Youth Media against Violence

Chicagoans and many people throughout the country have seen news reports that either open or close with a body count—at the time of this writing, for example, 36 Chicago Public School students have been killed since the beginning of the academic year.
But much is missing from this macabre recitation of numbers. The focus on murder blurs our perception of the range, depth, and pervasiveness of violence. Perhaps most troubling, youth voices are systemically excluded from coverage—not only in the mainstream media, but in almost all media—and young girls are increasingly perpetuating violence. One consequence is that the media misrepresent youth involvement in violence, routinely characterizing them as either victims or perpetrators.
We call on the youth media field to forge visible spaces for young people—particularly young women—to talk as authorities on the violence in their lives, and to reflect on strategies for avoiding, combating, managing, and surviving violence. By unveiling violence through their conversation and projects, young people become active creators of constructive, educative media, rather than passive consumers of media that depicts teens as marginal, menacing, and intractable problems.
When Youth Leadership Council member Crystal was asked why she is involved youth media to combat violence, she replied, “I feel like as of now we don’t have a voice, we don’t have a way we can express what we’re feeling.” With the inclusion of young people’s insights in an analysis of violence, the chance that we will understand it in all its complexity and develop effectual solutions is greatly increased.
Beyondmedia Education, Girls, and Violence
Beyondmedia Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to using media and workshops for greater understanding of women’s issues, works primarily with young women. We have become increasingly concerned with the continual rise in both arrests of and acts of violence committed by girls and young women (1). More than ever, adolescent females are entering gangs—some female-only, like the Chicago-based “Lady Taliban,” which has begun to communicate their membership and display weaponry on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook (2).
The new uprising of girl gangs is occurring in conditions of almost unthinkable violence. For example, one south side neighborhood where Beyondmedia works is Englewood, which tops all Chicago neighborhoods for reported crime (3). In a recent media literacy and production workshop one young teen was absent from our Dreamcatcher workshop. Her friend recounted how over the weekend this young woman had gone to a friend’s house, where she and three others were kidnapped by the friend’s stepfather, driven to another city, held captive at least 24 hours, raped, and abandoned in a desolate field where they were attacked by wild dogs.
This story sparked another 14-year-old girl to share that as she left school one recent afternoon a man began shooting a gun outside her school; the next morning on the way to school, she heard a man’s voice insistently calling out to her. When she finally turned around, she saw him raping a 13-year-old girl. “How do they expect us to live our lives and do what we’re supposed to do in all this insanity?” she demanded to know.
Chain of Change
Though mischaracterized by the news, violence involving youth is largely happening off school grounds, and much is not school-related (4). Many young people recount acts of violence in their neighborhoods and homes, sometimes involving family members and members of the local community. Much of the violence is also attributed to gang activity, a historic problem for the city of Chicago (5).
These acts of violence are not equally distributed throughout the city but are more of a problem on the city’s largely disadvantaged and under-resourced south and west sides (6). As a call to combat violence in these areas, two years ago Beyondmedia launched Chain of Change, a project that organizes youth to reflect on, dialogue about, and produce and share media on the subject of violence without risk of censorship, embarrassment, or recrimination. Chain of Change is one example of a youth media initiative to critically disrupt the normalization of neighborhood violence and amplify the perspectives and solutions crafted by young people.
Part of the Girls! Action! Media! program, participants organize around everything from housing to sexual exploitation, immigrant issues, girls in foster care, economics, and queer issues. The main feature is the video project, created with equipment provided free-of-charge by Beyondmedia Education and uploaded to the Chain of Change interactive website (link: The website enables the participating groups to share their experiences of violence in their particular communities and, together, come up with ideas as to the roots of violence and how to end it.
Furthermore, Chain of Change networks with other groups and adults to raise awareness of the issues they find pressing, whether it is bullying in schools, domestic violence, relationship abuse, or gang recruitment. The website has been redesigned to enhance its social networking capabilities and to make more room for textual expression, reports, interviews, and blogging entries.
We’ve found that young people living in violence need a forum and space to explore, discuss, and identify what violence is. Their videos capture their views on the diverse forms of violence not depicted in the media.
For example, Sandra Husic of the Empowered Fe Fes, a support and action group of young women with disabilities aged 13 to 24, shares important insight on the ways violence affects this demographic:
“I always got picked on for my size, for my religion, and all that. One time this guy grabbed my wheel chair and said, ‘You want me to throw it in the trash can?’ … In high school I had a girl put her foot on top of my wheel chair and almost flip me over. … I told the teacher about it, and I told the dean. She didn’t get suspension. All she got was, ‘Well, she does not have disabled people in her family, so she doesn’t understand the disability world,’ and the next day she was in school.”
