Amigos de las Américas: Incorporating media in youth-oriented Latin American volunteer projects

In today’s fast-paced world of digital cameras and Blackberries, it may be difficult to imagine a place where roads are unpaved, running water is a luxury and digital technology is practically non-existent. With the media’s oftentimes negative representation of young people, it may come as a surprise that young people in the U.S. are willing to serve indigenous communities in other countries—using digital media.
At Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), teen volunteers travel to Latin America to investigate, document, and share culture and history as they work to improve the local communities’ living conditions. Each summer 600 volunteers—with an average age of 17—live with Spanish-speaking host families and participate in service programs in eight Latin American countries.
Last summer, an AMIGOS Digital Culture Project in Oaxaca, Mexico bridged youth media, leadership, and service-learning. Digital media was taught by teens to a local Latin American community, documenting indigenous stories and culture. In addition, blogs and online journals helped U.S. teen volunteers document and communicate service work, sharing their cross-cultural, global experiences back home.
Having a youth-led media project was a new initiative for AMIGOS and provided great insights into the ways youth take the lead in teaching global communities about technology and how digital media can capture shared cultural exchange.
About AMIGOS and the Digital Culture Project
AMIGOS is unique because of the leadership and cultural sensitivity it requires of young volunteers. First, young people must go through about six months of extensive cultural training before stepping foot in Latin America. Volunteers are educated about overcoming cultural differences, trained on project specific Spanish vocabulary and taught how to engage community members in Latin America. Once trained and on Latin American soil, small groups exercise their personal initiative and leadership in designing and implementing projects with their host communities. AMIGOS projects foster youth education to promote healthy social development, leadership skills, and creative expression of young people.
The first AMIGOS Digital Culture Project was created in 2006 by Jon Crail, a two-time AMIGOS Volunteer and Project Staff member. The project incorporated the leadership of teens who team-taught media to inspire youth in the host community. Teen volunteers worked with adults and mainly young people between the ages of 8 and 16. These teens had a high interest in technology and media products.
Crail explains, “Video in particular can be really creative and empowering for young people in marginalized or indigenous communities.” He continues, “People who are less educated [often] are scared to speak or write, so they end up losing their voice. Video and photography allow them a creative way to express that voice.”
In the project, teens taught digital media skills through a hands-on approach with one-on-one tutoring. They worked in small groups, which allowed young people to learn about digital technology first hand. These small groups created a special peer-to-peer relationship between community youth and AMIGOS volunteers. In addition, having a peer-to-peer teaching model set an example for the community to teach one another across generations.
Young children learned quickly about aspects of the camera and photography and took part in the documentation process. Teen volunteers posted photos and videos online in a digital museum, kept archives for the local community to use, and kept web journals on their experience in Oaxaca.
For example, Apporva Shah, a 2006 Volunteer in Oaxaca kept an extensive blog about his experiences in the Digital Culture Project ( Shah’s blog is an example of the ways AMIGOS youth volunteers share their life-changing experiences with the worldwide online community.
Emily Untermeyer, Executive Director/President of AMIGOS says digital media is an expressive resource for young people. She explains, “Our young volunteers often experience a rollercoaster of emotions. For many, it is their first time being out of the country and the longest period of time they have spend apart from their family and friends,” Untermeyer says. “The use of media provides a healthy outlet for them to share their experiences as they live and work within a new culture.” As teen volunteers served the local Latin American community in Oaxaca using digital media, digital media served a purpose for their own expression and experience in Oaxaca—a two way system of learning.
Youth led Media Serves Marginalized Communities
Youth are taking a leadership role in teaching, training and engaging Latin Americans in technology in ways that support and represent their culture in a digital age. The use of technology is shared across the Americas, and young people—as a new generation of technology users—are sharing their interest in digital media more globally.
Untermeyer explains, “AMIGOS volunteers and project staff are a positive catalyst in helping communities throughout the Americas to use the incredible educational and professional opportunities today’s technology offers.” The fusion of media with a cultural exchange service-oriented program is extremely beneficial to our young participants and our Latin American counterparts.
