Youth Media Crank Up the Volume

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Chicago—With summer waning, traffic blocked off and kids and adults milling about, Ayanna Freeman appears on a TV monitor in the middle of a residential street, waxing philosophic about her neighborhood’s ubiquitous graffiti.

“Graffiti is a beautiful kind of art and it expresses feelings,” the 10-year-old says with conviction, pigtails jiggling. “Like if you did a throw-up on the wall and made it colorful, it would describe happiness. But if you did it in dark colors it would describe angriness.” Ayanna is an endearing mix of street smarts and precociousness.

Then come the credits, and the kicker: Ayanna doesn’t only appear in the video, which examines whether graffiti is art or vandalism. She and a handful of other preteen girls made it.

On screens nearby, teen-produced work airs while the budding filmmakers – most of whom had never touched a camera months earlier – gauge reactions to their work. Passers-by stop to watch a video about female hip-hop artists. A documentary on graffiti features interviews with practitioners and foes (Chicago city officials). Youth run an interactive hip-hop trivia game show where the prizes are CDs burned by the youths themselves.

Around the corner, Street-Level Youth Media, one of the country’s largest youth media projects, occupies an unassuming storefront space where youth researched, wrote and edited the works being shown at this block party on the city’s west side, an annual Street-Level event.

Once one of just a handful of such programs, Street-Level has been joined in recent years by dozens of youth media programs nationwide that put the latest video and computer technology into kids’ hands and teach them how to use it. Among the programs’ objectives: giving youth outlets for artistic self-expression, teaching them technical job skills and turning them into community activists.

That growth is just one sign of how the youth media field has come into its own in the past several years. Other signs: Adult leaders have begun to connect with each other and push for support among academics and funders. Kids are producing more and better quality video than ever, and it’s not just being screened at block parties. Youth Radio in San Francisco won a Peabody Award this year, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian picked a youth-produced show as the best radio show of the Bay area. Major film festivals and networks have made room for youth-produced work.

That’s not to say that no one has done anything like this before. Youth newspapers have published for decades. Downtown Community Television Center, a pioneer in the field, first gave New York City youth access to cameras in 1973. Cable access stations have involved youth for just as long, although today’s programs are light years beyond teaching kids how to push buttons to record the school play.

The youth media field evolved “out of a variety of sources and movements – student journalism, documentary film, social activism, youth development, media literacy and underground ’zines,” writes Cliff Hahn in the New Media Reporter, a newsletter put out by the Open Society Institute, the field’s major funder.

Still, some of the country’s most notable youth media projects – such as the Appalachian Media Institute in Kentucky, 911 Media Arts Center in Seattle, and the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) – survive on shoestring budgets with part-time and volunteer staff. While many organizations say the demand for their services would push them to grow, a lack of resources leaves them struggling to survive.

Lingua Franca

It’s telling that one of the organizations in the best position to measure growth in the youth media field arrived on the scene just a few years ago. “Three years ago we had 17 organizations that joined us,” says Austin Haeberle, director of Listen Up!, a nationwide network of youth media organizations started by John Merrow’s Learning Matters in 1998. In its second year, there were 40; today, more than 80.

“It is very difficult to keep up,” Haeberle says. “We’re getting phone calls from high schools and media arts centers and independent producers. It’s just flourishing.”

Perhaps more than any other factor, technological advances have contributed to the proliferation of groups plugging kids in to the latest media technology. Basic video editing software now comes with every I-MAC computer sold, and prices have reached the point where “more affluent kids can probably ask for a camera and get one for their birthday,” says NOVAC Executive Director Amy Baskin.

For kids – who, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, watch nearly three hours of TV a day on average – communicating via video comes naturally. “Media is the lingua franca of young people,” says Anna Lefer, youth media program officer at the Open Society Institute, which has played a critical role in strengthening the youth media field.

But youth media have to go beyond just access to technology, says Malory Graham, who directed the youth program at 911 Media Arts Center in Seattle for five years, and now contracts as director and instructor for 911’s Reel Grrls program.

When Graham started teaching kids to create video 10 years ago, they “basically wanted to do a remake of ‘90210’,” she says. “That was when I realized that you can’t just go in and start a video program with, ‘Hey, here’s all this great gear! What do you want to make?’”

The goal, says Lefer at Open Society, is to convert kids from passive consumers of media to active viewers and creators.
That can have consequences that creep from reel life into real life. In one of Street-Level’s first video projects, members of rival gangs who’d never spoken to each other used cameras to create video letters and begin a dialogue. The result was a temporary truce.

In Kentucky last year, youth at the Appalachian Media Institute, a project of the 33-year-old cultural center Appalshop, produced a 13-minute documentary on the abuse of the prescription painkiller Oxycontin in their community. The video was sent to every member of the House and Senate in Washington, and to every state legislator.

