Health-Related Teen Media Partnerships

Somerville is a densely populated city of 77,500 people in the Boston urban area. Its residents are a mix of middle class, well-educated young professionals and low income, immigrant families with children in the public schools. The students must deal with issues of acculturation as well as the mainstream American problems of alcohol and substance abuse, gang involvement, teen pregnancy, depression, obesity, and domestic violence.
The City of Somerville and youth-serving organizations in the city have been proactive in dealing with these problems, especially since 2004 when a rash of student suicides shook the city. As a result, the city now provides after school activities, many grant-funded, that deal with educating youth about how to make healthy choices. Federal and state grants are available for youth projects that deal with substance abuse, and many urban social service groups use these grants to fund projects.
As a result, we’ve seen some important changes. For example, Somerville youth have seen underage drinking decline among middle school peers by 50% over two years since they began working with the Health Department and Somerville Community Access Television on community outreach, including media projects that reach their peers via cable TV and the Web.
Youth media in partnership with health providers truly are making a difference in our community, benefiting young people and increasing the overall effectiveness of the field.
Next Generation Producers
As a public access center, SCATV’s mission is to provide a free speech venue for the city on cable TV, providing equipment, facilities, and training to produce programs for the Channel. Youth media is an integral aspect of the mission, as youth rarely have a voice in mainstream media, and the images they see of urban youth are often negative. Next Generation Producers (NGP) is the youth media program of SCATV, which aims to give teens the tools they need to express their world using up to date media technology.
NGP has worked on health-related media programs with teens through a variety of partnerships, including the Boys and Girls Club, a Latino immigrant support organization, a counseling center, an anti-poverty organization with a Latino youth group, and most consistently with a youth group of Somerville Cares About Prevention (SCAP), a community based coalition supported by the Somerville Health Department.
NGP has found these collaborations an excellent way to help achieve citywide goals of having healthier young people, which in effect, increases the value of SCATV to the community. I will focus on the partnership between SCAP and SCATV as a case study as it has been the most frequent and successful.
A Working Partnership
The mission of SCAP is to bring together and mobilize the diverse community of Somerville to prevent and address issues associated with substance abuse while promoting positive mental, spiritual, and physical health, especially among youth. Their youth group is called Somerville Positive Forces (SPF) and its mission is to empower youth to make healthier decisions regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
Since 2007, SPF and NGP have worked together to produce public service announcements, magazine shows, and short original dramas on the topics of underage drinking, prescription drug abuse among teens, and depression.
SCAP benefits our youth media efforts because they diversify our pool of applicants, further uniting young people across cultural groups that might not have a similar opportunity in school settings; and, SCAP issues an annual high school student health survey to follow the rates of alcohol and drug use, depression, and domestic violence in the lives of teens (see: Working with factual percentages related to one’s community is powerful for the young people we serve.
SCAP sees media production, which we provide, as a tool for getting their message out and directly affecting young people through their prevention efforts. For example, for a recent NGP project, students videotaped a skit of a peer saying no to alcohol among a group of friends, representing the statistics in clear graphics throughout the piece. The piece was powerful for both the youth producers and the audience; and, it gave SCAP a direct means to get their message across to a target demographic.
Besides the efficacy of the message, a key to the success of the partnership has been the funding that SCAP receives to support their work at SCATV. SCAP’s primary funders are the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the MA Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS). According to the Director of SCAP, the funders appreciate the wide distribution via cable TV and the Web of the health-related messages that our youth produce.
SCAP contracts NGP to guide the media production aspects of the program, usually providing about $2,000 for a ten-week workshop. NGP has its own cameras and laptops to use for production, and two staff members who are dedicated to the program for a portion of their hours. SCAP has an adult leader who works with the teens as well, keeping the projects on target with the information to be presented. In addition to learning production skills, speaking in front of groups, and conducting interviews with strangers in the streets, teens begin to believe in the positive impact they can have on the local community using media.
Suggestions to the Field
If you are able to identify a health provider that is interested in partnering with your youth media organization, consider emphasizing the win-win partnership that this article highlights. The topic of health is a popular and growing trend and youth media and its distribution capabilities are increasingly attractive to many of these providers.
