Interrogating Youth Media from Within

June 22, 2007

More and more educators, scholars, and policy makers are recognizing the potential for media production to invigorate youth learning, and that’s obviously a good thing in my view. But the risk is, we can start convincing ourselves that just handing kids $10 disposal digital cameras from Walgreens or sending them out on the street with minidisk recorders will spark transformative learning experiences. If only it were so easy…

Youth Radio and the other youth media groups I’ve worked with and researched have helped me come up with a set of questions to apply to media-based learning experiences, as a kind of on-the-fly assessment process. Here are a few:


1. Does the experience provide young people with opportunities and skills to break conventions while still understanding the rules of the game?

This one’s informed by Lisa Delpit’s hugely influential literacy research. In Other People’s Children, Delpit writes about schools where students are mostly black and teachers are mostly white and female. I find myself thinking about her ideas across a range of different contexts. While Delpit acknowledges the value of teaching student writers to compose freely, fluently, and creatively, she also insists that young people need to understand the “codes of power” operating, often tacitly, inside any pedagogical context–codes that can become structures of exclusion even, or maybe especially, in so-called “progressive” classrooms.

2. Do young people play an active role in not only generating “raw” content, but also tailoring and delivering that content to existing and emerging audiences?

In The Fine Art of Teaching, David Trend writes about this one in a chapter that’s pretty old but still relevant.

3. Is the media production work contextualized within a larger ambition related to justice?

I don’t mean that every media project, or any media project, should necessarily push a pre-determined political agenda. Social justice work can entail opening avenues for expression for those whose experiences would otherwise be ignored, distorted, or used against them. Exposing hidden information, or simply sharing honest, uncensored, if unpopular or controversial perspectives, contributes to a fuller public discourse. The key move is to create conditions where young people can debate the fraught relationship between media and justice and position themselves as influential producers in that mix. Check out Beyond Resistance! by Noguera, Cammarota, and Ginwright, for a very powerful collection of essays raising themes along these lines.


Drop that Knowledge Book: Table of Contents

April 12, 2007

Check it out: Vivian Chavez and I have written up the latest version of our Table of Contents for our book with UC Press. While we’re closing in on our deadline for a completed manuscript (May!), we’re totally open to feedback and eager to make changes that will improve the work, so bring it on…please.

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio, Learning, and Media Culture

by Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chavez

Chapter 1. Introduction:

We begin with a first-person narrative introducing Youth Radio and the book’s themes through the eyes of one of the program’s first graduates, Vivian Chavez. Vivian reflects on her own involvement with the nascent youth media movement in the 1980s and draws out implications for today, laying out some key themes and questions explored throughout the book. She explains why we chose “drop that knowledge”—a line from a Youth Radio story—as the book’s title. Among other things, the phrase expresses the imperative for young people to produce and share knowledge for themselves. Vivian uses this space to describe the flow of the book, which follows the structure of a radio feature. After the intro, we move to the “lede”—the story’s opening lines, designed to hook audiences and reveal its main point. Next comes the story itself, its narrative arc, and finally a “back-announce” that brings conclusion by broadening the story’s impact. Throughout the book we interweave “playlists” containing youth-produced scripts, with “bonus tracks” at the very end.

Playlist 1: A collection of scripts from Youth Radio’s earliest days

Chapter 2. Unbury the Lede

One of the toughest challenges radio producers face is writing a strong lede. If you don’t engage listeners within the first line or two of your story, they are likely to turn the channel. “Burying the lede” means waiting too long to get to the story’s point. We use the concept of unburying the lede as a metaphor and mandate for our aim in this book. Here, we dig down to what really matters in the relationship between youth learning and culture—the conditions that enable young people to tell stories that transform their own lives as well as the institutions that determine their futures. When radio reporters bury the lede, they lose readers. When educators bury the lede, young people are the ones who lose out, and too often get lost. In this chapter, we locate Youth Radio within the youth media movement at this historic “digital” moment, which attaches new stakes, opportunities, and challenges to young people’s stories. We outline our project’s distinct dialogic and participatory methodology that uncovers how young reporters and their adult producers create stories reaching 27 million listeners through broadcasts on the nation’s top outlets. We describe our own varied involvements with Youth Radio and forecast the book’s three primary interventions: 1. To reimagine youth media learning as converged literacy; 2. To redefine teaching as collegial pedagogy; and 3. To reposition media advocacy as a process of finding and articulating a point of voice. The book’s final chapter, Drop that Knowledge, offers concrete methods educators, researchers and journalists can use to collaborate with young people to tell powerful stories.