While that’s the kind of activism that many youth media groups look for, others focus on perfecting technical skills and creating broadcast-quality work. Still other groups have a more artistic bent, encouraging teens to produce experimental videos.

Underlying all of these approaches is a commitment to positive youth development.

And no matter what the emphasis, they all teach the technical skills that youths need to produce video: storyboarding, filming and editing. They also stress the importance of undergirding any program with a heavy dose of media literacy: teaching kids to understand and critically examine the mass media, the techniques used by the media and the effect of those techniques.

Huge Challenges

When youth had trouble getting to the Just Think Foundation’s site in San Francisco, agency staffers thought they found a solution: They loaned computers and cameras to schools and community centers and ran programs from those facilities.

But without full-time staff on site to supervise and maintain the equipment, it often went unused. So Just Think went to solution number two: Gut a 1978 school bus and create a mobile video production studio. Just Think has outfitted three buses in all; one went to Friends of the Future, in Waimea, Hawaii. Another will be sent to Harlem.

That’s just one of the ways that youth media groups have practiced what they preach – creative use of technology – to tackle the kind of obstacles that bedevil many youth service providers. While media groups encounter specific challenges, like maintaining and staying current with equipment, distributing work (see sidebar) and censorship, they also deal with the common problems of funding, transportation, attracting kids and holding their interest.

Like many youth centers, Street-Level has found it difficult to keep teenagers interested in its programs. The drop-in program is dominated by preteens. The agency recently created a sound studio at its north-side site that lets kids edit sound, which can then be incorporated into their video work or burned onto CDs. Teen interest in that program has been high, says Paula Kowalczyk, development director at Street-Level.

Rivka Sadarangani, coordinator of drop-in programs at Street-Level, says parents’ motivation for sending their kids may have more to do with free food and child care than the prospect of their kids becoming tech-savvy. Street-Level participates in the federal free lunch program over the summer and helps kids with homework.

Another way to attract teenagers is to pay them.

“These are kids that, if they weren’t working here, they’d have to be working at McDonalds,” says Matthew O’Neill, director of programs at DCTV, which pays youth an hourly wage (just above minimum) to participate in its intermediate and advanced video training programs. Street-Level pays teens to produce commissioned video or computer works like web-sites and screen savers.

Other challenges are more philosophical – like how much to steer youths’ projects. Graham of 911 says she cringes at the thought of youth being told, “We got funding for you to produce an anti-violence PSA, so you have to produce something that is acceptable to our funders.”

“If this field is all about empowering young people to use the media,” she says, “how do we really open that up and not be scared of what they’re going to say with it? I think that’s a huge challenge.”

A related challenge is censorship, which seems to come up mostly in school-based projects. In a school residency program led by an artist from In Progress, a Minnesota youth media organization, youths made videos about teen suicide and depression.

“When it came time for the community screening, the [classroom] teacher was like, ‘Well you can’t show those videos, because we don’t want to give the impression that there’s those problems here in the community,’” says Mina Blyly-Strauss, a co-director at In Progress.

Blyly-Strauss says schools usually dictate the kind of language or images kids can use in their videos.

Wanted: More Heroes

When it comes to paying for all this hardware, software and someone to run it, the good news for youth media groups is that they have a champion in the funding community. In almost every interview with youth media administrators, someone says “Open Society Institute.”

OSI is the only foundation in the country with a youth media grant category. The foundation has given away $5.78 million to 65 organizations since 1999 (including Youth Today), but equally important has been the institute’s crusading for the field.

“Youth media is an incredible youth development strategy,” says institute program officer Anna Lefer. “It develops their critical thinking skills, their communication skills, their literacy skills. Because youth media so often requires group work, leadership skills are developed. Through the investigation of issues that are going on they oftentimes become much more engaged in their communities.”

Lefer’s been giving that speech to fellow funders, and the message may be getting through. AOL-Time Warner is “seriously exploring” a youth media grant program. And while other funders – such as the Surdna, Ford, Rockefeller and Kellogg foundations – have stopped short of creating a youth media program area, they are funding youth media through their arts, youth development, civic engagement and media grants.

Through its grant making, Open Society has encouraged collaboration among youth media programs and documentation and dissemination of information about the development of the field.

The bad news is that “since 2000 and the economic downturn many of us in the youth media communities have spent an exponentially larger period of time fund raising,” says Elana Yonah Rosen, co-founder and executive director of Just Think.

Funding difficulties forced that organization to cut its staff from 10 to four in June.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, once an important funder in the field, discontinued its “media centers” grants last year. In its final year, $377,000 of the $550,000 granted went to youth projects.

“It was a huge blow to lose MacArthur,” says Graham of 911. The media centers grant had funded the Reel Grrls program that Graham designed and directs.