Consider networking with other youth serving organizations to determine if they have received health-related grants for programs that could incorporate media elements. Suggest co-authoring grants with these organizations.
Once you establish a partnership, here are a few important tips to be mindful of:
Research what health issues are the most important to teens in your community. Have a group advisor on board who is knowledgeable about the topic so that the projects are factual and relevant.
Make sure that the media production skills you offer are interesting and fresh. One challenge we found is that we needed to keep our media technology and instruction hip and new to keep the teens invested. Encourage participants to experiment, to write more abstracted scripts, and even incorporate stop-motion animation. Statistics presented in graphics are effective and give authenticity to the projects—they can be used in multiple creative ways.
Distribute the end projects far and wide through all means of distribution available, including live screenings, cable TV, Facebook, YouTube, and community websites. Enter videos in film festivals to gain recognition for participants, further spreading the information and message forward. This not only helps inform a wide array of viewers but also encourages health-providers to sustain partnerships with youth media.
Next Steps
It is in the best interest of youth media programs to seek out partnerships with youth-serving organizations in their communities to produce health-related media projects, attracting larger partnerships with local and national health providers. We have the right tools, approach, and methodology to make major changes in the areas of health education and access, which will enrich our communities and the young leaders in our programs.

Wendy Blom is the executive director of Somerville Community Access Television in Somerville, MA. She has an MA in Mass Media from Emerson College and an MA in Theater Arts from the University of Colorado. Blom has been active in public access television since 1997. Previously she served as Community Programming Director for the Lowell, MA access center, and as Outreach and Education Coordinator at Boston Neighborhood Network.

The Chicago Youth Voices Network: A Tale of Collective Action

From the outside, it didn’t appear all that revolutionary. Crowding into the narrow meeting space above a store front overlooking a busy Chicago street were a group of diverse teens, standing and sitting on chairs and pillows, talking, laughing, and listening to each other spit a few verses of spoken word. The students represented distinct youth media programs across Chicago, brought together by the collective efforts of the staff of these programs.
Youth media practitioners act as conduits to bring young people together as they create media. However, despite the talent practitioners bring to helping create media produced by teens of a range of skills and interests, in practice they themselves have an incredibly difficult time coming together as a group.
This isn’t to say that practitioners don’t want to. Funding is sparse and small organizations, as most in the field are, see each other as competitors. Despite the relative challenge of competing for funding, practitioners time and again say that face-time and relationship-building with adult peers is one of their number one personal, field-wide goals.
But challenges exist. Youth media organizations tend to have different philosophies about how to teach teenagers media. Some are more focused on building technical skills, some more on teaching teenagers old-fashioned journalism, some on creativity and still others on teaching teenagers the more profit-oriented side of the industry, such as marketing and promotion. They tend to work as silos with their own goals and ways of doing things.
In October of 2006, youth media organizations granted by the McCormick Foundation formed into the Chicago Youth Voices Network (CYVN), which provides face-time and professional development for practitioners. Over the past two years, the group has become more unified and now shares skills, resources, and best practices. Recently, the network put together a brochure to collectively represent CYVN and signal new stakeholders, schools and other audiences to youth media, combining all of their diverse perspectives, mission and goals. Youth media groups across the U.S. can learn from our challenges and successes as we develop a model of networks and collaborations that unites us as a field.
A Funder Discovers the Youth Media Field
Before 2005, the McCormick Foundation, long-time funder of journalism training and leadership programs as well as press freedom activities and diversity in journalism initiatives, had never taken a serious look at funding youth media initiatives. At that time, coinciding with the Foundation’s 50th anniversary, the Program (one of five key funding priority areas at the Foundation) began to explore directing some of its $6 million per year budget toward youth initiatives. It was an eye-opening experience, says Mark Hallett, senior program officer for the Foundation’s Journalism Program.
“It was this wonderful discovery because we had no idea how rich Chicago’s youth media community was, and their work represented so many of the different things we cared about,” he says.
For Hallett, this sector had a fresh momentum to it. After years of supporting initiatives that often seemed to meet resistance with, for example, attempts to increase diversity in mainstream newsrooms, or encourage large media companies to prepare for the online world or to engage their communities better, the youth media sector was already producing valuable and relevant work that incorporated these broader goals. Hallett gravitates to what he calls ‘philanthropic acupuncture’—grantmaking where support is simply feeding an existing momentum rather than fighting resistance.
