Interview: Jim Randels and Kalamu ya Salaam

Jim Randels is the executive vice president of United Teachers of New Orleans (AFT Local 527) and is a parent, teacher, and graduate of New Orleans Public Schools. He taught at Frederick Douglass High before and after the state takeover and currently teaches at McMain and McDonogh 35 High Schools. He has authored over $5 million worth of grants to assist public education in New Orleans.
New Orleans writer, filmmaker and educator, Kalamu ya Salaam is co-director (with Jim Randels) of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools. He is also moderator of Breath of Life, a Black music website. Kalamu can be reached at

YMR: What year was Students at the Center (SAC) founded and what was the impetus for starting the organization?
Jim Randels: SAC was founded in 1996 when students in an 11th grade English class I was teaching at McDonogh 35 decided to develop a school-based writing program to address the problem of high school English teachers working with so many students a day that students seldom received in-depth feedback on their writing. Erica DeCuir and Kenyatta Johnson, two students from that class at McDonogh 35, worked with me to design a program that would use grant money to create smaller class sizes, allowing students in SAC class to train and work as mentors in writing to younger students at the school, provide small group discussions about the younger students’ writing, and participate in school and community writing projects.
Kalamu Ya Salaam: We use story circles as a starting point. After the oral exchange of stories, students are encouraged to write from their own experiences. When we use standard curriculum texts and literature, we reinforce the validity of student lives and experiences. For example, when identifying the point of a piece of literature, we ask the students to find a similarity in their own life experiences.
YMR: What is your mission?
Randels: SAC’s mission is to improve the quality of education in public high schools in New Orleans by seeing students and their life experiences as resources to improve their schools and communities rather than as problems to be solved. Students, recent graduates who serve as staff, and classroom teachers who work with SAC comprise the leadership.
YMR: Can you share with YMR readers what the context is like in New Orleans that supports the need for youth media organizations like SAC?
Randels: SAC is really more an educational resource and a writing community. We do youth media as part of that broader context of improving schools and working as a community of writers. The current context of continuously changing school and school system leadership, continuous experimentation with public education, and revolving doors of teachers and school administrators make it especially important to have educational work grounded in students, graduates, and teachers. We need commitment to do long-term work in public education that places students, their lives, and the communities with which they identify as the main subject matter and resource for youth development and public education.
Salaam: Our emphasis is on identifying, analyzing and expressing the truths and meanings of student lives as well as understanding the truths and meanings of others, particularly as presented in standard literature and curriculum.
YMR: What challenges have you experienced in the past 1-3 years?
Randels: Probably the biggest challenge—and certainly the biggest heartbreak—is to see the state of Louisiana take over Douglass High School and push out community-based, student/family-led initiatives to improve the school. The state-run school district changed principals twice in the two years we were back at Douglass after Katrina. The second principal, with backing from the state-run district, refused to offer Advanced Placement courses to our students at Douglass and refused to implement the peer-led writing programs we had designed with school staff and community leadership as part of school improvement strategies.
In the second year, no new 9th grade students were admitted to the school. And, plans for the third year (2008-09) were to turn the school into a police, fire, and emergency medical concentration high school. Those plans have since been abandoned and the state system, which was supposed to improve the school, is now turning it over to a national charter school group, KIPP. Unfortunately, the charter school will reduce educational opportunities for the sort of students we were working with at Douglass before Katrina because it will not be neighborhood-based but city-wide.
Salaam: SAC views these changes as part of a concerted effort at privatizing the public school system. There is no longer a central public school system. There are multiple systems with an absence of coordination across the different systems. Our second challenge is the year-to-year fluctuations in funding.
YMR: And the successes?
Salaam: Our major success is survival as a program and the continued development of our program. Our staff consists of former high school SAC students who have decided to continue working with us. Another success is book publication. We have published two major projects in 2009: Men We Love, Men We Hate and Ways Of Laughing. Both books are available to read online, or as free downloads from our website. Both books are also available for purchase. Our website is A third major success area is the development and passing on of SAC pedagogy through professional development workshops.
