Lowdowns and Uploads

Last week, I traveled to the east coast with two Youth Radio colleagues, Nishat Kurwa and Pendarvis (Dru) Harshaw, to speak on a panel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Education Forum. The event, offered in conjunction with the HGSE Alumni of Color Conference, was called, “Educators at the Crossroads of Youth and Media.” That’s right where we live.

Conference organizers posed the question, “How has digital media culture transformed opportunities and created new challenges for youth and communities of color?” We focused not so much on the shift from consumption to production, but more specifically on what it takes for young people to move back and forth between, and sometimes combine, old and new media production.

Three themes organized the talk:

1. The stakes young media producers face are intensifying,
2. Their outlets are proliferating, and as a result…
3. They are redefining what “media literacy” means and entails.

Stakes
After giving some background on Youth Radio, I talked about the impact of today’s permanent searchable digital archive on the ethics and editorial standards governing youth media. As educators, we face new responsibilities to facilitate a process whereby young people forecast 5, 10, 15 years down the line to determine intended and unintended outcomes of making their stories public. As researchers, this process opens a window into a kind of “projected ethics.” Young people need to hinge their present-day decisions on an imagined future for their work, its potential to create harm and/or do good. Given Youth Radio’s methodology of collegial pedagogy, it’s never our approach to dictate for young people what they should and shouldn’t say, nor to make decisions on their behalf. But our collective jobs have gotten a whole lot more challenging–as well as interesting–now that a radio story no longer “evaporates into the ether,” as our boss Ellin O’Leary puts it, as soon as it airs.

Outlets
Nishat spoke next about the fact that new media outlets aren’t only repositories for our students’ work, they’re also new distribution platforms with vast if unwieldy audiences. She elaborated here on Youth Radio Associate Producer King Anyi Howell’s series on racial profiling, which he wrote about in the Winter 2007 issue of AIRspace. Anyi’s collection of stories and community events, which went out in various versions on MySpace, iTunes, KPFA, and NPR, shows the range of new outlets young people can leverage to reach audiences of peers and adults. That said, Nishat talked about the new compromises and questions that come along with digital media’s options and “freedoms.”

Dru built on this discussion by presenting the back-story behind his commentary, N Word, which aired on Morning Edition as one of the day’s top ten emailed stories on NPR. When Youth Radio pitched Dru’s story to NPR, they said they wanted it, but it sat on the shelf for awhile, because there wasn’t a news peg or headline that made it seem like the right time to put it on the air. Then… Michael Richards went off on a racist tirade captured on someone’s camera phone at a comedy club and uploaded to YouTube. NPR played Dru’s commentary within days.

Converged Literacy
Which brought us to our final point. Dru’s ability to seize a moment like the one kicked off by Michael Richards’ YouTube rant and turn it into an opening for the story Dru himself wanted to tell represents a new mandate for how we think about media literacy. In the old days, media literacy used to focus on teaching critical consumption; when young people did get to make media, it was often in the spirit of celebrating “youth voice,” without necessarily examining underlying politics or expecting those products to achieve particularly high quality, distribution, or social impact. Now, we think about converged literacy as having three dimensions:

1. Converged literacy is an ability to make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts.
2. Converged literacy means knowing how to draw and leverage public interest in the stories you want to tell.
3. Converged literacy entails the material and imaginative resources to claim and exercise your right to use media to promote justice, variously defined—a right still denied young people marginalized from full citizenship as producers of media culture.

For more thoughts on “youth voice,” by the way, check out my essay in the 2006 McGill Journal of Education–Beyond Literacy and Voice in Youth Media Production.

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