Hallett suggests that youth media organizations are on the cutting edge in many ways. For one, much of the way youth media practitioners do business is directed by the participants, while many schools are struggling to make their lessons more student-centered. Furthermore, video, photography and delivery of information are salient issues in the digital age—skills youth media groups are teaching. And finally, the perspectives that emerge from youth-produced media make us all aware of the many challenges that today’s youth are facing.
As the McCormick program officers (at that time Hallett and Sara Melillo) got to know the youth media organizations in Chicago, they were struck by the fact that so many were doing good work yet the organizations were fragile. Youth media organizations are typically small in operation and many executive directors skilled in their craft were not always successful fundraisers.
In order to make a larger impact on local, Chicago-based youth media programs, Clark Bell, the director of the journalism program for the McCormick Foundation, and his team decided that simply funding individual groups was not enough—that they had to support a network with professional development and training resources.
The Youth Voices Network
At the first youth media grantee network meeting, youth media practitioners filled out a survey in which they identified what they would want to get out of such a network. The ultimate takeaway from the survey was that they wanted to build relationships. Beyond that, they wanted information on how to evaluate programs and fundraise.
Hallett says that the Foundation’s hope, then as well as now, has been to help provide a forum for the youth media grantees that had to be practical and useful. Too often, foundations draw together grantees for show, without a clear idea of what they want them to do.
The meetings required an entire Friday morning every other month and are typically attended by adult staff. At first, they included intensive professional development and training from hired consultants. Topics included areas such as the importance of evaluation and how to build an individual donor base. However, they were useful, providing an opportunity to step back and ask questions.
As practitioners admitted to shortcomings and chatted about programs, a realization dawned on many: that they are all in much the same boat, passionate and struggling, and have the common interest of wanting to give teenagers in Chicago the opportunity to be a part of the media. But as little organizations in a big city, not one of them has enough manpower or programs to reach all interested teens.
This is how practitioners realized as a group that they are powerful. Last year, the Network not only brought together many of the teens they serve to talk with one another and to provide verbal feedback to youth media practitioners, but also conducted a self-survey about their own programs. Through that, the practitioners learned that they collectively touch 60 of about 100 high schools in the city, and, through participants and audiences, reach tens of thousands of teens.
Some other highlights of the survey were that the youth media groups are small organizations, typically with budgets between $150,000 and $500,000 and two or three employees. The McCormick grant of about $40,000 was one of the largest ones received by most network organizations.
The survey also identified key challenges facing the organizations: growing demand for services without the resources to support program growth (77%); over-reliance on grants, few individual donors (62%); limited budget and staff for fundraising (54%); rising operational costs such as health insurance and utilities (46%) and the need to improve organizational management systems (46%).
One major achievement of the network was the compilation of a brochure—funded by McCormick and led by True Star—to be handed out to teenagers at a high school fair. Presenting themselves as a singular type of program, rather than disparate entities, was powerful for the group. 10,000 copies were distributed. Network members take turns taking the lead on projects, which they find, is necessary to get the work done.
In addition, the network has spurred several collaborations. For example, in September 2008, The Five Freedoms Project and the Academy for Educational Development were looking for youth media educators to kick off a youth video in conjunction with a five-day leadership academy for principles, teachers, advisors and youth in Chicago.
After receiving a call for youth media educators, three members of the network responded—Open Youth Networks, Free Spirit Media and Community TV Network. As a team, they developed curriculum and identified mutual strengths and expertise to correspond with each task and training. The experience was a testament to the power of the network.
Mindy Faber, founder of Open Youth Networks and now the academic manager at Columbia College Chicago’s Department of Interactive Arts and Media, says: “I’m not sure in the past we would have been able to work as a team without really knowing one another. This was such a great way to engage with Chicago youth media orgs and share an experience of teaching side by side, despite our differences and approaches to youth media.”