AMIGOS volunteers are excellent candidates for teaching digital media because they come with knowledge of digital technology. Most teen volunteers enter the program with computer and technology skills from growing up in the U.S., which can be shared with Latin American counterparts that have extremely limited access to technology.
Moreover, the use of media in service-learning can be effective despite language barriers. Young volunteers, though versed in Spanish, can more readily share technology despite language differences. Because an extensive vocabulary is not needed to teach someone to navigate the Internet or use a digital camera, digital media is a much more effective means to teach technology. Digitial media can be shown, set as an example, as opposed to teaching video and photography verbally.
In addition, because AMIGOS volunteers are versed in Latin American culture and technology before they step foot in Oaxaca, they are prepared to remain conscious and respectful of cultural norms; introducing technology in ways that will benefit communities. Teens become aware that bringing digital media into a community can change the way of life for people who have had limited access to technology, having experienced the power of digital media in influencing cultural norms in the U.S.
As a result, young people encouraged indigenous people to use technology beyond the digital media program. Their leadership enabled the community to confidently use the Internet more frequently and become more comfortable with computers and digital cameras. Introducing technology benefited community members for future work, to store and share information, and to communicate virtually.
Digital Media for Cultural Exchange
Digital media allows host communities to express their ideas and share their culture with a worldwide audience. Using digital media serves the local community in ways that effectively allows young people to work together and interact more readily across cultural differences. Digital projects that embrace and document a community’s heritage have been successful for young people at AMIGOS.
The leadership and digital media expertise of teen volunteers in Oaxaca enabled community members in 2006 to photograph artifacts and take videos of shared stories and indigenous cultural reflections—using technology to capture indigenous history. Digital documentation can be quickly transferred and easier to maintain than a physical museum representing diverse cultures.
The importance of using digital media in this way is that Oaxaca has a high concentration of indigenous people. Due to increased urban developments, these groups have begun to lose some of their rich history and culture. There are 16 total registered indigenous groups, with the most populous groups being Zapotec and Miztec. By documenting culture in a city that has a high concentration of indigenous people; young people are learning the importance of sharing stories and history to both a local and worldwide audience.
Crail said the AMIGOS Digital Culture Project helped document these important indigenous cultures through digital media. Digital media gave community members and volunteers another means of sharing culture through documentation. Used in this way, both community members in Oaxaca and American volunteers learned more about the history of indigenous Mexican culture. As a result, these community members gain a voice to share their history and vision of their community, while simultaneously gaining valuable technology skills and experiencing a lasting impact from cultural exchanges.
The digital program that Crail started at AMIGOS has influenced and launched new projects beyond AMIGOS, a trend for service projects that use youth led media as a tool for host communities to express their culture globally. For example, Crail’s experience in Oaxaca inspired him to start his own non-profit organization called Digital Roots (, an organization that specifically empowers communities around the world to investigate, document and share their culture and history by using environmentally friendly digital technologies, creating physical and virtual exhibitions and museums, and encouraging young people to reflect on the past, present and future of their community and their role as community members.
Youth led media has been instrumental in introducing technology to Latin American community members through AMIGOS’ digital media program. Teen volunteers have combined their knowledge of digital media and service-learning in Latin America to teach local community members how to use digital cameras and other technology, despite language and cultural barriers. These projects have provided community members with valuable technology skills and digital end products that feature their history and culture.
Digital media is a way for host communities to share their culture locally and globally. AIn Oaxaca, volunteers and young community members in the Digital Media Project simultaneously learned about Oaxaca’s indigenous culture. From using digital media as a tool to document and enliven indigenous culture to using blogs and online journalism to convey cultural exchanges and experiences to their communities back home, young people serve as a cultural and global bridge.
Using digital media, young people—despite differences in language and backgrounds—can express their identity, history, and perspective to the world. Young people are using their knowledge of technology and bringing them to service learning sites in Latin America more frequently. Digital technology helps young people teach and learn how to express one’s voice. Marginalized communities in rural areas such as Oaxaca, Mexico can benefit from young people’s leadership, peer-to-peer media training, and their knowledge of technology. Such bridging—of youth led media and service—can enhance social and cultural exchanges for young people in the U.S. and in cities around the globe like Oaxaca, Mexico.
