Media in Action: A Field Scan of Media & Youth Organizing in the United States

Abstract

Global Action Project (G.A.P.), a social justice youth media arts organization based in New York City, wanted to hear more about, and support, media organizing practices that further visionary change. Between 2012 and 2014, together with DataCenter and Research Action Design, G.A.P. conducted surveys, focus groups, interviews, and participatory data analysis workshops with youth organizers across the country. Our research focused on the following questions:

  1. What stories do youth want to tell?
  2. How do youth organizing and media strategy fit together?
  3. How do youth organizers gauge impact and reach audiences?
  4. What media tools are youth organizers using and how?
  5. What challenges do youth organizers face in using media as part of their organizing strategy?

We analyzed results from six focus groups with 49 participants, 166 survey respondents, a series of in-depth interviews with key youth organizers, and two participatory data analysis workshops.

We found that many groups use a “transformative media organizing” approach: they invite their members to participate in cross-platform media production that is linked directly to action, is accountable to the group whose stories are being told, and strengthens critical consciousness. This approach builds the knowledge, skills, and self-determination of participants. Youth organizers build solidarity across communities and generate new forms of cultural expression through making, analyzing, and sharing media. Our study lifts up the stories that youth want to tell about the role of media-making in their organizing work, especially young people who identify as Queer, Trans*, People of Color (QTPOC). We highlight relevant results for educators and emphasize that media-making, when it takes place within a political education and movement-building framework, can be a transformative experience for youth participants and their communities. Participation in media work can help to build strong youth-led social movements in the current cycle of struggles against systemic inequalities, including the school-to-prison pipeline, police violence against black and brown youth, and detention and deportation, just to name a few. We hope that our findings will generate increased support for youth-led, transformative media work that is explicitly embedded in community organizing.

Note

This article is based on primary research conducted by Global Action Project, Research Action Design, and DataCenter. Findings were first released online as

McDermott, Meghan, Schweidler, Chris, Basilio, Teresa, and Lo, Puck. Media in Action: A Field Scan of Media & Youth Organizing in the United States. New York: Global Action Project, Research Action Design, DataCenter, 2015.

All quotations not otherwise attributed are from this report.

Introduction: Youth-led Media Organizing in the United States

“Media—finding your voice and determining how to tell your own story—is the first essential step in your own liberation.” (Kim McGill, organizer with Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition)

In 2003, Kim McGill and sixty other people who had been jailed, imprisoned, or deported got together to build a youth-, family-, and prisoner-led movement to end juvenile detention. All had been through the system as young people in a context where, according to McGill, “Los Angeles County was locking up more young people than anywhere else in the world. People told stories of lock-up, and coming home.” The organization that they built, Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), is one of dozens of groups in the United States that use popular education1 and other methods of critical inquiry to support young people from marginalized communities to become activists, conduct participatory action research,2 and make media, often in the form of videos, written reports, and radio pieces. Through media-making practices, these youth organizers create new narratives; ultimately, they aim to organize and inspire young people to take political action. Kim notes:

When we first formed, there were almost no organizations where formerly incarcerated people were speaking for ourselves. It was always professional advocates with graduate degrees and lawyers speaking for us. We found that in order to move policy we needed to create our own reports. Now we speak for ourselves and make our own demands. Creating alternative media has meant a lot to people’s sense of independence.

YJC has collected video stories and created written reports to share with community members, elected officials, and law enforcement. They have successfully fought to improve conditions at juvenile detention centers, reduce Los Angeles County’s use of imprisonment for youth, and challenge “war on gangs” policing policies that target low-income youth of color.3 While Los Angeles’s police department was touted as a “model” for reform in the era following the Rodney King beating, young people working with YJC published the county’s first report to analyze all police killings since the year 2000 and to name all victims since 2007.4