Next Steps
After three years of funding and support, the McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program has made it clear that its funding of CYVN will likely cease over the next several years. Faber, whose group is part of the network, volunteered (and receives a stipend) to coordinate the network meetings this year. In upcoming meetings, leaders will talk about how the CYVN will work in the future. They are currently in the process of developing a collective mission statement.
At one point, there was discussion of forming an overarching not-for-profit with a mission and a budget, but the group decided against it. The feeling was that the CYVN’s strength is the fact that it is comprised of unique organizations that work together.
Some members think that working on projects together will help keep the momentum going and there’s even been talk about trying to get a collaborative project funded. Such a project has yet to be named and even the format is still up in the air. One idea is to have an end of the year presentation featuring work from all of the groups; another would have each individual organization produce a piece in their medium on a singular topic. All the work would then be brought together and presented.
Members of CYVN need to tell and amplify their own story. In the past, Faber notes that foundations have paid consultants and academics to figure out who and what youth media is. Sometimes youth media is put in the box of adolescent literacy organizations; while other times it is seen as a youth leadership building organization. Through CYVN, youth media can be in a position to define itself and its potential to more local and national stakeholders. Through CYVN, and capturing the unique practices and work of the many, the myths of youth media are replaced with facts and appealing outcomes.
Presenting in this way, CYVN can transform youth media from being a gaggle of struggling organizations to being a vibrant force to be reckoned with.
Suggestions for Future Youth Media Networks
Hallett says McCormick is now looking at expanding its support of youth media—and perhaps spearheading similar networks—in Los Angeles and New York. But in other cities, creating such a youth media network might require grassroots efforts.
If a local funder is invested to support a network, at the least, a stipend for a coordinator and food at meetings must be compensated. Organizations should decide on a regular meeting time that is convenient for most of the members. And at meetings, time spent on peer-to-peer training is extremely beneficial. At present, CYVN does not require outside consultants and instead, look to one another for skills to share.
“What the field is missing is the glue that will hold it all together—and what we’ve found, is that working together, that common desire and impetus, is the glue we were looking for,” Mindy Faber explains.
Faber, echoed by other practitioners in the field, suggests that on the field-wide spectrum, it will take a leader to bring the field together, both locally and nationally. Faber describes such a leader as one with “a larger and shared vision of what is possible; a leader that loves the field enough and is respected by members within the field…that will work on the various steps to strengthen the field.”
Moving Forward
Beyond capacity issues and competition for funding, all across the U.S., youth media practitioners have a sincere desire to share face time and learn from one another as a group. The CYVN is one success story, with many others to follow. For example, this year Youth Media Reporter is bringing six individual regional cohorts of youth media practitioners to collectively document best practices and issues/challenges in the area. Each cohort kicks off with an in-person meeting. Practitioners might consider continuing these meetings after YMR, say monthly, to share updates, resources, and skill-sharing—they might even review the articles they publish and how their suggestions could support other local youth media colleagues.
So far, few regions have come up with their own pathways to design coalitions—for example, the twin cities youth media network. Other cities have attempted to meet as a group, particularly in the Southwest and Southeast but have yet to find the right “glue” that fits their local cohort. Uniting the field is only a few steps away, but it needs the kind of leadership that will ensure a shared vision to strengthen collective work and the power of youth media practice in the future.
Mark Hallett is a senior program officer in the journalism program of the McCormick Foundation. Mark joined the foundation in May 1995, and coordinates grantmaking in a number of areas, including youth media and scholastic journalism, free press and First Amendment initiatives, and community and ethnic media. He is a native Chicagoan and has lived in Mexico, Norway and Spain. He is an avid photographer and serves on the boards of Erie Neighborhood House and the Erie Elementary Charter School.
Sarah Karp is the coordinator for Columbia Links.

Being a Media Mediator: Preliminary notes on practice

I have an odd job. I work in a New York City public school, but I’m hired by a non profit organization, the offices of which I step foot in once or twice a month. Most people familiar with the non-profit world or public school world conclude I’m a consultant or teacher; I’m neither.
Officially, I’m a partnership coordinator or ‘media mediator.’ I work at a small public school, founded under the umbrella of a non-profit organization that launches theme-based, partner-focused college-preparatory schools for underserved New York City youth. The school currently serves 300 students in grades 9-11 and will grow to capacity next year with students in grades 9-12. The most unique element of this school is our focus on media. Media is a core part of our school in three ways: integration across curriculum, specific media studies classes, and community partnerships.
