Building the Local Youth Media Community

Public presentations of youth media have the potential to broaden perspectives, challenge assumptions, build community, and reward young people for their efforts. Yet it can be difficult to engage new local audiences of individuals who may not be familiar with youth media. Young people hope to engage new youth, adult allies, and local stakeholders who have the potential to become advocates for their concerns. As youth media often seeks to strengthen community relationships, youth media screenings tend to revolve around smaller community events and partnerships where the audience is already invested in the subject matter. Branching out to the broader, local community requires new strategies, taking risks and building partnerships outside of the youth media field.
For many youth media orgs that work with video, one of the key objectives is to widely distribute youth generated content. Many have opted to distribute on-line or through youth media networks. We have found that focusing on our local city as a source of increasing the audience, distribution and diversity of stakeholders in youth media has been fruitful. As a result, our youth media shop has become an important aspect of the community as we develop relationships with cultural institutions, colleges, and businesses to strengthen and expand the field.
Creating a Strategy
Wide Angle Youth Media is a nonprofit that provides youth in Baltimore, MD with practical media education, leadership development, and video production skills to become self-aware, engaged citizens in their community. More than 300 youth participate in workshops at their schools or in our after-school programs each year. Students produce their own media, including documentary and narrative videos, digital photography, and audio recordings, selecting a message and intended audience for each piece. The cycle of research, learning and production naturally progresses to presentation—for the process to complete, young people must have an opportunity to share their work with their intended target audience.
Our organization has historically found it easier to reach an audience outside of our local jurisdiction. Through partnerships with Listen Up! Youth Media Network, Free Speech TV, the National Alliance for Media, Art, and Culture, MNN Youth Channel and the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, we have been able to share our work with communities across the country. In recent years, we have also had successful experiences sharing our videos through online publishing channels: YouTube, Facebook, and our websites.
However, as of 2004, we realized that only a fraction of the Baltimore community had the opportunity to experience our work in live events. This was due in part to the fact that the youth media field is more established through national networks, and that online and broadcast distribution can have many possible niche markets. This challenge is probably shared by other groups outside of cities with a well-established youth media community (such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco), where there are less resources dedicated to supporting youth voice in the public sphere.
Wide Angle averaged 8 public presentations per year from 2001-2004, with each event serving roughly 50 people [1]. The individuals that attend our various screenings across the city create a small yet committed base of about 250 individuals. Our Baltimore-based audience includes youth producers and their families, Wide Angle board members, older adults engaged in community advocacy, local artists and independent filmmakers. Each audience member had already a personal, direct connection to the organization or young videomakers.
While these audience members are very valuable to us, both youth producers and staff observed that we were too often “preaching to the choir”—showing the same work to the same people. So we started to challenge the confines of our local outreach and found that each time we partnered, say, with a local college, our audience grew and diversified. We realized that there was great potential for us to play an important role in Baltimore and that we had the resources to create an environment that united youth media artists with new audiences, crossing community and cultural boundaries. We saw this challenge as an opportunity, and created a mission to:
• Provide a space to share youth media with a diverse local audience;
• Increase opportunities for youth media creation and presentation;
• Create an environment in which young people’s stories, challenges, and talents are appreciated and internalized.
In an attempt to create broad appeal and hundreds of artists to our city and to youth producers, we crafted the Who Are You? Youth Media Festival. We hope our lessons learned serve as a model for community collaboration, engaging arts institutions, business, nonprofits and schools in working together, and bringing the concerns and stories of youth to new audiences.
About the Who Are You? Youth Media Festival
The Who Are You? Youth Media Festival was developed in 2004, by Youth Media Advocacy Coalition (a network of youth media practitioners and supporters, administered by Wide Angle from 2002-2005) members and youth from many local youth-serving nonprofits, including the Baltimore Algebra Project, Baltimore Youth Congress, CENTERSTAGE’s Encounter Program, Critical Exposure, Kids on the Hill, Safe and Sound Campaign’s Youth Ambassadors, Uniquely Spoken, Youth As Resources, Youthlight, and Wide Angle Youth Media. The festival was designed to be an annual event open to any Baltimore young person in 5th-12th grades. The festival’s recurring theme would be identity. The team felt that this was a theme broad enough for participation by all youth, an opportunity for conversations of diversity, and a guarantee that the typical marginalization of youth identity would be challenged.
This partnership of local youth serving organizations exponentially increased our outreach and promotion—from one organization to more than 12 groups and 30 schools, each with their own students, families, neighbors, and areas of the city from which to expand participation. This group was the origin of our Youth Festival Committee—a team of high school students who design, curate, promote, and host the festival each year. By giving young people the power and support to design the mechanism of display the festival is at its foundation advocating for young people’s stories, identities, and perspectives.
It was quickly determined that “youth media” would have to expand beyond video since at the time, there were less than 10 known Baltimore area organizations and four schools with video capabilities. Many of the partnering organizations used other media, including photography, fine art, poetry, and performance. These art forms became the categories accepted into the festival. With two-dimensional art as a key element, the festival could incorporate a gallery exhibition, which instantly increased the duration of the event from one weekend to several weeks, adding an entirely new element to youth media.
What became known as “Gallery Talks,” each week professional artists and educators would lead facilitated discussions for specific audiences, such as college students, art teachers, academics, and the philanthropic and business community. Each “Talk” focused on youth issues and concerns. For example, our 2008 Gallery Talk, “Make Art or Die,” explored the significance of creative self-expression for youth, and the importance of art education, similarly, “Legacy Builders: How Youth Media Can Change the City” introduced youth media to philanthropic and business leaders, who may currently support other methods of youth development and leadership.