When MacArthur started the media centers grants, “the equipment to make media was very expensive and very complex,” says Elsbeth Revere, a MacArthur program administrator. “It took having someone buy it and teach you how to use it to do anything with it. Now, it’s much easier for people to buy it and much easier to use.”

She says MacArthur has shifted its media focus to funding independently produced documentary films for public or cable television, “not on using media to help young people develop in wonderful ways, though that is very important.”

So for now, even some of the best known groups in the field rely on part-time and volunteer staff. In Kentucky this past summer, Maureen Mullinax ran Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute by herself.

“I did everything, from cleaning up to running transportation to writing grants to training the youth,” she says.

At In Progress in Minneapolis, even the executive director is a part-time position. New Orleans’ NOVAC, where youth have produced 35 public service announcements since 1999, has no dedicated youth staff.

Besides relying on foundation contributions, many youth media groups get state or federal arts funding, and some earn income through efforts such as residencies in schools.

At In Progress, two-thirds of the group’s $180,000 annual budget comes from contracts with schools. But co-director Blyly-Strauss says all but a tiny portion of what In Progress takes in for school residencies goes to run the programs. Almost nothing is left to expand the group’s own after-school and summer programming.

“Traditional philanthropic [organizations] need to understand the social impact of the work that youth media makers are doing,” says Rosen at Just Think. If they don’t, she predicts, “many of the groups that you see on Listen Up!’s list will simply evaporate.”

“This is the community center where kids can have fun, they can learn, they can prepare themselves for the future, and they can influence the world because they have a voice,” she says. “But I don’t think the country understands that yet.”

Linda Lutton can be reached at


Anna Lefer, Program Officer
Youth Media Program
Open Society Institute
400 W. 59th St.
New York, NY 10019
(212) 548-0100

Paula Kowalcyzk, Development Director
Paul Teruel, Special Projects Director
Street-Level Youth Media
1856 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 862-5331

Maureen Mullinax, Director
Appalachian Media Institute
91 Madison Ave.
Whitesburg, KY 41858
(606) 633-0108

Malory Graham
Director, Reel Grrls
911 Media Arts Center
117 Yale Ave. N.
Seattle, WA 98109
(206) 682-6552

Elana Yonah Rosen, Executive Director
Just Think Foundation
39 Mesa St., Suite 106
Presidio Park
San Francisco, CA 94129
(415) 561-2900

Matthew O’Neill, Director of Programs
Downtown Community Television Center
87 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10013-4435
(212) 925-3429





Where to Catch Youth Videos

Want to see some youth-produced video work? Visit a major film festival.

The Sundance Film Festival, Taos Talking Pictures Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival and other big-name film fests have added youth work to their lineup in recent years.

Don’t feel like leaving home? Turn on the tube.

“We have a public service campaign that is being broadcast in every state,” says Austin Haeberle, director of Listen Up!, a nationwide network of youth media projects that has made distribution a primary goal. Listen Up!’s website ( ) offers links to dozens of youth media shops and hours of youth-produced video.

Much of the momentum in the youth media field focuses on distribution, a point that’s dogged more traditional youth media projects. New Expressions in Chicago, a 25-year-old teen-produced newspaper, has a circulation of 47,000. Groups working in new media (video and Web) count viewers by the millions, and they’re looking for more.

One key is marketing the work not as media by youth for youth, but as media by youth for everybody. The goal is to make young people’s voices heard within the larger society.

“Youth have meaningful things to say and they need to get heard,” says Davita Ingram, administrative director at Video Machete. Her organization has pushed groups to address the distribution issue, lobbied for distributors to carry youth-produced work, created a database of national and international festivals, and compiled tapes of youth work produced throughout the country.

Some groups even pay to get their work shown. This fall, PBS-affiliate WNYE in New York City will broadcast “IMNY,” a 26-week series about New York City youth produced by DCTV. “We wanted to do it so badly,” says DCTV program director Matthew O’Neill, that the agency is subsidizing the program with $35,000. The series is expected to reach 15 million homes.

Other groups take a different view. “There’s a lot of complaining that it’s hard to distribute this work,” says Maureen Mullinax, director of the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop. “I think it’s hard to distribute to make money off it. But we give tapes out every day.” Many youth media projects sell tapes for close to cost.

Mullinax says that because the projects that youth work on at Appalshop are mostly about local issues, they do more good if they’re screened at a local community center where local people can respond.

Besides pushing for broadcast opportunities or exposure at festivals, some groups pursue guerrilla distribution tactics by setting up video installations in such nontraditional places as laundromats or strip malls, or screening videos on the sides of buildings.

Sanchez of Video Machete says the nature of youth-produced work probably keeps it from being seen by a wider audience: “A lot of youth-produced work is really heavy as far as the content. It’s based on the real issues that a lot of youth face, from sexuality to abuse. Some of this is really hard-core.