The school partners with corporate, non-profit, academic and government organizations focused on media and media production. Partnerships do not translate directly to financial gifts—our partners give time and energy. They open their doors for site visits and office tours so students can see the variety of work available in the media industries. In addition, our academic partners open their classrooms so students can be exposed to college and know that they can continue studying the media—or any other subject matter—after high school. Partners come into the school to speak with students about their jobs, career opportunities in media, and simultaneously offer mentoring. They help develop internships so students have real-world experiences, provide social justice documentaries from their private collections, invite special guests to our classrooms, and offer broadcasting opportunities so student-made productions are aired on television. It’s my job to cultivate the relationship and organize the activities, between students and partners. I am a media mediator—and I am new at it.
I know a lot about the media. I focused on media studies in college and graduate school, with a particular focus on young people, identity development and media education. I have conducted qualitative research with young people from a variety of social, geographic, economic and ethnic backgrounds.
I spent the past several years working on a Master’s degree, then a PhD in media studies, all while teaching in a college classroom—a wildly different environment than public school. When I defended my dissertation, I realized I was tired of talking about media, young people and media education; I wanted to work directly in media education and with young people.
With this job I get to reach that goal I realized. Now my job lets me:
• manage a media team,
• schedule students in media classes,
• develop a 4-year media education curriculum,
• develop a research protocol that measures the long-term efficacy of our work, and
• create and disseminate public information to promote our school.
These activities strengthen work with our partners and the culture of the school. I chase kids around to remind them of paperwork they owe me for partner activities, field trips, internships, and/or mentorships. I chase teachers around to provide them with updated schedules and plans. Students chase me down when they want Metrocards, binders, Bandaids, or passes to the nurse—none of which I possess. Admittedly, I have had a learning curve to figure out the New York City public school system (a quagmire, at best); the culture of working daily with young people (a very different task than conducting research with them); how to develop intellectually and academically rigorous partner activities; and how to bring structure and organization to a largely unstructured and disorganized environment.
In seven months of work on cultivating and organizing partner relations, juggling the development of a 4-year scope and sequence of media classes, dealing with the daily hectic life of a NYC public school, and learning everything I possibly can about our students, I have learned a few best practices.
Think big, plan small
I started the year with a big picture in mind. By the time we reach capacity—a full 9th-12th grade student body—there will be a variety of internships and mentorships associated with partners who will actively involve our students in multiple tasks. In addition, all 11th and 12th graders will be regularly exposed to college and careers in media through regular site visits. In order to plan for this, I schedule discreet activities, such as monthly film screenings in classrooms to introduce students to social justice issues and experts in the field. In addition, a bi-monthly guest lecture series, where representatives from our partner organizations come speak to students is provided.
Once a month, I bring students to record an interview with each other for a StoryCorps project to encourage their own storytelling and provide a public outlet for their stories. Once a month, a crew of students produces a television show capturing a slice of life from our school community. These two activities are an invaluable asset to students’ self-perception, self-confidence, and maturity. When they tell their stories at the StoryCorps booth, there voices and stories are acknowledged as important and they become part of the national record. When they produce the television show, their hard work has a visible and immediate reward.
These small activities open the door for me to plan larger activities. I am in development with several partners for after school and summer internships. I want students to have internships, mentorships, visit offices, watch movies, hear guest speakers, and be actively and regularly involved in media production, including photojournalism, video production, editing, web design, music production and writing. And they want it, too. But it takes relationship building. Partners and students need to know each other and there needs to be a routine and ascending contact so that the students, partners, teachers and staff are familiar with each other —including each other’s contexts and needs—in order to deepen relationships.
I am developing a college shadow program where once a month where I bring a small group of students to NYU to sit in on a freshman media lecture class and meet with media professors afterwards for lunch. Once a month for a more intensive experience, one student spends a full day with a college student and gets to sit in on advanced, discussion-based media classes to get a richer, more nuanced exposure to college and career options. Simultaneously, I develop intensive video production workshops for advanced students to give them additional experience.