In the early 2000s, as YJC was forming, other youth and their allies around the country also discovered the potential of youth-led media projects to build political organizing skills and incite action on issues that were ignored by adults and mainstream media. In New York City’s historically queer-friendly West Village, LGBTQ youth working with the Manhattan-based organization FIERCE! created the video documentary Fenced OUT to document the loss they felt when they were forced by new, gentrifying residents to stop meeting at the Christopher Street Pier, a longstanding destination point for queer youth who had nowhere else to go.5 In 2001, in rural Kentucky, in response to a growing local crisis at the time, youth made a short video documentary Because of Oxycontin to expose the dangerous side effects of the prescription painkiller that they saw ripping apart their community. Ben Spangler, who worked with the young film producers at the Appalachian Media Institute in Whitesburg, Kentucky, put it this way: “Students are on the ground and know what’s going on. They tackled this issue before anyone else was talking about it. After they produced this they sent it to Senators and Representatives in the state. Soon after, it began being discussed, and they ended up putting regulations on that drug.”

While young people have led and been part of most social movements in U.S. history,6 it was not until the 1990s and 2000s that youth organizing in the United States cohered as a field. During that time, while the state slashed the social safety net and dismantled public programs, many community-based groups working with young people registered as nonprofit organizations in order to receive funding from private foundations and other donors. According to the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a group of grantmakers and youth organizers who have tracked developments in the youth organizing world for the past fifteen years, “The field was largely created and designed by low income young people and young people of color, with their cultures and ways of being in the forefront.”

Financial support for youth organizing, in particular by youth of color from low-income communities, allowed emerging groups to take on issues including police brutality, access to public education, and environmental justice. Overall, many organizers of that era recall, there was a heady sense of possibility in the growing youth organizing movement. “It was really exciting to see youth leadership around police violence,” said Jesse Ehrensaft-Hawley, a youth organizer at the time. “But there wasn’t an organized LGBTQ youth voice. We saw a void and decided to fill it.”

In 1999, four New York City police officers fired forty-one bullets at Amadou Diallo, striking the unarmed, twenty-two-year-old immigrant nineteen times and leaving him dead on the doorstep of his apartment in the Bronx. After the officers were acquitted, Ehrensaft-Hawley got together with eleven LGBTQ youth to form FIERCE!, an LGBTQ youth organizing group that fought against police violence and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” policing practices that targeted homeless people and LGBTQ youth of color, especially trans women of color.7 “Compared to today, it was much more possible to be a brand-new, fledgling youth organizing group and seek funding—and get it,” recalled Jesse, who today is Co-Director of Global Action Project (G.A.P.), a media-arts and leadership education organization for New York City youth.

During the 1990s and 2000s, as video and audio technology became more accessible, foundations supported many youth organizations that offered training in arts- and culture-based youth development programs. By the mid-2000s, however, much of this funding dried up. “The decrease in foundation funding for youth organizing is the single most important trend we have identified and poses a potential threat to the growth of the field and the health of the communities that groups support,” the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing wrote in a 2013 report surveying the youth organizing field.8

Today’s funders shy away from the mix of “arts, culture and leadership development,” said Ben Spangler at the Appalachian Media Institute. They’re more likely to fund job-training programs that teach computer coding and programming—“whether or not it makes sense,” Ben added. Overwhelmingly, funders seem to believe that new digital tools are an equalizing force in an unequal world, and a natural catalyst for young people’s civic engagement. Among funders, said Krystal Portalatin, who with Jesse co-founded FIERCE!, “There’s the desire to use more multimedia strategy, but not to fund it.” The technodeterministic idea that new digital tools will somehow level the playing field for marginalized youth because they are so-called “digital natives,”9 even in a world of stark and steadily increasing inequality, fits well with the steady rise of neoliberalism both as an ideology and as a force that shapes policy in multiple arenas, including education.10

In direct contrast to popular assumptions that young people are magically imbued with multimedia production skills at birth, many youth organizers around the country argue that media is a critical arena of intentional struggle. To take one example, the Youth Media Council’s work in challenging representations of youth of color on commercial radio offers an important model for how to communicate—and achieve—media justice. In 2006, YMC produced a report to document their work, evaluate the lessons learned from their first three years, and share their story.11