Playlist 2: Bullets and Babies, Mixed Race, N-Bomb, Litter

Chapter 3: Converged Literacy

This chapter articulates a new approach to understanding and promoting youth media learning: converged literacy. Convergence, in the media world, describes portable content expressed through a range of technologies—a website, for example, that features audio, graphics, digital photos, and video clips, which you can access on a computer, iPod, or mobile phone. Literacy, the second key term, is a process of making, reading, understanding, and critiquing texts, and in today’s world those texts increasingly transcend words on a page. We bring together these two concepts, convergence and literacy, to articulate what it takes for young people to claim a right to participate as citizens of the world, and agents in their own lives. Converged literacy entails an ability to: 1. Make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts; 2. Draw and leverage public interest in the stories they want to tell; and 3. Claim and exercise their right to use media to promote justice, variously defined—a right still denied young people marginalized from full citizenship as producers of media culture.

Playlist 3: Emails from Kosovo, Core Class, Oakland Scenes, Picturing War

Chapter 4: Collegial Pedagogy

In this chapter, we develop the concept of collegial pedagogy as a crucial and largely overlooked dynamic for teaching and learning. In collegial pedagogy, emerging and established producers jointly create original work for public release, engaging a process that holds significant potential to deepen the learning experience for both parties, and to enrich the media product distributed to the world. We situate this process against the backdrop of learning theory, identify the conditions that bring young people and adults into productive as well as fraught collaborative relationships, and explore collegial pedagogy’s contributions and vulnerabilities as a way to organize teaching and learning. The structure of the chapter follows the production cycle itself, glimpsing a series of Youth Radio stories at key moments of framing, gathering tape, scripting, editing, broadcasting, and living in the aftermath of a story’s release. Collegial pedagogy depends on three necessary conditions: 1. An ongoing process of collaborative framing; 2. An insistence on youth-led inquiry; and 3. A joint orientation toward public accountability.

Playlist 4: Abstinence, Military Marriage Benefits, Opting Out, Free Speech in School, New SAT, My Public Service Announcement.

Chapter 5: Point of Voice

Unlike the other chapters in the book, this one takes a single event–and its fall out–as a point of departure. In 2005, some police officers outside an Oakland subway station wrongfully accused Youth Radio’s Anyi Howell of driving a stolen vehicle. Anyi converted this experience–hardly his first–with racial profiling into a series of media stories for outlets ranging from MySpace to iTunes to NPR to a face-to-face community forum between youth and police. His point was to transform and not only represent lives—storytelling for social justice. In this chapter, we describe what it takes for young people to move from a “point of view,” which suggests a way of seeing, to a “point of voice,” which demands strategic expression and action. The chapter challenges the celebratory politics often associated with “youth voice” as a site of freedom, which assumes: 1. That young people speak in counter-narratives; 2. That youth expression in and of itself brings enduring benefits; 3. That young people enjoy a privileged “cosmopolitan” citizenship; 4. That digital culture equals progress in the lives of youth.

Playlist 5: No Shield Law, DNA of the Black Experience, Youth-Police Forum, Victim of Racial Profiling

Chapter 6: Drop that Knowledge

In this chapter, we present a series of concrete methods for engaging youth people in media production across a range of settings. We begin with an overview of the cycles of production any media producer goes through to create a story, with observations about how digital culture and industry have disrupted linear progression from pre-production through production and post-production to distribution. Next come some ideas for how young people and their adult collaborators can work through the ethical dilemmas that invariably arise when young people define their own story topics and reach significant audiences. The chapter then advances through a range of genres—the commentary, the interview, the feature—offering specific strategies for introducing young producers to these narrative forms, and revealing some of the distinct opportunities and challenges each presents for young people and audiences. We end by drawing out implications of these practices not only for educators who work with teenagers, but also for university professors, ethnographic researchers, and professional journalists eager to integrate youth media into their practices and products.

Playlist 6: Phatty Girl, Map of My Mind, Holidon’t, Stay in the Booth, Deportation Story, Sagging, Hunger’s Diary, Single Moms Need a Break

Chapter 7: Back-Announce

Drop that Knowledge does not map the youth media field. Others have already documented that topography. The book does not present a neat list of youth media’s best practices. Countless versions of that line-up also already exist. What we have done here is look deeply within a single pioneering youth media project to draw out stories, lessons, implications, and new questions for the movement, for learning, and for media culture. In the spirit of collegial practice, with this final chapter, we bring our own perspectives into conversation with young people and adults from several leading youth media organizations, from rural Whitesburg, Kentucky to lower Manhattan. Twenty years after her introduction to youth media as a sixteen year old high school student, Vivian Chavez delves into the hundred-plus years of combined experience contained in this final chapter to reveal a set of hard-earned insights that will inform anyone’s efforts to bring youth media alive, and set it to work.

Playlist 7: Bonus tracks containing one youth-produced script from every youth media organization featured in Chapter Seven.


Lowdowns and Uploads

March 6, 2007

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.


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.

Authentication
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.

“Adulteration”
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.