Kimberly Wilson, the Girls Organizing Coordinator of Access Living, the organization hosting the Empowered Fe Fes, expressed the special difficulties that many of the Fe Fes face.
“In my interactions with young women with disabilities, I have noted that many seem to have a higher tolerance for domestic violence in romantic and family relationship than non-disabled women. Dating poses a greater difficulty for many disabled women because they have a visible disability. And many of these women have reported accepting physical abuse because they fear that speaking up will result in being alone. In addition, many young disabled women reported being verbally abused in their own homes, but are afraid to report it because they may find themselves homeless.”
In participation with Chain of Change, Empowered Fe Fes created and performed a skit demonstrating bullying, which they filmed and uploaded to the site. They also brainstormed about ways of dealing with potential violence and actual violence in the future.
Another group, Kids Off the Block, an organization that seeks to give at-risk, low-income youth positive alternatives to gangs, drugs, and violence, participated with a video about the reasons behind male-on-female physical abuse. Their founder, Diane Latiker, said:
“Through video [young people] are able to express themselves without being scared. They are uncomfortable standing in front of a huge group of people they don’t know, but here at Kids Off the Block they are comfortable so their responses are real, they don’t just say what they think adults want to hear.”
As a result of Chain of Change, one change we are seeing is that the conversations about violence led by young women are taking place across neighborhood and identity. For example, Global Girls, another COC contributor, created “When TOMs Attack,” a video inspired by their personal experiences dealing with sexual harassment and assaults from “Thirsty Old Men.” In the process of making the video, the girls talked about their experiences with TOMs and also came up with potential solutions to protect themselves from this unwanted attention from older men. The girls were so inspired by participating in COC that they went on to create a traveling stage production by the same name to reach younger girls and start a conversation about this pervasive form of violence and provide solutions.
Another change we have seen is the expansion among youth of what constitutes violence. Mainstream media’s seeming equation of violence with homicide is the reason why one young woman thought “real” violence was only school or community shootings. She wanted to talk about bullying, but wasn’t sure it was a valid form. Participants not only feel their own power when they express themselves through media, but feel justified in the feelings they have when their voices are legitimated.
By creating spaces for young people to contemplate their experiences, youth media can empower and embolden youth to express themselves to adults, furthering the objective of getting youth voices into the discourse on violence. Networking additionally creates a wide community where participants see that they are not alone in what they are facing, glean ideas for new approaches to their own issues from other participants’ work, and recognize that they can speak legitimately on violence.
In order for the youth media field to better serve youth, the topic of violence must be discussed and young people encouraged to analyze, situate, and craft solutions. We encourage the field to embed the following recommendations into existing programs:
1) Create forums for youth to discuss violence.
2) Create spaces for artistic rendering of youth experiences of violence and ideas to make change.
3) Create opportunities for age-appropriate research activities.
4) Encourage youth-led media making as a technological device to craft solutions to violence, document dialogue, and off-set the narrow definition of violence set by the mainstream media.
5) Engage the method, “each one teach one,” which encourages young people to teach their peers what they have learned and give back to their communities.
Next Steps
Youth media represents a wedge in the fight against violence. It can create spaces for young people to connect, learn from each other, cross boundaries, and build self-esteem. Furthermore, when youth media projects are coupled with outreach and forums for networking, it can stimulate constructive dialogue across generational, occupational, and other differences, helping to erode mistrust and build respect, important elements in diminishing violence. We believe that if consumption of violent media increases the incidence of aggressive behavior, the creation of media to combat violence, which teaches non-violence, can decrease reliance on aggressive behavior as a way to resolve potentially violent encounters.
Youth media programs must engage young people to share their insights, experience and analyses of violence that is unfortunately, an intensely pervasive element of life outside of schools in cities like Chicago, and in many rural areas. Young people must be given a space to articulate violence and use media tools to dismantle violence, its roots and causes, piece by piece.
Given various alternative media platforms like Chain of Change, youth media must signal other groups that support young people’s anti-violence efforts, those outside of the community, and in ethnic and gender organizations geared to the same goals. Our collective aims will increase the chances that young people will invest time, attention, energy, and enthusiasm in the project, the end product, the dialogue, and the future.
Salome Chasnoff is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, installation artist, and media activist who has been guiding Beyondmedia’s artistic production since founding it in 1996. Her strong commitment to using media for liberation education and progressive organizing has drawn like-minded people over the years to shape Beyondmedia’s distinctive artistic and political vision. Salome has an M.A. in Theatre and Performance and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. She has been an arts educator for more than 20 years in university and community settings, and has produced more than 25 works, several dedicated to expanding media access to the diverse stories of women and youth. She is a single mother with three fabulous children.
