Using Media Literacy to Combat Racism

Boston has a storied past, and race has played an important part in a number of those stories. From abolitionists and the early NAACP to the ugly scars of bussing, Boston has a reputation. Even with about 50% of the population made of people of color, Boston remains a segregated city. For years, many community groups and initiatives have worked toward racial amity. How Boston learns to overcome barriers of racism and come together in a new era of race relations can have important lessons for other communities as America approaches its own majority-minority shift.
For example, in the spring of 2003 I was teaching media literacy classes once a week at a small charter school in the Mission Hill area of Roxbury. We had been talking about stereotypes and magazine ads one afternoon when Nancy, a young girl, normally boisterous, came creeping back in after the others filed out. I could tell she had a secret question that she didn’t want her friends to hear. She sidled up to the desk and covered her mouth when she informed me, “I want to ask you something,” in a low voice.
“What am I?” she said, eyes intent on mine.
Confused, I asked, “What do you mean what are you. You’re you, you’re Nancy.”
“No, but I mean, what am I? See, my mother’s white but my father’s black so I wanted to know what that makes me.”
We talked for a while about this question present for so many “mixed race” youth, but before she left, I had a question of my own: “Why ask me?”
“Because I always wanted to know, and you were the first person I found to ask.”
I was floored by her comment. Her parents had different responses to issues of race, and outside the house, she had no opportunity to talk about the issues of race. From a media lit class, for the first time she found the space to dialogue with her peers about race, what it meant to act white, or be too light or too dark. But she wanted to examine not just how race was represented in the media, but how it showed up in her own life and family.
What does media literacy have to do with race?
Teens spend hours a day consuming media, much of it with messages about race and culture. What does it mean to be black or white, who are the heroes and villains? Without the ability to understand these messages, powerful political and corporate press machines too easily sway teens. Many like to think of Obama’s ascension to the presidency as the herald of a post racial America. But a look at media in 2009, from Professor Gates, to the guidettes of Jersey Shore showed us that prejudice and racism are still alive and well. How can we expect youth not to repeat the prejudices of the past if they are consuming the same stereotypical messages that have existed for years?
Organizing to address media content is important to creating lasting change, but in the meantime, we have a responsibility as educators to aid our students in thinking critically about how race is constructed, and prepare them to participate in shaping the conversation about race in this country.
Media can powerfully shape ideas about people or groups. Media messages are too often a poor substitute for real world multicultural experience in a society still as segregated as America.
Like Nancy, many students have no place to talk about race. Because mainstream media is rife with the stories and stereotypes that support racial prejudice it provides a perfect opportunity for students to examine and create messages about race. Since so much of the national debate about race takes place in the media, media educators have a special opportunity—and responsibility—to help students understand the way that ideas and beliefs around race are socially constructed.
Addressing Race in Afterschool Programs
I began my work in media literacy at Youth Voice Collaborative (YVC), a nonprofit youth serving after school program. YVC was created in 1991 by Marti Wilson Taylor, who had the vision to see that youth of color would need—and love—programs that helped them understand and make media. When I became the program manager in 2000, my job was to recreate YVC with renewed focused on media literacy to better connect to the YWCA’s larger mission of addressing racism.
With grant funding to support development, I created the Media Minds curriculum: an eight session media literacy curriculum designed for after school programs. The curriculum, which we continued to adapt over the years, has served as the core content for YVC.
YVC helped teens understand how media shapes the way they see themselves and the world around them, especially around issues of race and gender. We begin the program cycle for our on site after school program in the summer, hire a group of peer leaders and train them in media literacy, cultural competency and community organizing. During the school year, the peer leader works with adult staff to facilitate groups for teens at other programs, in addition to producing media and hosting events such as talent shows, poetry nights, conferences and discussion groups.
I also train small cohorts of teachers and youth workers to identify ways media literacy can advance their work, and each trainee choses to use the curriculum in different ways. For example:
• Start the school year with a section on critical analysis that becomes the framework for examining text and media throughout the year.
• Hold weekly media lit groups that apply critical analysis to class material.
• Create documentaries and community PSA and newsletters that increase cultural awareness
All the trainees reported that students enjoyed thinking and talking about media, making critical analysis skills fun to build. The challenges in training staff are numerous, from time and resources, to turnover and resistance, but the potential payoff makes addressing these challenges worth it.