Randels: In addition, our biggest successes have included developing a cohort of graduates from Douglass, McMain, and McDonogh 35 High Schools who work as staff with SAC; serving as writing mentors and resource teachers in nine public schools in New Orleans; and, establishing a regular writing workshop that brings together teachers and students through our partnership with United Teachers of New Orleans (AFT Local 527) and the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop.
YMR: What is your hope/vision for the organization in the future?
Randels: My hope is to nurture the projects that our staff and students are developing and widely distribute our resources/teaching materials in schools.
Salaam: To develop critical thinking among students.
YMR: Are you part of a youth media network in New Orleans?
Randels: The networks we are part of have more to do with education improvement with youth media as a component of that. Our major partners are with schools—New Orleans Public Schools and United Teachers of New Orleans (AFT Local 527).
Salaam: We are not part of any youth media networks and do not meet with youth media educators very often. We would welcome the opportunity to meet and share.
YMR: Do you partner with other youth media organizations in New Orleans or organizations outside of the city?
Salaam: It has been difficult to establish long-term partnerships in the city.
Randels: Outside of the city, we partner with a network of teachers and students, primarily from Oakland, CA and Lawrence, MA, who are part of the Bread Loaf Urban Teacher Network and the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop. We also partner with writing and youth programs affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.
YMR: What is your personal vision/hope for young people? And what is one challenge you’d like to overcome?
Randels: Our main vision/hope for young people is for them to a) have the ability to engage critically in the communities and systems in which they find themselves, and b) understand the value of social learning and collective work and responsibility. The challenge is to move the perception in education and other spheres from an emphasis on individual achievement to an emphasis on community development.
YMR: What can youth media educators—your peers—do to help see that vision/hope to fruition?
Randels: Educators can develop situations in the local context where they live to support youth as resources that can improve their communities, engaging in critical, collective dialogue.
YMR: Is there any stand-alone piece of advice that you would like to share with educators in the national youth media field?
Salaam: Yes, be honest. In the words of Amilcar Cabral, a leader of the African Liberation movement in the seventies, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories!” Youth need the examples of adults and elders who honestly share with youth the experiences and lessons the adults and elders have learned. Rather than simply and moralistically teaching what is right, we should share the realities of what was and what is, and that in turn will be a big help to youth as they prepare to deal with what will be.
Randels: Make sure that the experiences and insights of the young people with whom you work connect to a larger political/historical context. Have critical discourses between young people and adult allies to keep the community engaged.

Avoiding Exploitation

When I was 17 years old, I was a passionate writer and enrolled in an alternative high school for at risk teens where I gained a mentor who encouraged me to explore different forms of media. Thus, my media experience began. I welcomed working with a mentor to develop as a writer and gain a sense of sustainability outside of school in the “real world.” But as time progressed, I realized I didn’t feel capable of navigating the writing field on my own. My mentor invested a lot of time and effort but I didn’t know how to communicate what I needed from the experience. As a teen, I valued creative and technical instruction and mentoring. But this was difficult for me to define. As a result, the media products I produced seemed more valued and on display than the process and development I experienced creating media.
Youth media programs have the power to bridge the gap between adult-run media and stereotypes of teenagers perpetuated in the mainstream. But that power is not always successful. Typically, youth media professionals aim to teach in non-directive, collaborative learning environments, where students address issues and concerns that are important to, and affect, them. But when adults in youth media value the end product over the process, our presence can be disruptive and ultimately outweigh—and even exploit—youth voice.
Where Good Intentions become Exploitive
For some youth media organizations, the demands of funders and the overall pressure to create work comparable to professionally produced media can lead instructors to overstep the line of student work. These pressures can dilute student voice and reiterate mainstream media’s focus on adult representations of the world.
For example, some educators want young people to create professional work, choosing pieces that are “relevant” or “compelling” enough for an adult audience. This creates a competitive environment for young people and can negatively affect less media savvy students. If no one is consciously supporting and enabling youth to cast their voices, there is very little difference between youth media and the media industry that speaks for them. Educators need to be conscious that their work always supports youth voice and creative expression—no matter what the skill level.
