Social Justice Youth Media?

February 27, 2007

In the last post, I shared some production tips from Youth Radio graduate Belia Mayeno. Belia shows up again here–with a draft book chapter she and I have been working on with our colleague Nishat Kurwa, Youth Radio’s news director. It’s an essay we wrote for a forthcoming book edited by Bill Ayers, Therese Quinn, and David Stovall about social justice education (Lawrence Erlbaum, Publishers). We took up an especially challenging story the three of us all worked on in 2004, highlighting responses from young U.S. Marines to the torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. First, an exerpt, and then a link to the full draft chapter, then a link to the audio story. Comments welcome–it’s still a work in progress!

Excerpt from Social Justice Youth Media, 2007

We focus here on a single Youth Radio story produced in 2004, called Picturing War, reported by Belia Mayeno. In the story, young U.S. Marines respond to reports that detainees were being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The reports featured photographs from the prison that pictured male Iraqi detainees, many naked, simulating sex acts, piled on top of one another, and attached to leashes and wires, with U.S. soldiers looking on, sometimes posing, sometimes with cameras. At the time, debates in the U.S. raged over who deserved blame for the acts pictured in those photographs—young prison guards or their higher-ups. It seemed like an ideal Youth Radio story—especially because we had already developed relationships with several young vets through our ongoing Reflections on Return from Iraq series, exploring the experiences of young military personnel adjusting to life back home. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition aired Picturing War in April of 2004.

In this chapter, Belia Mayeno, the story’s reporter, is joined by two Youth Radio producers, News Director Nishat Kurwa, and Education Director/Senior Producer Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep. Belia and Nishat are both Youth Radio graduates who participated as high school students, and Lissa started working at the organization as a doctoral student in 1999. Through our positions in Youth Radio’s newsroom, we mentor young people through every stage of story production, and there’s one bit of advice we give again and again. Express yourself conversationally. Don’t write the story like an English class essay. Tell it like you’re talking to a friend. In this chapter, we aim to follow our own advice. We offer this story about the relationship between youth media production and social justice as a conversation among the three of us. Two years after Picturing War aired, we dug out the old interview logs, booked our own studio, and recorded our reflections on what it was like to co-produce that story. We discussed moments that stood out to us as especially challenging and important, and we considered how this story relates to Youth Radio’s larger mission and model.

Why This Story?

There are stories in Youth Radio’s archive that have a much more straightforward relationship to social justice than Picturing War. A young man describes his deportation to Mexico immediately upon release from a U.S. prison. Young producers use slam poetry and street-corner interviews to comment on the effects of Oakland’s rising homicide rate. A high school senior contemplates whether to grow out her wavy hair or get it locked before heading off to a predominantly white college.

Each of these stories would seem a perfect candidate for a chapter like this one, examining how young people and adults practice social justice by making media. And yet stories like these make it too easy for us to side-step some uncomfortable but critical questions that reveal why social justice education is so hard. And so we chose a story that continues to challenge us, two years after broadcast. As the world struggled to make sense of the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Youth Radio sought out perspectives from young people who had lived and fought their way through the war in Iraq. But the views they shared were disturbing and difficult to hear. What does it take, this story made us ask, to engage “youth voice” in a meaningful way, when some youth voices are shaped by structures and policies that destroy young people’s lives?

Social Justice Youth Media DRAFT, by Soep, Mayeno, & Kurwa

And now, you can listen to Picturing War.

Beyond “Youth Voice”

February 15, 2007

I’ve been extolling the virtues of youth-adult collaboration as a framework for media production, but the work isn’t easy.

On the one hand, there’s the tendency to blindly celebrate “youth voice,” as if young people always speak in counter-narratives, as if self-expression is always emancipatory, as if youth media is more “authentic” than any other produced, stylized, strategic message. American Studies scholar Nicole Fleetwood writes provocatively about the politics of authenticity in the youth media world in the academic journal, Social Text.

On the other hand, there’s the tendency for adult producers to get overly involved and invested in media making with young people. We take over the process and want to script the product. The director of Conscious Youth Media Crew calls this tendency “adulteration,” which seems like the perfect term on many levels.