Tara is the Communication Manager at AMIGOS and has a degree in Spanish and Journalism. She grew up on a 3,000-acre farm in Dodge City, Kansas and before moving to Houston, she was the Editor of La Voz online, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Arizona. Tara was also editor of her award-winning college newspaper, The Baker Orange. In her spare time she enjoys yoga.

The Field is Bigger than We Think

Albuquerque, New Mexico was a unique place to meet youth media and service-learning practitioners, amongst several other organizations at the 18th National Service-Learning Conference where 2,500 people attended on March 23-27th. With inspirational speakers such as Jane Goodall and spiritual blessings by insightful native elders, the energy of leadership, wisdom, and connectivity filled the convention center with youth and adult allies excited about engaging more deeply as active and effective citizens.
Why Albuquerque, New Mexico as a relevant conference setting? Albuquerque has made young people a top priority in its city where, among other things, is a teen artistic haven and entertainment center coined Warehouse 21 (W21). W21 provides young people to manage, produce, teach, design, and administer art, media, promotion classes and music performances in collaboration with MAP21, a local youth-operated magazine.
Interwoven at the 18th National Service-Learning Conference (NSLC) was a few youth media organizations and individuals who have made a direct link between youth media and service-learning. On behalf of YMR, I met with people from three specific organizations—New Foundation Charter School’s, Native Youth, and Stories for Service/Digital Storytelling—to learn how these connections are important for youth media professionals in the field and how media can serve youth and communities respectively.
Kevin Dobbins, a young man working with video, production, and editing who was filming the conference for the second time around with a team of youth, has first hand experience blending youth media work with service-learning. I met him on the opening day of the conference as he handed out flyers promoting their video production and storyboard workshops. Dobbins is an alumnus of the New Foundation Charter School’s (NFCS) in Philadelphia, PA—which serves kindergarten to 8th graders (but whose media program includes youth/alumnae up to grade 12). While at NFCS, Dobbins participated in a service-learning course in conjunction with an after-school media program.
The two opportunities pushed him to portray issues in his community using ‘active video documentation’—Kevin’s term to describe service-learning documentaries. I asked Dobbins, who was first involved with the conference last year, what it is like to be in New Mexico, film the conference, and be part of the second round of youth-designed pre/post production and storyboard workshops. “I feel honored,” he said with a wide grin as he led me to the video production workshop headquarters where I am met with two media instructors from NFCS, Shoshanna Hill and Geanie Meerbach.
NFCS has a service-learning component integrated into its academic curriculum, thanks to Amy O’Neil and Shira Cohen (Founders of i-Safe and i-Drive). The after-school video production program is youth-oriented, includes a wide scope of age groups (as many high-school alumnae attend), and uses service-learning best practices to effectively align it with a credit-bearing course at the school. Meerbach explains, “We integrate issues important to youth with service-learning.” Youth create videos at NFCS as a way to uncover and comment on issues through active documentaries which are up to five minutes long. These documentaries are viewed internally by other students, and sometimes by parents, teachers, and community members. Many of the films bring attention to issues of particular relevance to young people, such as bullying, while providing a space for creative expression (where youth integrate thriller-esque styles and comedy).
Media Instructor Shoshana Hill explains:
“Internet safety and bullying, for example, are big deals to youth [right now at our school]. I don’t think adults realize how important these issues are [to youth]. Often, youth are burdened with societal pressures with oppressive messages such as ‘you shouldn’t know how to use .’ The issues youth in our program address are not [typically] known [to the community/audience]. Youth get everything from media. And bringing up the unknown and showcasing that on a screen, gets a certain issue attention, which youth learn to use strategically. Video has the power to communicate and get the word out about issues. Young people, by using this medium, learn not only how a video works, but what a camera doesn’t see, which teaches youth to ask questions, think in a story, and creatively use alternative communicative forms.”
Geanie Meerbach, who has been working as a media instructor for the past year at NFCS, plans to archive all student videos and active documentaries in the school library. Meerbach believes that access to these video documentaries on youth issues and experiences will help support generations of youth to come at NFCS. She also believes that the ability and desire of NFCS students to take leadership on issues important to the community, self, and one’s peers is a direct result of merging service-learning with active documentaries. Both Meerbach and Hill are passionate and dedicated media practitioners who see a direct link between youth media making and service-learning—which has had profound effects on both students and the issues they are tackling.