Media literacy is an important strategy to open a dialogue on race and culture. Teens are hungry for a place where they can think and talk about issues of identity and the important role race and culture plays in their lives. Our discussions about the news reporting of youth violence, or the latest music videos, were inevitably discussions about the teens and their values.
By examining media, we examine ourselves, and the experience is life changing. One teen leader, Jamal, starred in YVC’s feature length docudrama on civil rights and the Voting Act, called Selma 2050. After researching, interviewing politicians and activists, and editing the film, he found—like his character in the film—a new awareness around race: “I used to think that being black was some kind of curse or something. Making this made me feel better about not just being a black man, but about black people period.”
Prepping Educators to Facilitate Race and Media Programming
As the director of the communications and media literacy program at Wheelock College and a trainer for Culture Shop I help train the next generation of media literacy educators. I can see their anxiety around addressing race and culture in their work with youth. While the issues of race and culture are real and complex, we can address these issues in simple ways.
The following are tips for any educator interested in addressing race and culture with youth. I call these Zen tips, because they’re simple, but take reflection and practice to make them work.
Check yourself: Race is still a taboo topic in many ways. You may be afraid to offend someone, or just unsure about how to talk about it. Take a deep breath, relax, and give yourself permission to talk about race. Reflect on your own ideas, experiences, and attitudes. No matter what your intentions, attitudes and beliefs about people of different backgrounds may be uninformed. That shouldn’t stop our work or make us feel guilty, but it means we must constantly debunk these messages and stereotypes internally.
Ask yourself questions to begin to get a sense of your own starting point:
• What do I mean by race?
• Do race and culture play an important role in my life or the lives of my students?
• What stereotypes and limiting beliefs do I hold about different cultural groups?
• How are my beliefs shaped by news, movies, and blogs?
Remember, race includes whites as well as “minorities.” Answering questions like these in a thoughtful reflective way can prepare us and make us feel more confident addressing issues of race.
Get real: Now that you are ready to begin talking and teaching about race it’s time to set some realistic expectations. If charge your group with eradicating racism in your community this year, you are setting your group up to fail. No matter how hard we work, none of us should expect that we can dismantle the system of racism on our own. When you honestly talk about race in a meaningful way you should expect that it is not going to be easy or get solved in a week. Be prepared that members of your group are likely to disagree when talking about their racial attitudes and assumptions.
Just talk: If it is going to be hard, and your group may not be able to affect widespread social change, you may be wondering what you can accomplish. Just by opening up dialogue and giving students the tools to think and talk critically about race and representation is creating a space for awareness. Many of the college students I see in classes have not had the chance to have thoughtful critical discussions about culture and race during their high school experience. When you develop an environment where youth are actively talking and thinking about race, you are making a difference. The conversation is enough to affect social change on the personal level.
Create culture: With your expectations clear, set a culture in your program that supports deep discussion around personal values. When we talk about personal values naturally it gets personal, so facilitators must be able to make the group feel safe. Educators should take the role of a neutral facilitator to be sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and to allow the students to carefully listen and consider each others views. Make sure that you have strong ground rules that are clearly and fairly enforced. Participants should be willing to speak and listen to each other respectfully. Without disagreement, your group will lack the chance to explore alternative viewpoints. The group should agree to disagree, leaving room for dissenting voices.
Keep calm: Finally, once your group begins to talk, think and create around issues of race, you may find you run into some opinions that you just do not like. Resist the urge to tamper with youths’ values. No matter how strong your own personal view, your role is not to tell youth what is right and wrong, but only to give them the tools to search for the truth themselves. Create an environment that encourages and accepts multiple viewpoints. You can stay neutral and be prepared to relate the historical, social and political context the message is created in. Helping students understand the societal factors that contribute to media messages will give students the information they need to make their own informed decisions.
Next Steps
Issues of race can be layered and complex, but there are small actions each of us can take each day to improve awareness in our own environment. Youth need tools to begin to peel back the layers now while they are still developing their own values around culture and diversity. The very idea of race is socially constructed—race is whatever we say it is, and mass media is where we say what it is. Media literacy and youth media production can provide a powerful pair of skills that work together to help youth analyze the way that race is represented in American culture, and participate in creating change through youth media production.
