Interview: Dana Kaplan and Minh Nguyen

Dana Kaplan is the executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) in New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally from New York City, Dana has been organizing with youth and families and working on juvenile and criminal justice reform throughout the United States for the last ten years.

Minh T. Nguyen is founder and executive director of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO). Minh has dedicated his life to giving voice to the Asian American community in the Gulf Coast region. His long-term advocacy and organizing efforts have invigorated the political energy of the Vietnamese youth in New Orleans to unite, fight, and protect their communities from government-inflicted environmental injustices, such as negligible flood protections planning, water contamination, and the conversion of their largely African American and Vietnamese American community into a toxic dumpsite.

YMR: When was Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and VAYLA-NO founded and what are your roles?
Dana Kaplan: The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) was founded in 1997 as a legal and advocacy organization dedicated to transforming the juvenile justice system in Louisiana into one that builds on the strengths of communities, ensuring that children are given the greatest opportunities to grow and thrive. In 2007, I joined JJPL as the executive eirector. Shortly thereafter, I launched a youth organizing program called Young Adults Striving for Success (YASS).
Minh T. Nguyen: I am the founder and executive director of Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA), which is a youth-led, youth organizing and development, community-based organization dedicated to empowering Vietnamese American and underrepresented youth through services, cultural enrichment and positive social change.
YMR: Can you share with YMR readers what the context is like in New Orleans that elicits the need for youth media organizations?
Nguyen: After Hurricane Katrina, the youth of New Orleans were left out of the rebuilding process. Youth organizers in New Orleans decided that they needed to reach out to people doing similar work and form a collaborative. Youth media organizations in New Orleans do not to want to compete against each other. They want to build a youth-led movement for change.
Kaplan: There are few publicly funded opportunities for youth in New Orleans, particularly as many schools, parks and recreational centers remain shuttered almost four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The neighborhoods that youth live in are blighted and plagued by violence.
Too often the media depicts youth as the problem, rather as individuals in the community who bear the brunt of the impact of failed economic and social policies in their city. Thankfully, there is a strong community of nascent youth organizing groups, across New Orleans that raise the voices of youth in public policy debates and working to reshape the image of youth in the media as part of the solution.
YMR: What challenges have you experienced in the past 1-3 years as an educator in New Orleans?
Kaplan: Like most non-profits, JJPL has been hit by the economic recession. We struggle with wanting to serve more youth than we can in our programs. We do not have the funds for adequate staff support or even a van to help transport youth to meetings and events. While we are heartened by the huge outpouring of support that came to New Orleans from across the country, and really the world, in the wake of the Hurricane, we are worried that as the event continues to recede from the national headlines, the funding support will continue to dry up.
YMR: What are some of the successes?
Kaplan: There is a vibrant and dynamic community of organizers in New Orleans, whom JJPL is honored to work with. Collectively we have seen real change. Working with organizations like Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Youth (FFLIC), Fyre Youth Squad (FYS), VAYLA and Rethink New Orleans, we have seen a reduction in the funding towards school security officers, a revision of the New Orleans Recovery School District Discipline Code, improved conditions in New Orleans juvenile detention center, and other changes in public policy.
YMR: Are you part of a youth media network in New Orleans?
Kaplan: Although it is not explicitly media focused, we launched the New Orleans Youth Organizing Collaborative in 2008, which includes YASS, VAYLA, Rethink, and Fyre Youth Squad. We are working together citywide to increase educational equity and to change the future for young people across New Orleans.
Nguyen: One of the original FYS adult supporters also worked for JJPL and was instrumental in building close ties between the two organizations from the beginning. The roots of the collaborative began in the summer of 2006 when Fyre Youth Squad (FYS) and Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink) attended the Community Open-Mic Youth Forum organized by the Downtown Neighborhoods Improvement Association (DNIA). Both FYS and Rethink support young people who want a voice in the rebuilding of New Orleans Public Schools and envision top-quality education for all New Orleans youth regardless of race, neighborhood or family income. There was a wonderful article written by Rethink members for the Neighborhood Partnership Network Newsletter about an FYS member that they became very fond of.
In February of 2008, VAYLA joined the collaboration. VAYLA, Rethink, & FYS began collaborating on a Through the Youth Lens photography project, where youth activists were viewed as agents of change. Then, in March of 2008, VAYLA and FYS were asked to be the hosting organization for the Youth Convening Conference, which welcomed youth organizations from around the country to New Orleans.
After the convening, VAYLA, FYS, JJPL, and Rethink decided to meet to form this New Orleans youth organizing collaborative. The organizations all agreed that in order for the four organizations to work successfully together, it must be an organic process. We decided that each organization will host a formal meeting and social event to give the youth they serve opportunities to build relationships. Since then, the young people we work with have been interacting and working together across programs.
Kaplan: Together we strengthen our work and learn from each other’s experiences. We represent all neighborhoods in New Orleans and work with youth with diverse racial backgrounds and a range of ages, from middle school to young people in their early twenties.
Since forming the collaborative, each organization has hosted member organizations at their meetings and at events, so that we learn our different styles and missions and therefore support one another’s campaigns and programs. Recently, the Collaborative had a weekend-long organizing training.
In January 2009, the Collaborative members are going on a retreat to plan a joint campaign, focused on Educational Equity in the city of New Orleans. Youth representatives from each organization have been planning the event for months, with the goal of identifying a common strategy to positively impact youth across the city in the coming year.
Nguyen: And recently, the collaboration has been approached by funders and agreed that each organization’s funds are distributed equitably and that consensus is reached on the question of the local organization responsible for maintaining money slated for collaboration.
YMR: Do you partner with other youth media organizations outside of the city?
Kaplan: JJPL is part of the Community Justice Network for Youth, a national network of community organizations working to “stop the rail to jail” for youth of color. While also not explicitly media focused, CJNY members work everyday to revamp how media depicts youth, particularly youth of color. We educate ourselves on media messaging and how to take control of the images and depictions of youth that shape public policy every day.
YMR: What is your personal vision/hope for young people?
Kaplan: My personal hope is that all young people can have the support to face the many obstacles to their success, including the negative depictions and imagery that they are faced with every day. If we are going to see real change happen in this country—which we have not seen yet—young people will need to be encouraged to get involved and be the leaders that will make change happen.
YMR: What can youth media educators—your peers in the field—do to help see that vision/hope to fruition?
Kaplan: We need to work together. Times are tough and our numbers are small—we have to scale up our impact across the board, reach more youth, and thrive no matter what the conditions. The Youth Organizing Collaborative is an example of trying to strengthen our programs through collaboration in New Orleans. It is imperative that all organizations look for opportunities to work together and grow.
YMR: Is there any stand-alone piece of advice that you would like to share with educators in the national youth media field?
Kaplan: Resources are so limited for organizations that do this work. We need to find ways to grow the field for all of us, rather than competing over scraps.
YMR: What was it like to spend face time with your colleagues at the YMR NOLA meeting in October?
Kaplan: It is always a blessing to take time to talk to peers in this field. Our days are hectic and crazed, so space to reflect and learn about what others are doing is invaluable.