In addition to the NFCS conference attendees, Mary Kim Titla offered a workshop on native youth and storytelling at the conference. Titla has spent more than half of her life as a professional storyteller, including 20 years for NBC as a news reporter. She mentors young Native storytellers through her website, Native Youth At her workshop, two young storytellers spoke about the importance of storytelling, writing, and how they entered the world of storytelling through pow wows (a cultural tradition amongst Native Americans).
Native Youth promotes youth initiatives, youth storytelling, website design, cultural presentations, media relations, video production/narration, and more. Founded by Titla, Native Youth offers youth a forum to view and upload video clips, audio, profiles, galleries and blogs. As she explained in her workshop, the website “addresses real world issues through the ancient craft of storytelling.” Adding storytelling to technology builds a sense of unity that is meaningful.
As a mother of teenagers, Titla realized that there were “not enough positive websites about Native American youth communities and activities that could connect Native American youth with one another.” Titla explains that youth who have access to technology are part of a generation that is up to speed on the latest technology—they are really into figuring out how things work, function, and what advanced features new technology offers.
Throughout Titla’s work and life, she emphasizes the importance of language, signs, and symbols to one’s history, personal transformations, and cultural knowledge. She believes that the importance of storytelling enhances one’s identity and community—which are integral to learning how to serve and give back to where one’s roots are laid. By creating Native Youth, Titla engages youth with a passage way that connects them to their cultural identity, to their peers, and to the power of story telling in a digital age.
Story telling fosters a sense of identity, lineage, and service in youth in many ways. The National Service-Learning Conference also featured Stories of Service, a program of Digital Clubhouse Network. Stories of Service (SOS) mobilizes young people to interview and produce digital stories (multimedia videos) about the memories of women and men who serve the nation. SOS is dedicated to developing innovative ways of using technology to build stronger communities, with an emphasis on mobilizing youth in service to their communities.
SOS was launched in 1998 and founded in 1996 in Silicon Valley, CA out of a NASA research project and currently partners with the History Channel, Youth Service America, and the National Youth Leadership Council. SOS engages youth with skills such as video production, interviewing, writing, visual arts, research, and intellectual property/copyrights. SOS provides an electronic toolkit of curriculum on their website, training workshops, and orientations.
SOS captures stories of those who serve the nation who:
• Are universally inclusive, reflecting the contributions of individuals of all backgrounds;
• Are ordinary individuals who have received little recognition for their extraordinary service;
• Provide youth with role models for ongoing service; and
• Engage youth with older generations by creating a “youth to youth” connection (youth producers are similar in age to the Storytellers during the Storytellers’ time in service)
At the conference, youth from SOS conducted interviews with elders from the local Albuquerque community as well as other elders with strong backgrounds in service-learning to capture their digital stories. Teams of youth were paired with an elder storyteller to create an opportunity for intergeneration learning and togetherness. Video became a tool both to build community and document personal histories of older generations. Ryan Hegg, the Project Director of Stories of Service, explains that there is power where “young people volunteer to capture stories and share them—media is a modality for preserving stories and history.”
Preserving stories, working with elders, and using media to highlight local issues are all elements of youth media directly related to service-learning. As Nelda Brown, the Director of the National Service-Learning Partnership explains, “The service-learning field is bigger than we think. Often our colleagues using youth media, youth organizing or other engagement strategies to pursue community change are in fact doing service-learning, often with even stronger social justice outcomes for participants and neighborhoods. We need to recognize, embrace and learn from their work to strengthen our mutual goals of community improvement, equity, and justice.”
Bridging service-learning and youth media has profound effects on youth and their communities. Both the service-learning and youth media fields ought to recognize and learn from each other’s work, especially on specific areas of overlap. Whether its documenting oral history through a generation of elders using video, sharing one’s cultural identity and experience through journalism and pow wows, or actively documenting issues in one’s school—youth are taking on socially conscious, activist roles in using media to engage with their sense of self, community and belonging.