Educators who remain open to the dynamic process of learning can tap into the wellspring of energy that flows when we allow ourselves to be educated by students and peers. Harnessing and replenishing that energy is essential to sustaining the work of the youth media movement.
I was reminded of this on a chilly Friday night in November of last year, when I was part of a small contingent that trekked from Hook Productions, an after-school program in Brooklyn, NY (where I was the video instructor), to the cable television studios of Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Our contingent was headed to the Youth Solidarity Network (YSN) Talkback.
YSN is a collaboration of US-based and Palestinian activist organizations that educate youth around issues of local/global issues of resistance and solidarity. Palestine-Israel Education Project (PEP) is a collective, and member of YSN, whose mission is to engage students in critical thinking about the culture, history and current living conditions of Palestinians and Israelis, using video as a wake-up call to the world of life under occupation and the constant threat of terror.
This particular event was created when Ora Wise, Founder of PEP, tapped into her network of contacts and reached out to Cynthia Carrion, Director of MNN’s Youth Channel, and Oja Vincent, Program Coordinator/ Audio Instructor for Hook Productions. The event featured video projects made by youth in Palestine. These videos were first person accounts of history, violence, and the intersection of politics, which is far more effective in conveying the tense and immediate reality that looms before us on the international landscape.
PEP used the screening of the youth-produced media to spur meaningful cross-cultural dialogue amongst teens. The atmosphere of respect and openness that PEP facilitators created during these trainings was an intrinsic part of being able to be brave and draw out personal growth and reflection in my role as an educator.
Witnessing the Effect of Many Educators
At the YSN talkback, teens were asked to share their thoughts and ideas. Time and again, one particular youth participant I will call John, raised his hand, eager to share information. John had started making connections—between Africa, solidarity, resistance, music—bridging the gap between his own African American experience and the seemingly remote experience of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. John wasn’t simply regurgitating thoughts or ideas that had been imposed upon him. He was synthesizing information—reformulating it in time and space, finding a context and a venue for sharing his knowledge and views. It was immediately apparent to me that the hard work of many other educators had suddenly entered this space.
As an educator, it was a moment of simply sitting back and witnessing. Knowing some of the other educators who had influenced John—among them the Program Coordinator at Hook Productions, Oja Vincent, as well as John’s high school History teacher—I recognized the impact of their collective, yet individual actions.
It taught me to be more aware of tapping into the profound knowledge base that students and educators possess before we ever enter their lives. Taking the time to talk and learn of their perspectives or opinions is essential in creating a reciprocal bond of respect.
It is important to have those moments when we realize how small we are in the context of the teaching world—to observe how the timelines of many educators intersect through time and space, overlap, and work in synchronicity with one another.
Inter-Personal Reflection and Perspective
Working with MNN Youth Channel and Hook Productions, PEP created a space for young people to situate themselves along the discrete lines of race, gender, geography and history using the multifaceted lens of a medium that is at once technological, political, and personal. The West Bank and Gaza became Red Hook or Crown Heights; the Israeli police state became police abuse during the Red Hook Raids; encroachment on Palestinian land became gentrification in Brooklyn.
For young Americans, hearing and seeing these perspectives brings them closer to understanding the need for global and domestic accountability in a world where the voice of one can often be lost amongst the chaos of many. This is an ever-evolving experience for both young people and educators alike. While we constantly reiterate how important it is for youth to be connected to social change, we as adults can become disconnected due to cynicism or our own dearth of education. To help young people support adults, both groups ought to keep and share learning journals that record and observe our setbacks and successes, which can be an essential reflective tool.
One of the teaching tools PEP used at the YSN Talkback to connect youth to social change was to place the organization’s work within a historical context. A map of Palestine was projected onto a wall. The map was mirrored by a large-scale version on the floor, drawn out with masking tape. Educators and teens were given name tags, assigning either Palestinian or Israeli identities.
As a PEP facilitator explained the history of the region, educators and students moved about in the space, participating in a re-creation of Palestine’s transformation throughout the course of history. Simultaneously, the projected map would change reflecting demographic shifts over time. It was an unnerving experience, where geography, politics and history began to overlap—making us uncomfortable in our skins, in our 3-dimensional space, and in what I realized was our privilege.
