Avoiding Exploitation

When I was 17 years old, I was a passionate writer and enrolled in an alternative high school for at risk teens where I gained a mentor who encouraged me to explore different forms of media. Thus, my media experience began. I welcomed working with a mentor to develop as a writer and gain a sense of sustainability outside of school in the “real world.” But as time progressed, I realized I didn’t feel capable of navigating the writing field on my own. My mentor invested a lot of time and effort but I didn’t know how to communicate what I needed from the experience. As a teen, I valued creative and technical instruction and mentoring. But this was difficult for me to define. As a result, the media products I produced seemed more valued and on display than the process and development I experienced creating media.
Youth media programs have the power to bridge the gap between adult-run media and stereotypes of teenagers perpetuated in the mainstream. But that power is not always successful. Typically, youth media professionals aim to teach in non-directive, collaborative learning environments, where students address issues and concerns that are important to, and affect, them. But when adults in youth media value the end product over the process, our presence can be disruptive and ultimately outweigh—and even exploit—youth voice.
Where Good Intentions become Exploitive
For some youth media organizations, the demands of funders and the overall pressure to create work comparable to professionally produced media can lead instructors to overstep the line of student work. These pressures can dilute student voice and reiterate mainstream media’s focus on adult representations of the world.
For example, some educators want young people to create professional work, choosing pieces that are “relevant” or “compelling” enough for an adult audience. This creates a competitive environment for young people and can negatively affect less media savvy students. If no one is consciously supporting and enabling youth to cast their voices, there is very little difference between youth media and the media industry that speaks for them. Educators need to be conscious that their work always supports youth voice and creative expression—no matter what the skill level.
Beyond external pressures and expectations, in the classroom, educators need to be aware of power dynamics between student and instructor and be careful that this does not mirror the institutions that dominate most young peoples’ lives. Because educators are in the position of “teacher,” it is important to be conscious that ego and desire to maintain a professional reputation not affect the way in which we teach and influence the production of our students’ work. We cannot get lost in our own ideas, concepts and expectations of what the best, most polished expression of media is (whether these ideas were self-discovered or passed to us through formal education). If educators begin to view a student’s piece as insufficient, this is a big sign that preconceived notions about young people’s work are exploiting the end product and ignoring the process.
Often, a student comes to the table with little to no technical knowledge of the media in which s/he begins to work, but with ideas, perspectives, and experiences to express. Young people are very perceptive and can sense pressure or expectations, which can intimidate rather than inspire them to produce well crafted media. Educators need to learn how to share power and emphasize this practice with young media makers, who seek support and guidance from adult allies.
Leading Solutions: Sharing Power and Prioritizing Youth Voice
Because inherently, the young person has to place trust in the instructor she’s working with and use media as a gateway to be heard and gain power, educators must share power and provide the resources, credibility, access, experience, information, and the technical understanding of media to their students. If we begin to view a student’s piece as insufficient, this is a sign of disconnect between supporting the experiences of youth and our perceptions of what is meaningful (i.e. as represented in the end product).
Check your expectations and what pressure or end product you want a young person to create. Many young people entering youth media have never used media equipment before and should feel encouraged rather than intimidated (or worse, silenced) by your vision, experience, skill, or capability. If we are not fully aware of the purpose and identity of youth media expression, the demands of the adult-run sector begin to remove youth voice and fall back to the same adult-run media we are accustomed to.
The process should be valued—in the classroom and in negotiation with funders and media outlets—over the end product. There is a delicate line between wanting a student’s work to become what it holds the potential to be and clouding the work with the instructor’s influence—making edits, changes, post-production clean up and guiding students to topics and ideas—which adults in the media field (be it the audience or those running the media outlets) might find compelling.
The end product should be an outcome of a young person’s process using youth media. Educators must be cautious that they strike the right balance in guiding and supporting young people as they produce media. Young people need to feel that their perspectives and ability to create media are supported, respected, taken seriously, and recognized—since they hold the integrity of the field. Adults must advocate for the process this work takes rather than solely emphasizing the end product.
Be an advocate for youth voice and have clear communication of the process of youth media in conversation with funders, media outlets, colleagues and young media makers. At every level of the organization and with media partners involved there must be clear, working communication—understanding the form and identity of youth media, not overlooking the purpose of supporting youth voice, and adequately provide students with information to produce media on their own.
Be aware of power dynamics with young people and prioritize youth voice. At every learning setting with teens, in place are power dynamics which often favors youth obedience rather than youth perspective. Instructors need to be aware and reactive to the needs of young people, learn from their students, and gain trust so that media can become a viable gateway to be heard.
One of the most important tasks for educators is to develop a sense of balance in maintaining the integrity of youth media and expression in an adult-run spectrum. Because youth media presents a rare opportunity outside everyday life, it is crucial that instructors are aware of the signs indicating when we are too heavily “present” in young peoples’ media work and personal development. Ultimately, youth media is about youth voice, providing space and autonomy for their ideas to develop, and where they can create and polish their work in their own terms.
Educators need to take a step back and consider the influences that can hamper a young person’s voice when process and product are imbalanced. Through my experience with youth media, as a young media maker myself and now as an instructor, I have come to learn the unyielding element is process—growing and learning an understanding of how to express oneself though media. The process of communication to a broader audience in meaningful, lasting ways is empowering not only in the stages of learning, but throughout one’s entire experience in media. It is our job as instructors to support, enable and promote the process and integrity of youth media, and only hold young people accountable to expectations that they define and create.
Liz Coleman is the youth radio instructor and outreach coordinator at Spy Hop Productions, a non-profit youth media arts and education organization in Salt Lake City, Utah. Since 2004, Liz has been volunteering in community radio—writing, producing, and teaching after being drawn by radio’s ability to reach diverse communities, promote ideas and communica-tion, and its availability and accessibility.