Armed with her new critical analysis skills, Nancy got her own surprise: the answer was hers to give.
Media literacy, critical thinking, and media production are powerful tools for youth to combat racism. Whether we have the chance to address it in the classroom, after school program or community, we have a responsibility as educators and citizens to work toward that more perfect union—a truly post-race society.

Susan Owusu was born and raised in and around Boston. She started working with young people in 1993 at the Charles Hayden School, a residential placement site for boys with emotional and behavioral disabilities. She supervised a 12 bed unit for students with ADD and trauma histories for 5 years before seeking a more empowering pathway to supporting youth. After two years organizing youth leaders in the Boston Public Schools, she had the opportunity to mange Youth Voice Collaborative. Susan joined YVC in 2000 and spent 10 years rebuilding one of Boston’s first youth media programs. She worked to develop the Media Minds curriculum, combining media literacy with cultural awareness for urban teens. Now as director of the communications and Media Literacy program at Wheelock College, Susan hopes to inspire a new generation of teachers, youth workers, and independent producers to user the power of media to tell a new story the reshapes and supports our communities, making them stronger and more connected.

An Ally for Youth When it Counts

Every summer since 1999, I have volunteered my services to a local youth media organization called VOX Teen Communications. My “day job” is as a news designer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (AJC) editorial pages. I once believed that getting more youth voices on our opinion pages was a good way to grow a younger readership. However, after years of working with teens through VOX, I find myself less concerned with my employer’s circulation and more dedicated to giving young writers the best publishing experience I can.
In the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to mentor a 16-year-old Somali girl named Ayan Hussein get a very difficult, personal story published in our paper. The experience tested the resolve of all involved and forced some lessons on us before it was over. These lessons included how to be an advocate for young writers, how to negotiate cultural differences, how to support a teen facing outside pressures and most of all, how to guide a young writer through a large bureaucratic process with her voice intact and her spirit empowered.
Ayan and I first met as part of the Raise Your Voice Summer Program sponsored by VOX Teen Communications ( Each summer, VOX teaches 16 teenage writers and journalists journalism fundamentals and community leadership. One of the most popular attractions of the program is the one-on-one mentorship with news-industry professionals. As mentors, our immediate goal is to help each teen get an article published in the AJC. We coach our teens to select a topic that the paper might want to publish, give advice on how to cover the topic, and help pitch the finished article to one of our paper’s section editors.
First impressions
The subject matter Ayan wished to write about was challenging. During our initial meeting, she told me she wanted her article to be a personalized introduction to the Somali practice of female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation, or FGM). In her words, “I wanted to educate myself on what happened to me when I was 7 years old through the research that I would be doing. The article would also benefit other victims of the ritual.”
Ayan took this opportunity very seriously. She explains, “[When I gave Pete my first draft], I was sure that he was going to judge me when he was done reading it. I was wrong. He said that it looked good and the only thing missing was the reliable resources and interviews from people in the community. [Female circumcision] has always been in my mind but never talked about because it is taboo. [Yet] I had stories of my personal struggle that I went through since coming to America…this was a chance to share my stories with [a wider audience].”
Soon Ayan was telling me how her family was scattered between the U.S. and Kenya; how her first years in the United States were lonely and difficult; how she lived with her father and younger sister in a tiny apartment; and how her educational ambitions were at odds with her family’s plans for her.
No one in her family had more than a fifth-grade education. Joining the VOX summer program made Ayan’s father fearful that such activities would westernize her beyond his recognition. Ayan explained that most young Somali women were expected to drop out of school and go to work, or marry young and start families.
I quickly realized that there was more at stake here than a writer getting something off her chest. I knew I would need a plan for how to support her without being a disrupting force on her relationships with her family, culture and community.
To that end, I decided that I would do my best to create options for her and leave as many choices as possible up to her. It was my hope that giving her options would increase her confidence and leadership as we progressed toward publication.
Choices, choices
I explained to Ayan that we had several choices where her article could be published. If she kept a detached voice, her article could run as an explanatory news story in our weekly international section called Atlanta & the World. This would require more research and reporting. The advantage of doing a detached, reported-news article would be to expand the scope of her writing from a first-person piece to one that would allow her to explore the context of her experience.