I had been assigned the role of Palestinian, and as I was shuffled about and bullied I began to feel smaller and smaller—less than who I truly was. I walked away from the exercise with a sense of unease that percolated under the surface of my consciousness.
One week later, I attended a PEP Facilitator Training at the Brecht Forum, where my role happened to be reversed and I was now an Israeli. In the moment of the power shift, I was transformed from power-less to power-holder simply through the switch of a name tag, and it became even more clear what my privilege means to me and how it is exercised.
The PEP trainings triggered memories of powerlessness that had swept over me during my youth. During my early twenties, many new days seemed overshadowed by the world leaders’ callous disregard for nuclear proliferation, rainforest destruction, increasing environmental toxicity and endangerment of species—combined with the daily onslaught of human violence that seemed to be everywhere around me. I recalled with vivid clarity the sense of being overwhelmed, of not knowing what voice or action I had that would ever make a difference—something that both young people and adults can relate to.
With this clarity, I was suddenly filled with a re-channeling of energy and a deep desire to acknowledge my power as an educated/educating woman of color. Understanding the unique power and privilege we each carry with us is intrinsic to move forward in our lives and the work we do.
Be aware of past educators that affect a young person’s experience. The weight of the work does not rest upon the shoulders of one educator or one organization. Bear witness to the work of educators who have come before you and who have positively impacted the lives of your students. Honor and respect it. Like students, educators must constantly evolve during the course of their work by being expansive in the way they relate to knowledge and information, and the milestones that have brought us to this work. Recognizing what students and other educators bring into the equation of process and product is essential. Understanding the effect past and present educators have had on young people helps an educator get their bearing on a student’s trajectory and connects the support of a previous educator with their own. Linking oneself into this collective genealogy helps strengthen the bonds between educators and creates more respect for the learning process. There is momentum in creating a social fabric, even when we are too close to the cloth to see the pattern. As educators, this open perspective can potentially lead us to seek out colleagues and elders as mentors in our own journey.
Support a community of practice. For educators, a top priority should be socializing and communicating with peers and young people. Acquaint yourself with other youth media educators and take the time to tune into the thoughts and values of peers. Spark dialogue, learn about your collective teaching/learning genealogies and find ways to incorporate this new knowledge into your curriculum design. Educators need to regularly reflect with colleagues in the field and find where their teaching values, strengths, and methods intersect as there is much to learn from one another’s experiences. One way of doing this is creating a project or event-based opportunities, such as the YSN Talkback, where educators and teens benefit from different organizations come together. Setting aside time for educator circles, where educators can teach and learn from one another and where students can become teachers, are important strategies for the educate-able educator. This also means moving beyond the youth media world, finding mentors and teachers whose areas of specialty may be different than yours, but whose passion intersects.
Allow time for self-reflection. Allow the time and space to feel uncomfortable or challenged as you grow as an educator; it will push you forward in your journey. Be open to unexpected moments of personal growth by allowing yourself to come into contact with educators who respect your need to learn. The presence of flexibility can allow one to re-generate and re-new much more quickly than when one who is too rigid in their approach to learning. Be fluid, constantly willing to re-examine and shift perspective as new information comes into your knowledge sphere. Push yourself to attend workshops or conferences. Take courses in areas of interest. Broaden your knowledge base, then set aside personal time—whether through journaling, making collages, or creating some other personal art form. Being responsible for your own personal education can prove invaluable.
As educators, it is important to reflect on the milestones that mark our own timelines and histories—to understand this in the context of the work we do, and the lives of the young people whom we come across. Youth media educators need a collective genealogy of how we each came into this work.
Educators are in a constant state of being educated. If we expect only our students to be engaged in the learning process then we cheat ourselves of the critical moments of expansion which are necessary for us to move through our work, new knowledge, and points of view.
Padmini Narumanchi is an assistant program director with Reel Works Teen Filmmaking in Brooklyn, New York and formerly the video instructor at Hook Productions. Moving forward on her journey, she is interested in finding ways to bridge yoga/movement therapy & youth media with historical struggles of resistance in order to help create stronger, more resilient communities of empowered individuals. She is a member of the collective, Palestine-Israel Education Project (PEP)