In the early morning of September 11, 2001, I was at the Oakland, California Airport getting ready to board a cross-country flight. I was traveling with a couple of colleagues from Youth Radio, a youth-driven production company and media education program where I’d been working for just over a year. We were heading to an awards ceremony on the east coast. The prize we were picking up honored a series Youth Radio had produced for National Public Radio called Making the Grade, about the effects of standardized testing on public education in the U.S. On a television suspended from the ceiling of an airport cafe, we watched the World Trade Center catch fire and the Pentagon explode. The mother of a high school student on our team who’d come to the airport see her daughter off shook her head and observed, “This is what happens when you live in the belly of the beast.”
As soon as the reality of what was happening started to register, my first thought was that we’d all go home. Fresh out of grad school, I was still pretty much exclusively an academic in mindset, identity and instinct. My decision to pursue a professional path that combined scholarship with journalism and community-based education was still new, and maybe a little shaky. So I gathered my bags and got ready to catch a ride back to my house in San Francisco, where I had every intention of planting myself alongside countless others in front of the TV. That is, until we got the signal from Youth Radio’s headquarters that a morning editorial meeting was scheduled in the organization’s newsroom and we better get there ASAP.
Youth Radio is an after-school, non-profit, tuition-free organization founded in 1992, with a home-base in Oakland and bureaus in Los Angeles California, Washington DC, and Atlanta Georgia. Young people ages 14-24 are recruited from local under-resourced public schools by program grads. Once enrolled, they learn transmedia production skills and peer education; obtain college, career, and mental health support; and deliver news and commentary, in word, sound, and image, to some of the most powerful public and commercial media outlets in the US and internationally.
Media Education When it Matters the Most
Youth Radio’s headquarters in California was 3000 miles away from the devastation on the east coast on 9-11, And yet we immediately started calling in young people, gathering tape and assigning stories, reaching out to far-flung networks of youth who could cover the unfolding events, dispatching teams of teens to local high schools to track student and teacher reactions, and pitching angles to our varied local and national outlets. That day and the several that followed flew by. Teams of teens, young adults, and seasoned producers and editors scrambled to cover a story that we knew was changing the world. At one point a few days in, I took a breath in the bathroom off Youth Radio’s back corridor, looked in the mirror, and said to myself, “So this is what it feels like, in a time of profound crisis, to have something to do.”
Media education is about creating conditions for young people to have something to do when that matters the most. It’s not just any thing they do, but a crucial thing: notice, document, investigate, frame, and report meaningful information. In doing so, they ask hard questions, stretch beyond first assumptions, and tell what they see, in ways that make a difference. In the youth media programs I’ve worked in and researched across the U.S. since 1994, young people don’t work alone. They produce media in partnership with adult collaborators. Entering into a distinctive dynamic Vivian Chávez and I have called collegial pedagogy, they engage in projects where neither party could complete the work without the other, and where both young people and adults stand mutually invested in and vulnerable to the judgment of outside audiences (Soep & Chávez, 2010). They need each other to get it right. The time when this work matters the most is not necessarily a period of extreme international crisis, as was the case with 9-11. It can be a fleeting moment of personal turmoil or revelation, a family transition, a community event that would otherwise go overlooked, a popular culture phenomenon that inspires fandom or critique.
This work of hands-on media production reaching significant audiences is especially important for those who otherwise would be left out of collective action and pivotal policy decisions, and denied the right to frame stories about their own lives and communities around them. At stake is credibility. By that I do not so much mean credibility as typically defined by today’s digital media scholarship. Researchers worry that young people are under-prepared to judge the truthfulness of existing sources, including social media’s dizzying array of user-generated and unevenly substantiated sites. While dramatic shifts in knowledge production and information-flow do raise important concerns, I’m struck by the ways in which young producers establish their own validity and value, again and again, with every publication or broadcast, as authors with urgent insights to share.
Seeing Small, Seeing Big: From Actual to “As If”
In her book Releasing the Imagination (1995, p. 10), the philosopher of education and aesthetics Maxine Greene puzzles through the question of what it means to see the world small, and to see it big.
“To see things or people small, one chooses to see from a detached point of view, to watch behaviors from the perspective of a system, to be concerned with trends and tendencies rather than the intentionality and concreteness of everyday life. To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human behinds as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead. One must see from the point of view of the participant in the midst of what is happening if one is to be privy to the plans people make, the initiatives they take, the uncertainties they face.”
Seen small, with some distance, the purpose of media education resides in school-sponsored and neighborhood-based systems as well as online communities that enable young people who’ve been marginalized from digital privilege to emerge as full citizens in media worlds. Seen small, we notice local, national, and global disparities not only in terms of access to and use of existing equipment and tools, but also crucially, in terms of participation in the networks and literacies required to create new digital media platforms. We can assess goals across “the field” and compare outcomes, and call for new methods for research and practice.
Seen big, from up-close, the purpose of media education materializes in the lives of people we know, inside contexts where we serve as participants in the midst of shared production. Seen big, we can start to discern moment-to-moment discursive practices that media production invites—like near constant meta-cognitive inquiry into how makers know what they know, and what remains to be discovered before a story is complete. We can identify the properties of critique, when young people assess one another’s unfolding media projects, sometimes face-to-face, and sometimes inside fan communities and peer-to-peer networks of interest-driven activity. We can trace how so much of the work of production now starts when it used to end. The moment of online publication triggers a public, searchable conversation that can take the story in a direction the original author neither predicts nor controls: its inevitable digital afterlife.
Seeing things small and big is both a way to understand the purpose of media education and a habit of mind young people develop as they become makers themselves. They learn to pan out in search of patterns, and to zoom into the details and nuances that turn a topic into a story you can’t forget.
Ultimately, seeing the world as it is gives communities of youth something to do that matters, and enables us together to imagine the world as if it were different. It is by looking through the windows of the actual, Greene says, that we can start to see “as ifs” (1995, p. 140). Sometimes that means acting as if a media project will get done on deadline, even when that seems impossible. It means taking a hard look at sobering statistics about digital media disparities as if those patterns can change. It means toiling away on a mediocre project as if it will get great. It means writing, and researching, and teaching, and policy-making as if media education were a fundamental human right. Until it really is.
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Soep, E. & Chávez, V. (2010). Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press.