On the other hand, there were advantages to keeping her subjective voice too. By running her article as a first-person piece on our daily op-ed page, she would have more opportunity to reflect on her experience. We already had a daily op-ed venue for young writers called “New Attitudes” that was tried and true, but I felt that Ayan’s story deserved a bigger treatment.
The third option was creating a longer piece intended for the Sunday opinion section, @issue. Publishing a teen writer in the @issue section would be new territory for the AJC, and I warned Ayan that the experience of dealing with several layers of editors could be frustrating for her. In response, Ayan only asked which venue had the largest readership. Getting her message out was paramount. As our “primetime” space, the @issue section would be a gamble—we would get a larger readership, but also more scrutiny from the paper’s editors. More editors always means more changes, and I worried that we might change or even lose Ayan’s voice.
Over the next several days, I checked on Ayan as she progressed on her research. I made some suggestions on where to look for materials and asked if there was any way I could help. At times, her research was emotionally difficult. Ayan explains, “To my surprise, I realized [during my research] that there were three types of female circumcision. At one point I came across a picture taken after the procedure and I almost vomited—I could not hold back tears. I phoned Pete and I will never forget what he said. Instead of telling me to be strong or just move on and not to visit the website again, he said that I was a good writer and I have plenty of stories to work on—that female circumcision was not the only option we had.”
It was still early in the process, and I reminded Ayan that we could go to Plan B if necessary. Ayan reflects, “As a result of Pete giving me options, I chose to stick with the topic. I realized that I didn’t have to continue [with the topic] but that I wanted to.”
Working with the editor
After a round of editing, I arranged a pitch meeting between Ayan and the @issue editor Richard Halicks. Pitch meetings are crucial to a teen writer’s ultimate experience in the VOX summer program. Pitch meetings allow both the teen writer and editor to get to know each other—even before the article is discussed. Doing so creates a partnership, rather than introducing another authority figure for the teen to deal with. It’s also a great time to discuss expectations.
Richard—a very nurturing editor—was enthusiastic about getting her article into his section. However, he wanted to know whether Ayan’s parents knew what she was writing. Although he would not ask for their permission, he wanted to make sure that Ayan understood the consequences of making them part of her story. Ayan replied that she had discussed her article with her father, who was cool to the idea, but did not forbid it.
With that, Richard and Ayan created their own working dynamic. Richard wanted more reporting on the practice of FGM, and sent Ayan for quotes from the Somali community. Ayan seemed to enjoy working with Richard. They haggled over word choices and traded ideas over how to begin and end the piece. You would have thought she was a regular staff reporter.
Over the next two weeks, my role would be to talk to each of them separately to make sure Ayan was meeting Richard’s expectations, and that Richard’s changes were not diluting Ayan’s voice. I further mediated by touching base with staff at VOX to deliver progress reports and ensure that Ayan was not overwhelmed.
A major roadblock
With all parties happy with the article, and with three days before publication, Richard took the piece to his editors. The intent of this meeting was to inform the editors what was going in the @issue section, and also to run interference on Ayan’s behalf if those editors had any concerns. Unfortunately, they had a big one.
The editors wanted some kind of signed note—either from a doctor or parent—verifying that Ayan had the FGM procedure. In the summer of 2005, the journalism scandals involving Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley were still fresh, and for some editors, having a “good feeling” about a writer wasn’t enough (especially a young freelancer we hadn’t worked with before).
Richard and I were crestfallen. We discussed ways to change Ayan’s piece so that we would not have to ask for such verification. For instance, we could pitch it as a news story, without the personal angle. Or give the story over to VOX, which would be happy to publish it as-is in their monthly newspaper. Whatever the answer, we would be going to press in three days regardless.
I contacted the VOX office for advice. Program director Meredith Tetloff said that she would explain the situation to Ayan, and stress that the choice was still hers. I was very thankful that VOX was there as a safety net. I knew that the concerns at VOX would be unclouded by the production concerns at my office.
A difficult choice
Ayan’s first reaction to the news was disbelief. She explains, “At first I thought that it was a joke. But then it sunk in slowly. I understood where they were coming from. The worst part was [asking] my father to write the letter and then sign it.”