Jesse Wheeler has worked for Beyondmedia on a part-time basis since 1997 in a wide variety of capacities, from grant writing, to editing, curricula development, workshop facilitation, music rights acquisition, and DJing the fabulous fundraisers. He has a B.S. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA. He has produced two amateur shorts: Tributo ao Rock ‘n’ Roll and On Your Skin: F*** the USA and Ethnography in Protest. Jesse also has two sporadically active, yet sempiternal bands: Mad Dog with Jesse James (blues) and X-GRANITO (punklore).

(1) For the last 30 years the trend has been an increase. See Zahn, Margaret A., et al. 2008. “Girls Study Group: Understanding and Responding to Girls’ Delinquency.” Report of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available at (Accessed 3 June 2009) and Lamberg, Lynne. 2002. “Younger Children, More Girls Commit Acts of Violence,” Journal of American Medical Association 288:566-68. Available at (Accessed 3 June 2009).
(2) See for examples.
(3) See (Accessed 8 June 2009).
(4) “On-campus school violence is down,” Chicago Sun-Times, 5/2/2009 (,CST-NWS-skuls03.article).
(5) See, for example: “Institutionalized Gangs and Violence in Chicago,” by John M. Hagedorn (, and
(6) We can interpret from the schools targeted in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” project, purported to be an initiative to improve the country’s third-largest public school system through closings, privatizations, “turnarounds” (parlance for the wholesale replacement of a school’s entire staff), and militarization (whereby military academies and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs are established within existing high schools and middle schools), that violence is more of a problem in schools on the city’s largely disadvantaged and under-resourced south and west sides.

Overcoming Identity Politics in Youth Media

As a youth media educator I try to stay focused on the power of consequences like the one I faced in my youth. As a teen, I was part of a queer organization whose top priority was advancing my story of marginalization. However, it was never explicit that the access to advocacy and media tools they provided was dependent on producing stories that moved their agenda forward in the public eye.
The unspoken—and I believe unconscious— assumption was that my needs as a queer youth were always going to be synonymous with the needs of the organization I was part of. But they were not. I soon realized that even with the best of intentions, expectations for marginalized youth to tell their stories can be damaging, silencing, and tokenizing. As a youth media educator and coordinator of the Twin Cities Youth Media Network, I share insights from my experience making my first documentary ten years ago—documenting the dangers of claiming a utopian answer to a population’s need for voice.
By and For Youth
District 202 was developed in the early 1990s in collaboration between the Youth Studies Department at the University of Minnesota and a group of active queer adults from the Twin Cities concerned about the safety of queer youth. District 202’s mission was “For and By Youth”—meaning youth were to lead the design of the space, the programming and governance of all activities. The initiative was based on the understanding that queer youth are easily marginalized by mainstream society and often at a higher risk for suicide, homelessness, prostitution, victim of violent crime and limited access to education.
The passion to champion marginalized youth “voice” became a problem at District 202 when young people—including myself at the time—began to question the reality of “By and For Youth.” We all believed in the ideal of District 202’s mission—that youth should lead governance. However, we began to see inconsistencies with the mission when adults began making decisions without youth input.
The day came when I needed to critique my experience with the center’s process around promoting the safety and voices of queer youth, which I turned into a poem asking adults to stop co-opting youth voice. My peers unanimously voted to paint the poem on the center’s youth-created graffiti wall. Within a few months, three of my friends and I were kicked out of the center indefinitely, citing my critique as unbeneficial to the organization.
The ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’ Story
Before getting removed from District 202, a youth media educator had taught a few of us how to make our own videos. Her goal was to teach us video making skills. I choose to bring the story up about my confrontation with inconsistencies in the mission of District 202 and the reality of how it was being run. Whether I brought this story or another story, I still fulfilled the need of the media class by learning specific skills in video making.
By focusing on teaching a skill, that practitioner—who now runs the youth media program In-Progress—gave me the freedom to judge whether I was ready and interested in telling my story of marginalization as a queer youth. Her support gave me the confidence to produce Witness, a documentary about the lack of voice I experienced at District 202. I was 17-years-old at the time. And because of the story I chose to tell, I lost the queer adult community District 202 provided. Though I released the film at the Girls in the Director’s Chair film festival at the Walker Art Center six months after my removal from District 202, as a queer teen, losing an entire support group in the Twin Cities because I didn’t share the “right” type of story, left its mark.