Authentication versus Adulteration–two tendencies to watch out for as we set out to practice and theorize collaborative media production.

Youth-Adult Collaboration

February 15, 2007

I’ve been writing in the last couple posts about collegial pedagogy, where young people and adults do not metaphorically “co-construct” a learning environment. They literally co-create a media product, through an intricate co-compositional process shot through with opportunities and risks. Under collegial pedagogy, young people and adults actually make work together, revealing their investments and vulnerabilities to one another in concrete ways. Several factors are at stake at a place like Youth Radio for both youth and adult participants, including journalistic integrity, professional reputation, personal and political message, intellectual and creative development, as well as the intended and actual impact any given story has on its audience.

The adult producer cannot create the story without young people to identify topics worth exploring, to find and interview characters, and to experiment with novel modes of expression and ways of using words, scene, and sound. At the same time, young people cannot create the story without adults to provide access to resources, equipment, broadcast outlets, and institutional recognition, and to share the skills and habits developed through years of experience as media professionals.

Young people offer a key substantive contribution that the adults cannot provide — a certain kind of access, understanding, experience, or analysis directly relevant to the project at hand. That is a major point of the youth media field after all — to contribute insights and challenging perspectives to a mainstream media that too often ignores the experience and intelligence of youth. And yet in collegial pedagogy, adults do not only oversee or facilitate the learning experience surrounding a given media production experiment; they actually join in the production process itself.

What are the other spaces in young people’s lives—in school, at home, among friends, online—where they experience collegial pedagogy?

Collegial Pedagogy

February 14, 2007

Collegial pedagogy—that’s one way to describe a specific approach to youth-adult collaboration that guides Youth Radio’s newsroom process.

Check out an excerpt from reporter Brandon McFarland’s script log. A longtime “sagger,” Brandon was working on a story about his decision to tighten his belt, and his attempt to convince his friends to follow suit. Here, he’s recording his friend Dru, and his producer, Nishat, joins the exchange.

Brandon: So what is sagging too low?

Dru: Sagging too low is when your—you get that breeze. 3/1:15 That breeze? That killer breeze? Yeah, we’re all familiar with the killer breeze above the area. Uh, yeah, that area.

Nishat: All the listeners may not be familiar with that area, so why don’t you describe that area for them.

Dru: Oh, the killer breeze, uh…

Brandon: It’s when your shirt is not long enough to

Dru: To cover the PC. The plumber’s crack.

Brandon: Right. 3/1:30

Dru: Okay. Plumbers crack. We don’t want to show the plumbers crack. We try to keep that engaged in the jeans [laughing]. Try to keep those covered. We also want to make sure we don’t step on the jeans because they’re very expensive. Is that correct?

Brandon: Very expensive, Dru.

Nishat: So are we going to have Dru try it your way?

Brandon: Yeah. So now the pants are raised. Take another walk and see how it is. [watches] He has a different strut now. And he has a smile on his face now. He’s kind of enlightened.

Nishat: How does it feel Dru?

Dru: It feels like I’m a model. The jeans fit me now!

Brandon: So you know, come here brother.

Nishat: Does he see this as a permanent situation? Does he see this as a long-term thing that he could live with? 3/2:30

Brandon: I’m not sure you do, but I’m gonna ask you anyway. Well, would you consider, you know, permanently keeping those britches up there, son?

Dru: That’s a deep question, brother. That’s a life outlook. I’d have to say that I change on a day to day basis. So my perspective may alter tomorrow. But as for these 24 hours, I will attend your ways, and pull up my pants.

Notice the moments where Nishat intervenes. This is teaching in production. When Dru mentions “that area” saggers try to cover, no matter how low their pants ride, Nishat pushes for more explanation. Later, she prompts Brandon to have Dru try pulling his pants up, and she helps Brandon draw out from him what it feels like to tighten his belt closer to his waist. You can listen to Brandon’s finished story, which aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, to see how this collaborative interviewing process shaped his final script.

Booking Guests

February 13, 2007

Looking for some engaging ways to teach youth media production? Check out Teach Youth Radio, and click on #6 in the line up of offerings there, where you’ll find all sorts of tips on identifying topics, writing commentaries, conducting interviews, etc.