Students at this school are underserved and uninformed on many things deemed valuable by mainstream society. Overall, they do not have regular exposure to college and for many students awareness of college comes through our program. These students need an edge in order to succeed at the university level. One of the ways to achieve this is to excite and involve youth to use media to express their perspective, teamwork, talent and creativity.
Strive for structure
One thing I have learned from working with underserved youth is that their lives are anything but structured or consistent. As much as they resist the boundaries of school, it is sometimes the safest, most consistent place they are at throughout the day.
Regular media partner activities takes safety to the next level and brings structure and organization to students’ daily schedules. Nevertheless, structure comes in baby steps: a regular film screening; a regular lecture series; a regular production deadline.
Striving for structure takes trial and error. For example, I have a group of bright students who produce a monthly television program. They come up with the topics and then shoot and edit the corresponding video. Their drive impressed me so much that once I left them to their own devices and quickly learned that was not the best way to support them. While they were bright and self-motivated, they had not learned how to budget their time, to arrange and write for interviews, to put together a script, to shoot B-roll, or talk to people other than their friends. So I imposed regulations: outlines, deadlines, script checks, and footage checks to name a few. It worked for an episode. Then, I left them alone again, assuming both our lessons had been learned. Two kids skipped class, skipped lunch, played on the computer, assured me everything was okay and got no show done. The other crew members struggled between violating their friends’ confidence—as snitching is frowned upon—and wanting to produce work with quality and substance.
Now we have regular meetings where I leave them to their devices, but I monitor their progress. Now that they have a realistic grasp of their abilities and a better idea of the time frame required, they work on getting a show out every other month. These are bright students, after all: they are quick and dedicated learners.
Listen to students
It is the students who do my job best: they tell me what they want to do. They tell me what’s most interesting and most rewarding. They are right more often than I am.
I started the year with film screenings after school. I thought this was a brilliant idea as it served three purposes. First, it exposed students to partners. Second, it exposed students to vital social justice issues. And third, it did not interrupt students’ class schedules.
However, it was students’ feedback that changed my approach. They informed me that after school, they were so tired, they could not focus on a film and those two hours in the dark was too tempting to sleep through. Based on their feedback, I decided that missing class once a month to watch a film and meet the filmmaker was incentive for both students who worked hard and students who wanted an out from the daily grind or a rigorous school schedule.
Another example of how students helped shape the media program is at the beginning of the year, I thought that watching movies—even social justice documentaries—would be fascinating. When I began implementing these documentaries, students reminded me that they watch movies a lot and documentaries are the film version of reading yet another book: interesting and valuable but the process is still school-related.
To them, visiting offices was more intriguing: office buildings are deliciously unfamiliar, and therefore, instantly exciting. Offices typically have great conference rooms, giveaways, and compelling professionals. Office buildings—especially the offices of magazines and television shows—have the added bonus of a chance encounter with a celebrity. They are new, different and vibrant places. Therefore, I work on scheduling a lot of office visits these days as it gets them out of the classroom and into the ‘real’ world where they can observe different career options and adults in the field.
Talk to teachers
Our teachers teach underserved youth for a variety of reasons and they care deeply for these students. That means they are swamped with work, they have great ideas and beautiful vision, but no time. Talking to teachers—half-started conversations in the hallways and spontaneous run-ins on the subway or at the photo copier—spark some of my best ideas and help them move their ideas to fruition.
* * *
When I first started graduate school, my dad laughed and told me I was on my way to becoming a snob because I used words like ‘dialectic’ in everyday conversation. Now that I work in public schools, I use words like ‘best practice’ in everyday conversation; and when I’m having a bad day, I borrow from the students and express how I’m ‘mad-tight’ because this job is ‘OD’. This essay is the first time in 6 months I’ve talked about the media, young people and media education. I’m generally too busy talking with students to think about talking about them.
My job as a media mediator is creative, open to possibilities, and links partners and media programs directly with youth in school. It is possible to implement media studies in high schools by partnering with non-profits. The atypical position I have needs to get duplicated in the youth media field. As a ‘media mediator’ I am the direct working link between developing youth media programs in schools and building partnerships so that youth develop their media expertise, their future careers, and the media field at large.

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