Drop that Knowledge Book Excerpt 2

February 20, 2008

With election buzz in the air, youth media producers are rallying to bring teen perspectives to national politics, which raises a familiar question: How much work does a young journalist need to do to capture the interest of an audience not necessarily used to taking young people’s views seriously? On the one hand, we’re thrilled when young people are actually consulted as analysts with expertise that goes beyond their status as youth—like when NPR recently asked Nico Savidge to comment on the scandal surrounding steroid use in baseball, and plenty of their questions sounded not particularly youth-centric, which is great. But on the other hand, adult producers are often the ones who encourage young commentators to make a clear case for why adults should heed what they have to say, by virtue of their distinct generational vantage point, so often distorted or ignored in mainstream media.

The issue reminds me of a conversation I had with a Youth Radio commentator a few years ago, when she cranked out a perspective on the new SAT, which included an essay section in addition to the usual pages and pages of multiple choice. I captured the exchange in field notes (and say more about it in our forthcoming book):

Field Notes

March 16, 2005

Lissa Soep

Today I worked with RK on a commentary about the new SAT…Her main point was that the pundits’ response to the new test—that it finally could accurately measure intelligence—was a joke. In fact, the new writing portion further privileged people like RK, who aren’t freaked out by timed writing and who’ve had strong grammar instruction. 

What was missing in the piece, I thought, was any first-person, insider sense of what the test was actually like, and I told her that. I said, Look, there’s something you have here that no adult has—you actually just took the test. But I have no sense of that here. She cut me off mid-sentence and said, All that stuff will make it too long. She went on: I know you guys, for a lot of our stories, the point is to be the cute young person who shares their experience. But this is a piece where I want to just make a point. Adults do that all the time in the media, so this is a case where that’s what I want to do. I asked, But is that good radio? Is that what you want to listen to? Adults going off on their opinion or analysis with no narrative? … That said, I thought her remark about us wanting “cute” kids to tell their stories, was telling and important… 

We ended up with RK adding just a few very short lines with specific details about the test (the question posed in her essay section, and what she meant by “grammatical,” using a concrete example, in her description of the new writing section). She said it seemed to her the writing section was really a way for test makers to judge whether test takers could “correct” ebonics “mistakes.”

            Months after this commentary aired on a local outlet, I asked R what she remembered about it, and whether she might want to elaborate on her thoughts about the editorial process. R acknowledged that for this topic, adding some narrative to her analysis of the S.A.T. made the piece more interesting for the listener, and that the conversation sharpened her argument. But more generally, she said, “I am sensitive to the fact that it’s a little condescending to ask me to make it a personal story, as if I don’t have a political perspective that’s not necessarily based in experience…A part of me appreciates that you’re trying to push me to see how the political is personal because it is, but I am sensitive… to the desire to compartmentalize. I don’t think you do that, but you know what the stations want. It’s kind of safe to keep youth in this voice.”

           Youth media producers like to think that by introducing young people’s voices to mainstream coverage, we are being disruptive. R says sometimes “keeping youth in this voice” can be the opposite–a way of playing it safe, not going far enough to challenge the limits imposed upon young people’s participation in public debates. In many ways this is the tension that makes youth media such an interesting field to work in, because there is no formula for youth-adult collaboration, no quotient for what’s risky enough to make a difference.  

Book Preview

February 4, 2008

Vivian Chavez and I are finally almost done with our co-authored manuscript that shares this blog’s name. Here’s a little bit of a sneak peek, still in progress and bound to change: 


Think of this book like you would a radio story, with this introduction as its opening scene.  Drop that Knowledge is composed of stories about young people making media while creating new relationships of power with adults as colleagues.  It is the story of teaching and learning to produce high impact narratives for massive audiences.  The text comes alive through memories, experiences and analyses in the youth media field dating back to the late seventies.  It builds on a series of conversations between young producers and adult leaders working in video, radio, print, and performance. The book focuses on a single organization where youth and adults drop that knowledge. The organization is Youth Radio, a national youth development organization and independent media production company based in Oakland, California, where young people produce award-winning stories for local, national and international outlets. Lessons gleaned from this one site hold relevance for any place where young people find, frame, articulate, and spread stories they feel a pressing need to tell. Our goal is for readers to experience and apply Youth Radio methods and sense its vibe, a feeling connecting people with technology, knowledge, production, and most of all, with one another.

The choice in metaphor for the book’s title comes from a line in a Youth Radio feature story that aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (2005).  In it, reporter Brandon McFarland interviews friends and family on the subject of “sagging,” a style of wearing pants far below the waist. A longtime sagger, Brandon finally gets fed up and decides to resist the trend and tighten his belt. He goes on a mission to convince others to do the same, including his friend and Youth Radio colleague, Gerald (Whiz) Ward II, who compares sagging to speaking “Oaklandese.” 

Whiz: It’s like code switching when you speak. I speak Oaklandese when I’m speaking to other folks that are from the town, and when I’m not, I might switch into a more universal language or lexicon. Same thing with my pants. I might sag in certain areas and in the other areas I’ll pull them up so I can infiltrate the system.


Brandon writes off this clip with the line, “That’s my man Gerald, dropping that knowledge.”  His words offer a window into the world of youth media, a field where drop that knowledge can be interpreted as the value and recognition of informal wisdom that comes from lived experience and grounded analysis. Casually and with an inner smile, Brandon conveys the fact that he’s impressed by what his friend is talking about and wants the world to know.  Whiz insists he was being somewhat facetious in this line, but clearly, the implications of his words stretch beyond youth fashion. He is presenting a snippet of social analysis from Oakland, a city with rich cultural and artistic heritage, internationally known civil rights activism, and local public schools that lose 50% of students before graduation: a complicated place governed by a dizzying mix of codes. When Whiz describes Oaklandese, he connects an everyday practice to larger cultural, economic, and political narratives, all without taking himself too seriously; he is, after all, talking about how he wears his pants.

Drop that knowledge is not a rhetorical call to celebrate “youth voice.”  On the contrary, it challenges youth to hear and get in touch with what they think, see, and experience in their communities. With a sense of urgency, youth can drop that knowledge and honor the subjective as legitimate, while exploring, examining, and interrogating other points of view.  There is, however, a very specific adult-oriented mandate embedded in the book’s title.  Drop that knowledge is the imperative for adults to drop that expert posture for which we often get rewarded–a stance of distance and authority. The imperative is especially pressing in education.  Despite never-ending cycles of innovation in teaching methodology, traditional education tends not to foster collegiality between students and their teachers. “Expert” knowledge unilaterally handed down to learners reproduces existing societal power relationships through both its methods and content.  The expression, drop that knowledge urges adults to work on changing hierarchical relationships and establish a setting that fosters an open and free exchange of ideas.  In essence, the double meaning of drop that knowledge calls for youth to step up and for adults to let go of assumptions about what passes as truth about youth, education, success and failure, struggles and conditions young people face.  

To be continued…