“Who lives here?” asked Moony as the car filled with five teen girls drove through Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. Veronica may have winced inside but she said clearly: “I do.” The dirty streets and closed storefronts near the historic Washington High School–the academic home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. –were a shock to Moony, whose suburban high school neighborhood looked quite different from Veronica’s urban one.
This anecdote reflects the reality experienced by teens living in Atlanta today—communities are separated from one another, and movement between communities is rare, as many public institutions discourage communication and community-building across social groups and geographic distance. For this reason, many teens experience Atlanta as a fractured city.
For democracy to survive, we have to find a way to have civil dialogue across differences. Youth media programs provide a space for young people to move outside of traditional institutions, and challenge segregation and stereotypes. With a dual focus on teambuilding and skillbuilding, VOX has created a set of practices that encourage diversity and inclusion.
Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion
In order to provide a space where diverse groups of young people work together and thrive, creating a media outlet that reflects their experiences and thus inspires a broad audience, VOX emphasizes the following:
Outreach. Workshops and interactive activities can help teens, staff and Board/volunteers identify who is at the table and whose voices are missing;
Transportation. A few teens can get rides from family members. Most use public transportation, so meetings and work sessions have to be in spaces accessible by public transportation. Rides are organized for those who didn’t have bus fare or when the walk from the bus stop is just too far.
A safe environment. A work environment where teens from different backgrounds together establish ground rules, organizational philosophies and ways of working together to which all agree; understood agreements about confidentiality, mutually agreeable definitions of respect that identify safety from hate language and put-downs, and a process for airing concerns or challenges.
Transcend barriers. Teens who work together to create their own shared goals (the nonprofit community calls this impact outcomes; we call it a “so what”) do so with a vigor that allows them to cross the invisible boundaries of race, economics, gender, faith, sexual orientation and age that often keep people separated. As writers and artists collaborate on articles and page designs, they can transcend the barriers that otherwise polarize them.
Teambuilding and diversity. As teens lead icebreakers, teambuilding games, and diversity appreciation activities, they foster relationships that forge into meaningful friendships and positive peer connections. As a result, they choose to spend time in the newsroom because it is a fun and positive place to work and hang out. Twice a year VOX also hosts a “cultural expression buffet” – a pot luck where students contribute a dish of food representing something they appreciate about their culture to help teens see their commonalities and honor their differences. Additionally, as a matter of necessity, the meetings also need to be fun, and students need to get to know each other well enough to come to consensus about stories’ name, design and content.
Recruitment and partnerships. Make sure that all collaborative program partnerships are with organizations and schools/classrooms that serve specific outreach populations of youth. Prioritize outreach to work with populations of teens growing up in foster care, who are refugees or immigrants, who are adjudicated delinquent and the least heard and least likely to participate in after-school programs. In addition, specifically and avidly recruit writers, artists, poets, and videographers who represent the diversity of the community the organization aims to serve.
Building Community through Youth Media
Crafting an authentic, safe space, getting to know each other as real, whole people, and breaking down barriers through collaborative storytelling allows teens to dissect issues such as power, privilege, inclusion, and exclusion. This process is supported by group activities, but ultimately grows from the process of designing and producing media representations that reflect teen experiences across social boundaries and communicate teen concerns to the wider community. Teen participants in VOX tell us that no other environment engages them with people who are different from themselves. The following suggestions stem from their feedback and comments:
Helping young people understand how divisions between race, class and gender operate. Sara Powell, an alumna of VOX, explains: “During a group diversity training, we were all given dots of different colors on our forehead. Some people received the same colors as others, and some did not. The only instructions we were given was to ‘divide.’
“And so divide we did, by color. Some people had no one with a same-colored dot, so they were singles. Two of them tried to band together anyway, and I tried to stop it, saying that they weren’t the same color. Afterwards, the goal behind the activity was revealed, and it was pointed out that we’d only been told to divide, and no parameters had been given to govern said division. The color-based division was of our own design.
“I got the point. It hit me in such a profound way that, 12 years later, I still recall that training. It made me look at the artificial boundaries we put up to shut out other people and experiences. It made me look inside myself at my own fears and prejudices. And it made me really grateful to be a part of VOX and thus able to have a share in the celebration of diversity it represents.”
Joining two young people from different backgrounds to work on media projects together. Rebecca Stein, a VOX writer, explains: “Being in Jewish, Orthodox schools my entire life, I had been exposed only to one main view about Israel’s tension with the Palestinians.
“I wrote a VOX article on Israel’s military actions from a Jewish perspective that opposed the view of a VOX staff member who wrote from a Muslim point-of-view. It would seem that the two of us would find no common ground, but through our collaboration on a ‘history of the conflict’ and ‘relief organization’ sidebars, we were able to find areas in which we thought alike. Through this experience, I learned that it is possible to find common ground with those who, at first, may seem to have opposite views on the world than I do.”
Providing young people a platform outside of schools and families to talk about sexuality and how it differs among their peers. Simit Shah explains: “Like many people, almost everybody I interacted with was almost exactly like me. I never thought this to be unusual and the only regular dose of diversity was delivered through the TV set or the occasional trip downtown to a sporting event.
“For example, in my community and household, homosexuality was a topic that was either not to be breached or the subject of scorn and ridicule. Just a few weeks at VOX changed that, as I saw the realities and heard the stories. Granted, I think most people mature, along with their opinions and viewpoints, as they reach college and the real world, but being a part of VOX really accelerated that process for me.”
Encouraging young journalists to push beyond their boundaries. Co-founder Jeremy explains: “The process of researching and writing stories for VOX gave me entree into the lives of people to whom I might not normally have access. They recognized that as a journalist I could help them tell their story. By opening up to me to talk about teen pregnancy, sexual orientation, race or just their hopes of winning a local talent show these people made my world that much larger.”
VOX’s teambuilding and the process of sharing stories through journalism makes a profound impact on both the writers and their readers. Last year, VOX’s annual citywide readers’ survey found that 89% of readers said they were more understanding of people who are different from themselves as a result of what they read in VOX. Since community dialogue begins with interaction, youth media programs that allow diverse voices to speak and be heard are contributing to local and national social change.
Youth media organizations may be the only place teens are compelled to examine their own experiences with bias and exclusion—and the power that communication and publishing holds for reducing the isolation that keeps feeling down about themselves and their communities.
By building effective bridges among groups, youth media programs can not only create a transformational experience for everyone involved but impact the community beyond even the work our teens unite to create.
Rachel Alterman Wallack, MSW, is the executive director of VOX Communications in Atlanta, GA. A native Atlantan, Rachel’s experience growing up in Atlanta and then writing for Junior Scholastic and Business Atlanta magazines inspired her to help start VOX Teen Communications with a team of volunteer teens and adults in 1993. Rachel earned her bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Texas in Austin, but knew quickly after working with teens at VOX that they needed much more than just an editor. She went back to school and earned master’s degree in social work at night in order to better support teens involved in VOX’s programs, and she has since volunteered and consulted with several local non-profits in the area of youth development, youth in governance and organizational leadership, and non-profit organizational development. Her role at VOX today is to guide strategic planning and Board Development, support adult staff to secure the resources for youth voice in metro-Atlanta.