Beyond external pressures and expectations, in the classroom, educators need to be aware of power dynamics between student and instructor and be careful that this does not mirror the institutions that dominate most young peoples’ lives. Because educators are in the position of “teacher,” it is important to be conscious that ego and desire to maintain a professional reputation not affect the way in which we teach and influence the production of our students’ work. We cannot get lost in our own ideas, concepts and expectations of what the best, most polished expression of media is (whether these ideas were self-discovered or passed to us through formal education). If educators begin to view a student’s piece as insufficient, this is a big sign that preconceived notions about young people’s work are exploiting the end product and ignoring the process.
Often, a student comes to the table with little to no technical knowledge of the media in which s/he begins to work, but with ideas, perspectives, and experiences to express. Young people are very perceptive and can sense pressure or expectations, which can intimidate rather than inspire them to produce well crafted media. Educators need to learn how to share power and emphasize this practice with young media makers, who seek support and guidance from adult allies.
Leading Solutions: Sharing Power and Prioritizing Youth Voice
Because inherently, the young person has to place trust in the instructor she’s working with and use media as a gateway to be heard and gain power, educators must share power and provide the resources, credibility, access, experience, information, and the technical understanding of media to their students. If we begin to view a student’s piece as insufficient, this is a sign of disconnect between supporting the experiences of youth and our perceptions of what is meaningful (i.e. as represented in the end product).
Check your expectations and what pressure or end product you want a young person to create. Many young people entering youth media have never used media equipment before and should feel encouraged rather than intimidated (or worse, silenced) by your vision, experience, skill, or capability. If we are not fully aware of the purpose and identity of youth media expression, the demands of the adult-run sector begin to remove youth voice and fall back to the same adult-run media we are accustomed to.
The process should be valued—in the classroom and in negotiation with funders and media outlets—over the end product. There is a delicate line between wanting a student’s work to become what it holds the potential to be and clouding the work with the instructor’s influence—making edits, changes, post-production clean up and guiding students to topics and ideas—which adults in the media field (be it the audience or those running the media outlets) might find compelling.
The end product should be an outcome of a young person’s process using youth media. Educators must be cautious that they strike the right balance in guiding and supporting young people as they produce media. Young people need to feel that their perspectives and ability to create media are supported, respected, taken seriously, and recognized—since they hold the integrity of the field. Adults must advocate for the process this work takes rather than solely emphasizing the end product.
Be an advocate for youth voice and have clear communication of the process of youth media in conversation with funders, media outlets, colleagues and young media makers. At every level of the organization and with media partners involved there must be clear, working communication—understanding the form and identity of youth media, not overlooking the purpose of supporting youth voice, and adequately provide students with information to produce media on their own.
Be aware of power dynamics with young people and prioritize youth voice. At every learning setting with teens, in place are power dynamics which often favors youth obedience rather than youth perspective. Instructors need to be aware and reactive to the needs of young people, learn from their students, and gain trust so that media can become a viable gateway to be heard.
One of the most important tasks for educators is to develop a sense of balance in maintaining the integrity of youth media and expression in an adult-run spectrum. Because youth media presents a rare opportunity outside everyday life, it is crucial that instructors are aware of the signs indicating when we are too heavily “present” in young peoples’ media work and personal development. Ultimately, youth media is about youth voice, providing space and autonomy for their ideas to develop, and where they can create and polish their work in their own terms.
Educators need to take a step back and consider the influences that can hamper a young person’s voice when process and product are imbalanced. Through my experience with youth media, as a young media maker myself and now as an instructor, I have come to learn the unyielding element is process—growing and learning an understanding of how to express oneself though media. The process of communication to a broader audience in meaningful, lasting ways is empowering not only in the stages of learning, but throughout one’s entire experience in media. It is our job as instructors to support, enable and promote the process and integrity of youth media, and only hold young people accountable to expectations that they define and create.
Liz Coleman is the youth radio instructor and outreach coordinator at Spy Hop Productions, a non-profit youth media arts and education organization in Salt Lake City, Utah. Since 2004, Liz has been volunteering in community radio—writing, producing, and teaching after being drawn by radio’s ability to reach diverse communities, promote ideas and communica-tion, and its availability and accessibility.