“That’s something that any national broadcaster is going to think twice about putting on.”

– Linda Lutton

The Challenge of a High-Tech Hang-Out

While Street-Level Development Director Paula Kowalczyk describes her program as using technology “to promote media literacy, critical thinking skills and self-esteem,” some of the kids see it as a place to collect e-mail and check out Shakira or The Rock.
That’s the struggle inherent in Street-Level’s decision to supplement its small, focused projects – where kids pursue Kowalczyk’s vision – with drop-in programs.

Most youth media programs serve a small number of participants: Appalshop works with a dozen youths in its summer media institute, and DCTV works with between 60 and 70 beginners a year. Street-Level’s drop-in sites report serving 1,000 kids annually.

On a Thursday afternoon near the end of summer, a couple dozen kids sit in front of computers and on sofas at Street-Level’s storefront space. Tiffany, 16, says she’s been at Street-Level nearly every day all summer from noon to 5 p.m., the drop-in hours.

Asked what she thinks of how youth are depicted in the media – a core issue for youth media programs – she responds with a resounding, “Huh?” A varsity basketball player and WNBA fan, she uses the Internet at Street-Level every day to find game schedules and download players’ pictures.

Classes in Photoshop, Web site creation and video production have been offered all summer during drop-in hours, but Tiffany has never gone. Staffers say that about a half- dozen kids show up for any given class.

Next to her, Michael, 14, said he comes to Street-Level to check his e-mail, surf the Internet for World Wrestling Federation sites and play computer games. The AmeriCorps volunteer staffing the drop-in program says that game playing is only allowed on Fridays, but roughly half the kids on the computers have gotten started a day early.

Asked about that, the volunteer shrugs. “If nothing else, it’s a safe place for kids to hang out in neutral ground” in a gang-ridden neighborhood, he says.
Down a short hallway, a lab set aside for graphic design and video editing sits empty.

The scene illustrates the irony of giving kids autonomy and freedom of expression in letting them pursue their interests, then watching them pursue interests created by mass media culture. This irony has also manifested itself in the videos that the youth produce, not only at Street-Level but across the country. In recent years, one of the most popular themes in the youth-produced videos has been professional wrestling.

But the shops try to provide some guidance. For instance, Street-Level videos on wrestling have looked at wrestling as a phenomenon and examined who watches wrestling and what they get out of it.

– Linda Lutton

Remember Radio? These Kids Keep it Going

Youth media isn’t only about cameras.

At 90.5 WRTE-FM in Chicago, young people control the airwaves. WRTE “Radio Arte” is the country’s only youth-run urban radio station. Here in a working-class Mexican neighborhood on the city’s southwest side, 15- to 25-year-olds write, produce, air and host their own shows, which can be heard by half a million Chicagoans. The young people also help administer the bilingual, noncommercial station.

After completing WRTE’s rigorous two-year program, “our students can go into a commercial radio station and run the station,” says Yolanda Rodriguez, WRTE’s general manager and the only staff member who’s not an alumnus of the program.

The emphasis is on creativity, not just technical know-how. “It shouldn’t sound like NPR,” says Rodriguez, who’s overseen WRTE since the nonprofit Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum purchased it in 1996 for $12,000. Poetry is standard fare. Documentaries on subjects like AIDS are edgy and blunt. The music (sometimes played behind the news) is usually eclectic rock or hip-hop in English or Spanish, but includes merengue, punk and Latin jazz .

“Kids can push the envelope here,” says Rodriguez. “As long as it’s creative and it was scripted, fine.”

WRTE’s glass-enclosed studio on the corner of a busy intersection gives passers-by a close-up view of teens manning the phones and running the sound board. That “helps balance out all the negative images in the media and negative stereotypes about Latino youth,” Rodriguez says.

WRTE ’s training program serves 60 to 80 kids a year. Despite a rigorous application process – a four-page application, an essay, an interview, a two-year commitment and parental approval – Radio Arte gets three applications for every spot available. Applicants come from all walks of life: high school drop-outs, new immigrants, single parents, “A” students.

Youths’ first three months of training are spent in the classroom, where professional journalists and audio artists teach about everything from creative writing to federal broadcast regulations. Then comes hands-on training in radio production and on-air equipment. Finally, each student creates and develops a radio program and keeps it on the air for a year.

Rodriguez claims a 75 percent retention rate. A number of alumni have jobs at commercial radio and television stations or have gone on to study journalism in college. In five years on the air WRTE has racked up six national awards for excellence in production, and the station has more than tripled its budget, from $100,000 to $350,000. Among the funders: The Ford Foundation granted $75,000 to examine gentrification, Sound Partners for Community Health paid for a series on substance abuse, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra underwrote a music exploration program.