As of 2008, we have had three successful festivals (we shifted the event from fall to spring after 2005, skipping 2006). Our 2007 festival ran three weeks, and was viewed by more than 8,000 people. Our 2008 festival lasted five weeks, and was experienced by more than 11,000. Our live performance day reaches over 400 individuals, and each gallery talk has an average of 40 participants. Through audience surveys, external evaluations, and participant comments, we have seen the impact of the festival on the audience, the curatorial team, and the participants in the festival.
Participation in the festival ranges in intensity and impact. Many youth participants return the following year to be on the Festival Committee to have a larger role in creating the festival. For audience-members who attend our Gallery Talks the experience can be quite personal, as they speak with youth producers, and participate in discussions about youth media, and its connection to issues such as mental health, self-awareness, education and civic engagement. The audience for the live performance day has a less intimate experience, but a multi-sensory one, as they view the gallery exhibit, experience “spontaneous” performances within the gallery space, interact with youth producers and volunteers, and then convene for a more formal, high-energy performance in the theater. Audience members are encouraged to participate in some performances, are interviewed in the gallery, and write their own evaluations of the event. Lastly, theatergoers who experience the festival on their way to another theater performance, see drawings and photographs, read quotes and signs on the walls, and have their own opportunity to vote on their favorite piece.
In order to reach new audiences and artists, we are continuing to develop new partnerships, building on common interests in youth development, the arts, and education. In 2007 Goucher College became our Presenting Sponsor, providing financial support, faculty Gallery Speakers, student interns, and a bridge to the college community for our youth. Corporate sponsors have expanded our reach to the business community and provided graphic design, food for events, and financial support. The investment of these institutions and businesses has allowed us to increase our outreach and technical support to schools and after-school programs, increasing our community scope.
More than a third of survey respondents who attended the festival each year have not previously been exposed to youth media. More than two-thirds of our most recent respondents were new to the youth media festival.

Our youth audience is a steady 40%, indicating that the event has youth support, while also welcoming an adult audience. Teachers in particular, have expressed their satisfaction with the experience. One student teacher attending Loyola College shared her thoughts of the 2007 Festival, “It made me realize how important it is to know where your students are coming from, especially when teaching media literacy in the classroom” [3].
Finally, our desire to build an audience of youth who can use this experience as motivation for their own goals is being achieved. “This festival helped me to see that there are people who actually care about what I think as a young person in Baltimore,” wrote a youth attending our 2005 festival.2 Youth who are audience members often tell me they will submit work the next year, and youth who were performing in the festival often consider joining our Festival Committee. In some cases, youth are approached by audience members to commission work, show their work in another event, enroll in a program, or be interviewed, extending their experience beyond the festival.
Youth programs have begun to use the festival as a curriculum tool, building projects into the festival format. Thus the festival acts not only as a civic forum for the recognition of youth voice and youth media, but also works to introduce themes of civic engagement and the need to value youth perspectives into other programs that serve Baltimore’s youth. One community arts educator whose youth had a project in the festival commented, “The festival served as a motivating factor to finish the video and offered a public space for it to be seen. The audience was huge and the space was great. It felt very professional and it really lifted up their voices in a way that I really haven’t seen other places do for kids’ artwork” [5].
Finding Relevance in Your Community
At its core, youth media is about advocacy—young people speaking out for themselves, challenging the stereotypes and limited expectations of the larger society—but to effectively advocate it is essential to build a constituency, a community of support. By creating an event that serves a broad range of youth and their respective concerns, and making tactical choices to build a diverse audience, Wide Angle Youth Media aims to build a broader local appreciation for the power of youth media, support the efforts of schools and community groups, and create an avenue for youth media distribution that will expand over time and become a valued cultural and community resource.
It is my hope that youth media programs in other regions and communities begin to develop their own festivals, looking to their own “natural resources.” Wide Angle is fortunate to exist in a city with a strong after-school community, many excellent higher education institutions, a history of community philanthropy, and a rich performing arts heritage.
Look around your community. Who are the people and institutions that already support youth media? Can they play a bigger role? Are there venues that need to increase their community audiences, or have vacant days and times? What is the big draw for young people in your town—are there other events that they will not only attend, but pay to attend? Seeing where individuals invest is an important key to creating an event that both attracts and responds to the community.
Next Steps
The Who Are You? Youth Media Festival is a model for other communities to engage across school, neighborhood boundaries, and the local city community to provide opportunities for young people to engage and grow. It is critical that local stakeholders dialogue about the ways to debunk the misrepresentation of young people and the importance of the arts for youth.
Finding local partners who can bring diverse resources and audiences to festivals have expanded our audience, inviting youth, businesspeople, educators, and the general public to experience youth media and discover its relevance and significance for their own lives. By doing so, youth media acts as a link to join the local community, building the strength of Baltimore and placing young people on the map. Youth media organizations across the U.S. do not have to rely on distributing media on national networks or on-line resources. They can step onto the street and find that the local community is a ripe terrain for youth media visibility and engagement, as well as honest artistic discourse.
Gin Ferrara is the Executive Director of Wide Angle Youth Media, a Baltimore nonprofit dedicated to helping young people develop leadership skills, using media as the catalyst for self-exploration, personal growth, and community engagement. She is also an educator, writer, technophile, and knitter.
[1] Audience Data Collected by Wide Angle Youth Media 2001-2008.
[2] Baltimore Youth Media Festival Evaluation Report, Deborah Edleman, DrPH, Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health, 2006.
[3] “EVERYBODY HAS A STORY TO TELL”- Advocacy and Evaluation of The Who Are You? Youth Media Festival, Esha Janssens-Sannon, MA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art, 2007.
[4] The 3rd Annual Who Are You? Youth Media Festival Audience Survey, Wide Angle Youth Media, 2008.
[5] Interviews with Youth Festival Committee Members, Wide Angle Youth Media, 2008.