In another study, Quiroz-Martinez, Pei Wu, and Zimmerman document how environmental justice organizations across the country are thoughtfully and ambitiously addressing multigenerational movement building. One of their key findings is that youth organizers are using the power of arts and culture to engage youth in the environmental justice movement, to reach the hearts of community members, to inspire dialogue around divisive topics, and to build community.12

Pushing back against internet-centric master narratives about youth mobilization, Costanza-Chock argues that young people have been at the forefront of social movements throughout history, including those that took place before the Internet age.13 There is a growing body of research that explores how youth organizers work across social justice issues; the strategies they develop to empower themselves, their communities, and their movements; and the ways that youth organizing is a key site for the development of a leadership pipeline that leads to broader social movements.14 This article contributes to that line of research, and concludes with thoughts about how educators working in schools may be able to forge stronger connections with youth organizers and incorporate transformative media strategies, ideas, practices, and materials into the pedagogy of digital media literacy.

Research Design and Participation

As a social justice youth media arts organization that supports youth organizers to tell their stories, Global Action Project (G.A.P.) saw clearly that the media landscape was quickly changing. We wanted to hear more about, and support, youth media organizing practices that further visionary change. Between 2012 and 2014, G.A.P., in partnership with DataCenter and Research Action Design (RAD.cat), conducted surveys, focus groups, and interviews with youth organizers across the country. Our research questions were as follows:

  • What stories do youth want to tell?
  • How do youth organizing and media strategy fit together?
  • How do youth organizers gauge impact and reach audiences?
  • What media tools are youth organizers using and how?
  • What challenges do youth organizers face when using media as part of their organizing strategy?

To address these questions, we employed mixed methods including a literature review, survey, focus groups, and interviews. First, we convened a diverse advisory board to review our research design and to help with outreach. Second, we reviewed existing literature on the role of media in youth leadership development and organizing for social change. Third, we conducted six focus groups with a total of forty-nine youth, youth organizers, and adult allies.

Findings from the focus groups informed, a national online and in-person survey of youth organizers and allies. To recruit organizational respondents we conducted outreach via email, social media, and phone. We collected 166 surveys from youth organizers at 106 diverse youth-focused organizations in more than fifty cities across the United States. Respondents worked on a range of issues, with particular focus on immigration, gender and sexuality, and education. Survey participants were majority people of color, and more than half self-identified as female. Over half were under twenty-five years old, and about forty percent self-identified as youth. Three-fifths identified as activists or as youth organizers. Most participating organizations were small, with three quarters reporting ten or fewer paid staff. More detailed demographic information about survey respondents is available at http://bit.ly/MIA-report-GAP.

Additionally, we conducted a series of participatory data analysis workshops with the preliminary findings from the survey and focus groups. Young people and adult allies reviewed, discussed, and contributed to analysis of the findings at hands-on workshops at the Allied Media Conference and at the Digital Media and Learning conference.

 

Key Findings: Transformative Media for Youth Organizing—

Media Practices, Impacts, and Challenges

Youth Don’t Just Participate; They Lead Organizational Media Work.

One out of three respondents report that youth lead most of their organizational media work. We also found that youth are increasingly involved in all aspects of making media — from training peers to implementing media strategy:

Figure-1 Organization Media Activities in Which Youth Are Engaged

Figure 1. Organization Media Activities in Which Youth Are Engaged

“Our Stories Are Missing”—Why Youth Organizers Work with Youth and Media.

“Our stories are missing,” said media literacy trainer Candelario Vazquez, who grew up in the agricultural fields of Florida. “I learned that from my own experience being a farmworker. The media romanticized the farm industry, but people like us didn’t exist. When you look up the keyword ‘day laborer,’ or ‘jornalero,’ the first thing that pops up is someone else’s racist story about day labor. That’s what kids see.” Vazquez spent years teaching media production and computer classes with the immigrant rights organization Encuentro, in New Mexico. “Media is a storytelling tool,” he said. “Making videos, soundbytes, and art are important ways for our community to survive and to tell the stories that will make our kids proud.”