Here’s an activity based on one Youth Radio Senior Producer Rebecca Martin designed to give young people practice on booking guests for interviews and roundtable discussions—could happen face-to-face, on the radio, or online.

The rules:

• Divide students into teams.
• 1 team member will participate in each round as a booker.
• Adult producers and other students will serve as interviewees.
• Team members will be scored on their performance based on

Greetings and Manner (Are you polished, confident, and compelling?)
Pitch (Are you clear and convincing in how you describe your project?)
Questions (Do your questions yield relevant answers and good stories? Do you probe for more information?)
Closing (Consider three types: confirmation, back-up, rejection)

Some booking tips:

• Ask people you trust when searching for guests. Know where to look for information and what to look for.
• Write out questions before pre-interviewing anyone. Write a 2-3 line description of the story (or show) you are booking. Write important details you’ll need, like the day and time you are trying to book, and location information.
• When cold calling organizations or businesses for guests, don’t give up just because you are told no. Ask if there’s anyone else you can talk to.
• The first person who says yes isn’t always the best person.
• Just because someone is chatty doesn’t mean he or she will be a thoughtful guest.
• Be sure the guest is a reliable source, and he or she offers other resources on the topic.
Always consider a person’s potential biases.
• Think about how you want to frame the “youthiness” of the story. Sometimes, Youth Radio reporters emphasize that they’re part of a journalism training program. That angle taps people’s eagerness to contribute to youth-initiated projects and learning. Other times, they highlight the organization’s track record of national broadcasts and high-profile awards. That angle taps people’s interest in reaching significant audiences and helping to shape a national conversation. It all depends on what you think will be most effective and resonant with your potential interviewees. But no matter what, you are ethically and legally bound to let people know that they will be identified by name and recorded for possible broadcast.
• When finishing a conversation, don’t promise anything. You can always tell guests that you need to check in with your colleagues, and warn them of possible changes in the show.

Once you’ve booked your guests, analysts, or characters for your story, the next step is to come up with interview questions. For young people conducting interviews for the first time, role-play the conversation in advance, with a peer or adult producer acting the role of the interviewee. Don’t hesitate to have fun with this. Have young people assign the “interviewee” different personality characteristics: talkative, tight-lipped, obnoxious, offensive, nervous, condescending, dominating, tangential…and come up with a signal (a buzzer, a bell, a pointer) to make the interviewee switch character on demand throughout the role-play. Stage the interview as a performance in front of your full group, and then debrief together about what worked and what didn’t. This way, the group learns from one young person’s preparation.

You Call This Youth Radio?

February 11, 2007

I’ve been talking with members of the Youth Radio web department and production company about where this conversation belongs. Should it live alongside the youth-produced content in the Youth Radio Flows section of our website? That placement is a little weird, because the whole point of Youth Radio and other youth media groups is to showcase young people’s perspectives, not offer a platform for yet another adult writing about youth culture.

The other option would be to put Drop That Knowledge in the Teach Youth Radio section of the website. That’s where we house materials designed to encourage educators, organizers, artists, producers etc. to integrate youth-produced content into their own projects. But that placement is a little weird, too. Why should this conversation get its own special position, isolated from youth colleagues on Youth Radio Flows?

In the end, for now at least, we decided to publish Drop that Knowledge in both places.

But the whole question of where to put an adult’s thoughts about youth media on a website devoted to young people’s own thoughts about themselves and the world reveals a larger tension underlying youth media practice: where, if anywhere, do adults belong? The Spotlight blog has recently taken up the question, and we talk about it at Youth Radio all the time, especially around the never simple editorial process that kicks in when we prepare a story for national broadcast.

At Youth Radio, we practice “collegial pedagogy.” I’ve written about that in a recent article, co-authored with Vivian Chavez. Vivian and I are writing a book (coming soon with UC Press!), with a whole chapter about collegial pedagogy. And I’ll write more about it here.

Three Youth Media Questions

February 11, 2007

When young people are invited to explore topics that matter to them, be prepared for editorial challenges, ethical dilemmas, and controversy once the story airs. In some ways, that’s how you know young people are taking on deep and meaningful questions. Here are three key questions to talk about with young people in advance, in order to set some policies to govern how you’ll work.