Beyond Identity Politics
Only young people can determine their readiness and risk involved in telling their stories. But they need accurate information and skill sets—such as media and power analysis—and supportive mentors to take the lead and make sound judgments. As a practitioner, I can’t get overtly excited about the potential of what a young person’s story can or should be. Because of power dynamics between youth and adults, I need to be aware that expressing my excitement over a specific story can influence a student.
It is unethical to demonstrate to marginalized youth that their access to tools is dependent on identity politics—that queer youth or young people of color can only share stories from these social arenas. If we do this, we perpetuate the injustice we are working to reconcile. Educators need to refrain from making assumptions of what types of stories a young person ought to tell based on “who they are.” Because identity politics is often implied in our mission, course descriptions, and proposals, educators must emphasize skill-building rather than identity when operating programs that target marginalized youth
It is unfair and invasive for educators to solely depend on young people to make media pieces that evoke their stories of oppression. As educators, we may not know the effect of exposing a certain type of story or what is on the line in a young person’s life—such as family or community responses. As educators, we do not want to risk a young person to feel mislead, exploited, over-exposed or co-opted. We need to recognize that young people are at different points of processing their identities and whatever stories they capture documents a specific point in time relevant to them. We cannot expect young people to provide a conscious analysis of say, “being queer,” just because we think they have a space to do so. But we can get excited for young people to create something entirely different than what we imagined and as a result, open up our eyes.
Joanna is a documentary filmmaker and owner of Kohler Productions based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who works part-time as a coordinator for the Twin Cities Youth Media Network. Joanna has produced and directed documentaries ranging in topics from exploitation of youth in youth services, peace activism in West Jerusalem and amateur women’s boxing. Joanna holds a B.A. in Social Documentary from the University of Minnesota, has studied at various institutes for Cultural and Public affair, trained at the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, and has been awarded by the Jerome Foundation for Media in 2005 & 2006.
The mission of Kohler Productions is to use digital media storytelling to create social documentaries that would otherwise go unheard. To confront power, entertain, and engage communities.

Radio Stands Out

Imagine going back to high school, where stereotypes, rumors, and cliques run rampant like the spread of flu in the workplace. Maybe you remember what it felt like as a young person to manage the categorization that consumed your daily attendance at school, which perhaps was at times, embarrassing and hurtful, but more often silencing. What would it have been like if, during our youth, there were safe and accessible ways to communicate our self-expression, perspective, identity and voice?
Youth-made radio is unique because it provides youth producers a sense of anonymity and freedom to express oneself outside of the everyday routine of social politics. With only the use of voice and sound, radio allows young people a space to openly ask questions and discuss issues regarding their communities, social and political issues, and personal identity.
A sense of anonymity
Radio is a place for young people to explore expression, imagination and voice, no matter who they are or what their background may be. For example, Erin Yanke from KBOO Youth Collective in Portland, OR explains, “radio is a unique tool for all people because you are not judged by your appearance and it is one of the few mediums where the more you talk the more powerful you are.” Radio is the exact modality for young people to amplify their deepest concerns and explore their personal development offering fertile ground to construct and express their own identity.
In addition, radio is cheap, accessible, entertaining, and transmitted across radio waves locally, nationally and internationally. With advances in digital radio and podcasts, youth produced stories are accessible world-wide.
Because anyone can speak on radio without immediately disclosing their identity, young people have a better chance to be heard by adults in this medium than on television, in public, or even in print. These other mediums present images alongside opinions. Images sometimes cause people to discount the ideas presented because the person is too young, too poor, or too ethnic. While radio by no means tries to hide the value of these critical perspectives, because of the limited cues that identify people as a certain demographic, radio is able to captivate listeners to hear the messages of young producers. This aspect of radio helps adults hear the ideas of young people before judging them. For their opinions and ideas to have an impact on the larger community, young people need to be heard not just by other youth, but adults in the community.
In addition, the location of where broadcasts are recorded is not often identifiable, which again strips associations and pre-conceived notions based on one’s background, class or race. This is extremely important for marginalized youth; those who have been voiceless as a result of socially constructed ideologies. These young people have some of the most important and valuable perspectives on issues of injustice. Through radio, these young people can enhance their ability to analyze, critique, and speak out on issues and create solutions to the issues they uncover. In some cases, radio provides young people who cannot have a voice in the public—such as incarcerated youth—a platform to speak beyond the walls of detention centers. For example, in Portland, ME incarcerated youth at Long Creek Detention Center have the opportunity to travel to WMPG, Greater Portland Community Radio every six to eight weeks to broadcast their features and interviews live. Having the chance to broadcast beyond the walls of a detention center is powerful for young people because they can finally have their voices heard without the visual stigma attached to prison life. Radio broadcast for many of these young people is the only way to get their voices heard and their perspectives represented, to an engaged and widespread listener base.