Back in New Mexico around 2009, Candelario remembers, many mixed-status immigrant families and undocumented migrants were relocating from Arizona, fleeing laws such as SB 1070, which required police to work directly with immigration authorities and engage in racial profiling. At the same time, nationally, a campaign was mounting against CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, who regularly interviewed anti-immigrant vigilantes on his TV show, Lou Dobbs Tonight.15 As part of the campaign to hold Lou Dobbs accountable for hate speech, Candelario recorded video testimony of community members speaking out against the anti-immigrant racism they saw in the media. Eventually, by the end of 2009, after being given an ultimatum by the company’s president, Dobbs left CNN.16 “I saw the spark going into folks,” Candelario recalled of the Dobbs campaign. “People were really activated talking about the media. People said, ‘We don’t have control over our media.’ These politicians are using media against our communities. But we can use it too.”

Candelario began teaching a media literacy class, which covered basic computer skills, public speaking, and video and radio production. As a result, these days Encuentro’s Latino/a and immigrant members regularly visit the state capitol to film legislative sessions with Flip cameras and cell phones. They tweet and post short video clips on the organization’s Facebook page, advocating for domestic workers’ rights and driver’s licenses for undocumented people. Their tactics have swayed lawmakers and inspired members to tell their own stories, Candelario said. “Encuentro sparked in me and others the need to make media,” Candelario said. Now, a team of youth and adult community reporters routinely shoot and edit videos discussing different laws and social issues. The organization hopes to host a new, low-power community radio station soon. “People want to use the tools available to them—whatever they have—and tell it like it is,” Candelario said.

Candelario’s experience resonates with many of our research participants. Nearly 60% of respondents, and half (47%) of youth, said they do media work because they want to advance social justice:

Figure 2 - What Brought You to Media Work?

Figure 2. What Brought You to Media Work?

About one in four survey respondents said that they came to the work because of personal experiences with injustice. Among youth organizers, one in four got started in media organizing and production work while enrolled in youth educational and employment programs.

“Mainstream and even alternative media is not in the hands of communities of color.”

“Mainstream and even alternative media is not in the hands of communities of color,” said Kim McGill from Los Angeles’ Youth Justice Coalition. As a result, Youth Justice Coalition members found, students of color are routinely portrayed by the press and in popular culture as being violent or criminal. Following a spate of school shootings, including the 2012 tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, many schools became increasingly policed. Students of color suffered most, Kim said. While the national media focused on school shootings, Youth Justice Coalition gathered information about the effects of militarizing schools. A 2013 statement the coalition released summarizes findings by other researchers on gun laws, delinquency rules, and disproportionate arrests of black students at schools. It names President Nixon’s zero-tolerance drug laws as a predecessor to post-Columbine school policies that have installed security guards in hallways and normalized routine locker searches. It calls for job creation, laws to punish gun manufacturers, and an end to police violence.

“We can imagine the pain and suffering that the youth and families in Newtown, Connecticut are facing,” reads the statement, which was signed by hundreds of young people of color from San Diego to the Bronx. “As youth growing up on some of America’s deadliest streets, we are all too familiar with gun violence and its impacts. But, we have also seen how attempts to build public safety with security systems, armed police and prisons have failed. Despite the fact that school shootings have overwhelmingly happened in white schools, youth of color have paid the price.” Youth Justice Coalition’s experience was echoed in our focus groups, where many participants articulated a deep desire to challenge and reframe how those outside of the community represent them. For example, about one-fifth of survey respondents, as well as many focus group participants and interviewees, said that they created their own media to deliberately challenge narratives in commercial media that undermine the well-being of their communities.