1. How do you maintain a firewall between the editorial and business sides of youth media production? It is always a good idea to sit down as a group of adult and youth producers to discuss specific scenarios where pressure from funders or outlets or school administration or even an editor’s personal politics might encroach upon content, and together answer, “What will we do?”
2. Is it worthwhile to pursue stories from a youth perspective that might reflect poorly on young people, and if so, why and how? Youth Radio editors feel strongly that difficult stories are among the most important to tell. The commentary where a teenager whose father is gay grapples with his own homophobia. The story from a girl who’s not sure if she’s ready to let go of the privilege her wavy hair brings by switching to dreadlocks. The perspective from a young man who condemns the shield law protecting journalists’ anonymous sources because he says it’s been used against him to protect racist police. These kinds of stories reveal complexities in young people’s lives and invite rich discussions among youth producers, their adult collaborators, and audiences.
3. Do you offer protection for young people who might face trouble for going on record about their experiences, and if so, in what forms? Youth Radio has walked away from broadcast opportunities when an outlet insisted on using a source’s first and last name, and when we collaboratively determined that doing so would present too great a risk. Overall, adult editors do not see it is as their role to make decisions on behalf of young people about the stories they want to tell—only to facilitate tough conversations about possible intended and unintended consequences of making any given story public, and about how a young person might frame a narrative in such a way that counters conclusions listeners might otherwise draw. It would be naïve, though, to claim that anyone can fully control how audiences receive, interpret, and repurpose any author’s creative output, and that is perhaps among the most important lessons young people learn when they produce media for public release.

Where’s this Conversation Coming From?

February 10, 2007

I’m coming at this from two perspectives:

1. As a producer at Youth Radio, where I collaborate with young people on stories for outlets ranging from local radio stations and NPR to iTunes and MySpace; and
2. As a media scholar trying to understand the relationship between youth media culture and learning. Two recent efforts: Youth Radio and the Pedagogy of Collegiality (with Vivian Chavez), Youthscapes (with Sunaina Maira).

Convergence: From Culture to Literacy and Back Again

February 10, 2007

As Henry Jenkins argues in his book, Convergence Culture, mixing up media forms also remixes culture and reframes literacy. I think about “converged literacy” as an ability to handle boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts both produced and distributed through an array of sites, digital and face-to-face. It’s also a logic, a way of seeing and acting in the world, a learned instinct to defy expected formulas for expression and interpretation. And converged literacy is a right, both demanded and produced by engaged citizenship, though still denied young people marginalized from the work and play of making media.

Radio Celebrity: When Young People Turn Private Lives into Public Property

February 10, 2007

Lots of media producers and scholars are trying to figure out how digital culture has reorganized the public-private divide for young people and the rest of us. Social networking sites and virtual universes like Second Life raise some thorny new questions about disclosure, identity, and safety inside and outside digital worlds.

But I want to flash back to an earlier project where young people converted private archives into public media. One of the stories that put Youth Radio on the national news map back in the late 90s was Emails from Kosovo, a series Finnigan Hamill, a Berkeley High School student at the time, put together from his email correspondence with a 16 year old Albanian girl witnessing an escalating war from her apartment balcony. The series ran on NPR’s Morning Edition, and President Bill Clinton specifically quoted Finny’s correspondence in his radio address announcing U.S. participation in NATO’s bombing campaign.

When Emails from Kosovo drew so much attention, the news reporter became the news story, and that wasn’t easy. Neither was figuring out where to draw the line between reporting a story and intervening on behalf of a friend’s well being. Youth Radio came up with a pseudonym, Adona, for Finny’s friend, and had to verify her identity and experiences without compromising her safety. But then, People Magazine picked up the story on its cover, and CNN followed, exposing Adona’s real name. Previously private correspondence between two teenagers was now national news and leveraged by the public relations and speech writing machinery behind a U.S. President’s foreign policy.

Talk about “convergence culture”…

Related Youth Radio stories:
Picturing War, by Belia Mayeno
Online Journals, by Bly Lauritano-Werner