The voices of marginalized youth are important because they bring to the table perspectives that are not often heard or considered in the mainstream media and public debate. Without youth radio, adults would miss relatable stories and experiences told by their fellow engaged and concerned citizens—youth producers. For example, Kaari Pitkin, Executive Director of Radio Rookies states, “[We] get an overwhelming response from adults affected by or relating to the story of a fifteen year old that they never would have expected to connect with.” Youth voice has a powerful effect on all people. Having a place to express their perspectives from the margins, and how they are a part of the struggle for equality in the U.S., is valuable for these young people. Since mainstream media is often full of voices who cannot relate to the struggle of injustice and representation, this opportunity for young people is critical for community members to hear a perspective that challenges pre-conceived assumptions regarding privilege, race, sex and class. Youth input can engage the public to involve their ideas, their action, and their perspective—an important step to valuing young people as informed citizens.
The flexibility of radio
Radio is a flexible medium that offers outlets needed by young people to express their ideas and opinions, depending on both the community and geographical/cultural context. There are over three dozen youth radio groups in the U.S. each of which provides spaces for young people to ask questions about their communities and personal development—starting with picking up a microphone in a sound room. From Portland, ME—where voices of incarcerated youth can be heard—to Portland, OR—where young people equally join a collective of marginalized communities on air, youth radio is the place to speak out outside of school walls.
In the U.S., outside the domains of school, youth radio programs provide a space for young people to facilitate creative approaches to ideas and shared knowledge. Claire Holman explains, “Schools really have limited 1st amendment rights. We [at Blunt Radio] are not encumbered by the kinds of limitations a school would have.” At youth radio programs, young people can freely express their ideas independently or with peers to design, produce, and execute stories on air, without the formal censorship of schools and other institutions.
Sam Chaltain, Executive Director of Five Freedoms Project explains, “In the U.S., rights for students in schools are not coextensive with the rights of adults however; the first amendment does not preclude anyone from starting a youth radio program.” U.S. based youth radio programs, capitalize on citizens’ freedom of speech as granted to them by the 1st Amendment. These programs, which are mainly offered after-school, provide a space for young people to process and question knowledge in a public forum. Learning how to put one’s thoughts on air teaches young people how to represent themselves, their beliefs, and their perspectives—no matter who is listening.
Around the globe, radio is used flexibly for the needs of young people, often used as a means to engage young people—who either attend or cannot attend school—with their communities. For example, at Voices of Youth (VOY) in Sierra Leone, radio is encouraged for young people—many who are illiterate—to make sense of and create grassroots change after a decade of war. These young people use radio to share their valuable perspectives in a country where 50% of the population are between the ages of 18-35. At VOY, radio is a major source of communication for young people who cannot read or write to be heard by peers and adults in the community. Using radio in this way provides marginalized youth both access and a platform to share their thoughts as they engage with communities in Sierra Leone that tune-in to Citizen Radio.
In Switzerland, Radiobus needs to use radio as a supplemental element integrated into school curriculum in order to teach young people how to fuse technology with processed information. Because Switzerland does not have many after school opportunities for youth voice nor the same school-based limitations as the U.S., young people can access radio in schools as a way to process knowledge and enhance classroom learning. Denis Badman from Radiobus explains, “Few possibilities are offered to youth to try and practice media. [Schools] owe it to themselves to give students a solid and pragmatic education in media.” From the perspective of Radiobus, youth radio is a flexible tool to enhance education while engaging young people in the effective use and practice of media. Because radio can be used innovatively for the amplification of youth voice, it can be tailored to marginalized youth and the different contexts of their communities around the globe.
Radio is the lynch pin of the youth media field. Because of its ability to provide anonymity for youth in an image-based society, amplify young people’s perspectives to large adult audiences, and use flexibility to engage youth around the globe in and outside schools, youth radio must be supported. Youth radio gives young people a head start on learning how to amplify their voices to a large, unknown audience—which prepares them to present ideas in the public eye, regardless of age, race, sex, class, and other forms of discrimination. Kaari Pitkin, Executive Director of Radio Rookies in NYC explains, “The process of reporting a documentary on something you care about, or that is important in your life, is a process of claiming your own story, often of self-discovery, intellect, and curiosity.” As a result of the important and innovative space radio provides young people, it is important to invest in this arena of youth-led media. Funders that value the voices of marginalized youth and their perspectives ought to support youth radio and not let the power of radio be cast aside, regardless of new and emerging technologies that attract the majority of media funding opportunities.
With radio, one has the freedom to construct content, an opinion, or a message—no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you are from.