Youth Voice and Media Justice

With our book deadline rapidly approaching, I’ve been working on a chapter where we talk about what it means, and what it takes, for young people to develop a “point of voice” through media production. Here are some thoughts…

Point of Voice

Point of voice combines two phrases—point of view and youth voice—that youth media practitioners, policy-makers, and theorists invoke all the time. The idea of claiming a point of view acknowledges the value of young people’s particular and diverse perspectives, while recognizing that everything they—and all of us—see is shaped, enabled, and constrained by the specific vantage point we occupy. Without abandoning principles of rigorous reporting, espousing a point of view suggests that a detached perspective is not always the best nor even a possible way to get to the truth. Truth itself, once revealed, has a point that can cut through silences, misunderstandings and lies and sharpen focus on new insights and actions.

In media production, though, claiming a point of view is not enough. Making media means translating a vision into a statement, hence our shift from view to voice, from seeing to expressing, from taking in the world to speaking out the word (or the picture, or the sound). By invoking voice, we find ourselves in tricky territory. Youth voice is both a highly useful and hugely problematic reference, almost unavoidable to describe youth media work, and yet sometimes misleading in its implications. The trouble starts with a spirit of celebration many of us who work with teenagers tend to bring to youth voice—a surprising impulse, given that the broader public persistently regards youth with fear if not thinly veiled disdain, framing young people as criminal, pathological, apathetic, chaotic, disappointing. Perhaps in reaction to this view, adults who want to align ourselves with young people can sometimes overplay their all-goodness and power. Youth voice no doubt holds serious potential as a site for solutions, and certainly we are among the first to insist that young people need a voice in policy-making procedures, public debates, cultural narratives, and in community organizing. The problem is, many of us rush to youth voice as an answer instead of a starting point that raises a slew of new questions, none simple.

What happens when young people and their adult collaborators—the latter often also gatekeepers to resources and influential others—don’t see eye-to-eye about what’s “best” for youth? How can young people who exercise their voices through media maximize the impact of their stories, given massive changes in the media landscape as it relates to business, politics, education, and culture? What are the potential consequences for young people whose stories never go away—as a result of today’s permanent searchable digital archive—even if their “points of voice” radically change? And what opportunities are available—and not available—for young people to build on their one-off media stories in ways that actually transform their own personal trajectories as well as the cultural narratives and social institutions that structure their lives? What is the relationship, in other words, between youth media expression, social action, and justice? These are the questions raised, not answered, when young people assert a public point of voice.

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