Media Changes Minds, Hearts and Policies

Research participants also say that they use media to document and share stories and visions for social change, shift social and cultural norms, reach broader audiences, and influence policy. Many were especially interested in using and making media to bring in more members, spark political dialogue, and create leadership opportunities for youth.

Figure 3 - Where Organizations See the Impact of Media They Produce

Figure 3. Where Organizations See the Impact of Media They Produce

Organizations say that their highest priorities for their media work are to shift the way people think about issues (67%), reach more youth and audiences (63%), create youth leadership opportunities (57%), and win campaigns (44%).

Media-Making Forges Lasting Bonds, Intergenerational Connections, and Community Ties

Our research shows that youth value being part of intentional learning spaces that foster storytelling, root cause analysis, and learning alongside adult allies as a means of leadership development. For example, as a teenager, Dakarai Carter, now twenty-one, attended a web radio class at Youthville, a community youth center in Detroit, Michigan. When his instructor there stopped teaching the class, Carter recalled, “I was kind of devastated.”

The teacher encouraged him to get involved in Detroit Summer, a multi-racial, intergenerational collective founded by radical philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs.17 Eight years later, Carter is still there. “I like the way that in Detroit Summer they are more of a family. They’re good friends with each other and really care about personal problems,” Carter said. He’s carried that sensibility with him to his activist work with Detroit Future Youth, a network of social justice-oriented youth programs that teach and create media: “We try to make personal or human connections as much as possible because that’s what changes things: getting to know people.”

In 2010, Detroit Summer embarked on a commemorative mural project that they called, “Another Detroit is Happening.” Carter took part in the endeavor and remembers the time fondly. “We took stories and interviews that we gathered, along with photography, and collaged all those together,” he said. “We made environmentally-friendly wheatpaste silk screens and went around the city, pasting them up. It was fun. It incorporated a lot of people.”

Each mural told a story about organizing, Carter recalled, highlighting a historical event, a significant place, or a local Detroiter. The most popular mural, Carter said, was one documenting a recent peace march that called for an end to violence and “restoring the neighbor back to the ‘hood.’” Many locals requested copies of that screenprinted poster, he said. “The emotion was captured,” he said. “People like the message.” After the murals were completed, Detroit Summer hosted a mural tour so that people in the community could meet and talk with the artists. “Some people were unaware of those problems or things we covered, so we brought it to the forefront,” Carter said. “The murals brought people together around common issues.”

Youth Learn, teach and Stay Involved When Making Media

“When youth work on media projects, they then don’t want to do anything else,” said Krystal Portalatin of New York City’s LGBTQ youth organizing group, FIERCE!. “Just film. It comes up every couple of years.”

Back in the year 2000, Portalatin and other young people in the group filmed interviews with queer youth who were being pushed out of a historically gay neighborhood in Manhattan that was being redeveloped. FIERCE!’s video survey quickly morphed into a half-hour long documentary, Portalatin said, produced by some dozen youth members who felt an urgency to document the experience of their community as it was displaced by gentrification.

The documentary Fenced OUT, in turn, inspired FIERCE!’s first organizing campaign: demanding a 24-hour drop-in center near the Christopher Street Pier for homeless and queer youth. “I thought it would be a lot of info-gathering,” Portalatin recalled of the video project. “But what we caught on camera was what actually happened—footage of residents patrolling the neighborhood. A security guard told us, ‘Residents don’t want you here.’ We caught it on film; this was proof. We’re not just talking about these things, we’re showing you.”

During the process of shooting and editing the documentary, said Portalatin, she and the other youth producers realized that if they wanted to make sure that young people could access the pier or other safe spaces, then they would need to get together with other LGBTQ youth and their allies to confront the area’s new residents, city planners, and police. “What the film process taught me was—what does it mean to organize? To talk to people and really listen and learn,” recalled Portalatin, who was a high schooler when she shot and edited the FIERCE! documentary.