Ayan became more determined to get her father’s signature and I could tell she was looking for encouragement from me. I reminded her that she had choices, that the article would be published and that people would be moved wherever they read it.
Later that evening, Ayan called me. She sounded like she had just run a race. I could hear raised voices in the background. The talk had been difficult, but productive. She later told me, “It took hours of talking to [my father]. He finally signed it. I believe that he did it because deep inside he agreed with what I was doing.” Though far from enthusiastic, her father had contributed his signature to a scrawled note saying that Ayan had indeed had the FGM procedure.
With that behind us, we were back on track. Ayan explains, “The next day, [I] spoke to Meredith at VOX about what had happened with my dad and she was comforting.” Meredith and I paid close attention to Ayan’s mood over the next week. She seemed exhausted, and as she says, “I almost changed my mind about the article but thank God I had a good support group at VOX.”
A few days later, Ayan’s article was published on the cover of our “primetime” @issue section and her mood was lifted considerably. In fact, the article led to many great things for Ayan as she entered her senior year of high school. Ayan says that although many in her community were angry about the article, others were now coming to her to share their experiences. She explains, “I have also had open conversations about this ritual with friends, something that I could not do before. I had friends, victims of the ritual who admire me for writing the article but [whose] parents hate me for publishing the piece. I also [received] letters from people who read the article and congratulated me for my bravery. All I care about was that my message was loud and clear to both victims and strangers of female circumcision.”
In the published version of Ayan’s article, she writes, “I wish I had the power to prevent any other 7-year-old girl from getting circumcised. My privacy was invaded that afternoon, and it still haunts me to this day. Sharing my story is difficult, but it is an important step toward my healing.”
My work with Ayan continued after the success of her article. Over the next year, she emerged as a campus leader and a hero to local Somali women. NPR (partnered with Youth Radio) broadcast a first-person segment on her story. She became involved with international and refugee groups. And she continued to write for VOX. Last fall, I began helping her copy edit college and scholarship applications. Ten months later, she is a Gates Millennial Scholar bound for the University of Georgia with a shiny new laptop.
Lessons learned
Getting more youth writers involved in mainstream media outlets can be a challenge, but a very rewarding one. The VOX Raise Your Voice Summer Program is an excellent model in youth media/mainstream media partnership. Even with my long involvement with the program, my experience as Ayan’s mentor taught me to completely rethink the value of the publishing experience and how to improve upon it for teen’s benefit.
For instance, it is not enough to treat young writers with patience and “kid gloves.” Teens are up to any challenge if the right rapport is struck upfront. As with our productive pitch meeting, having teens meet with their editor(s) face-to-face creates a partnership.
Furnish teens with choices throughout the process. Put as many decisions in the teen’s hands as possible. Be clear on your expectations and what they can expect from you.
Be prepared to support teens in ways that are outside the sphere of typical journalism and editing. Also, be mindful of outside pressures affecting the teen. Tread very lightly when dealing with cultural and family connections.
Be an advocate for teens. Ask them how you can help. Run interference on their behalf when the bureaucracy threatens to swallow their voice. Give them a chance to challenge decisions. As with our productive pitch meeting, having teens meet with their editor(s) face-to-face creates a partnership.
Remember that bigger venues bring more scrutiny, more editors, more verification and more headaches. Leave yourself time to address the unexpected. And always have a Plan B at hand if it all goes south.
Along with that, tell the teen (and your superiors) what’s ahead. Despite our best efforts, this is unfortunately where Richard and I failed Ayan. Her biggest hurdle came at the very end of the process and was unduly stressful. It possibly could have been avoided had we involved our own editors earlier on.
And finally, encourage strong cooperation between the youth organization and the professional newsroom. The dual goals of teen-building and voice-raising demand it.
My experience with Ayan reminded me that youth media is a means to an end, but not the end itself. As valuable as the published artifact is, what makes the experience a lasting one for the teen is the ownership and realization of their ambitions. By providing choices, a mentor helps the teen chart their own path. Do this, and you’ll be amazed where they lead.
Pete Corson has been a news designer for the Editorial department of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1998. He has volunteered with VOX Teen Communications since 1999, where he has helped coordinate the summer mentorship program. He is married and lives in Atlanta.