and Communications Director of Girls Write Now.

Continue reading Girls Write Now: A Showcase of Intergenerational Learning