These experiences were echoed by survey respondents, who shared that media-making increases youth engagement in many aspects of their work:

Figure 4 - Media Increases Youth Engagement

Figure 4. Media Increases Youth Engagement

Four out of five respondents (79%) said they felt the media they made convinced other youth to take social or political action, such as organizing in the community or testifying to legislators. Many (69%) felt their media work helped to educate about issues like homophobia, net neutrality, and worker’s rights—and to bring more youth into social justice activism.

Media Is a Critical Tool for Political Education and Youth Leadership Development

Two thirds (73.4%) said that their organization conducts political education. For this study, political education is defined as a process of dialogue, activism, and inquiry that develops both an individual and a collective analysis of the root causes of injustice. Using and making media can facilitate a richer engagement by youth in the study of history, power, and resistance, which then informs their frames, messages, productions, and outreach strategies, respondents said. For example, while working on Fenced OUT, Portalatin and other FIERCE! youth met elders, including longtime organizer and Stonewall riot veteran, Sylvia Rivera. FIERCE! screened its documentary at college campuses and facilitated conversations about the need for safe spaces for queer and trans people. “Through making the documentary, we realized that what we needed to talk about was the intersection of gentrification with criminalization, lack of services, and homophobic violence,” Portalatin said. “So our campaign then literally fought with ideas of what space was and who has access to it.”

Indeed, nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents said that their organization’s political analysis includes an intersectional examination of power, representation, economic inequality, racial justice, public policy, gender and sexuality, and education reform, among other core issues. Additionally, a majority (69%) of those surveyed said that making media rooted in an organizing project has increased political consciousness among participating youth, as well as among their peers. Many youth organizers said that they saw young people grow as leaders and learn to critically analyze power while working on media projects. This dynamic between analysis, production, and purposeful inquiry expands the definition of “media impact” beyond traditional metrics such as audience reach or products created to include skills like listening, sharing, teamwork, and taking an idea from concept to fruition in a social justice context

Youth Organizers Are Making, Sharing, and Using More Media than Ever across Diverse Platforms

Our research confirms that media is now a core component of the organizing landscape. Effective organizing with media is as much about process as product, respondents said. They noted that ideally, organizations develop media strategy to work across platforms, engage youth in all aspects of media work, draw on the resources and skills of media partners, and target clearly defined audiences based on campaign goals. Respondents also said that they are creating their own media more than ever before, including video, photography, social media, and organizational websites. They use a wide range of platforms and strategies to distribute media that they make, including organizational websites, social media, and email, together with face-to-face workshops, printed materials, fundraising events, and schools and universities, among others. They also intentionally work across mediums and platforms, for example by producing photography or video content then distributing that content online via social media:

Figure 5 - Make, Distribute, and Consume Media Across Platforms

Figure 5. Make, Distribute, and Consume Media Across Platforms

Barriers and Challenges

Media is critical to movement-building, yet young people face tremendous structural barriers to engaging in media work. Despite the rise of social media, survey respondents said that many communities still lack basic equipment, software, and technical training for making or using media. Many pushed back on the idea that all youth are “digital natives” whose access to, and active participation in, new media spaces are guaranteed by virtue of being born after 1996. Additionally, they said, increasing racial and economic polarization has ensured that youth from marginalized communities have few opportunities to meaningfully access technology and media.

For example, in New Mexico, where the digital divide is the worst in the nation, “more than four of five (82%) of households with an annual income greater than $50,000 have Internet access, while only 57% of households with annual income under $15,000 are connected to the internet,” according to the University of New Mexico.18 Encuentro, an immigrant advocacy group based in the central part of the state, trained young people to conduct video interviews and to ask other youth around the state how—or if—they were able to get online. “We found that one kid traveled seventeen miles from one part of Albuquerque to another part of Albuquerque on a bike in order to use the Internet,” said Candelario Vazquez, who worked at Encuentro. “We heard from kids who had to buy Internet from McDonald’s in order to do their homework. Some families had to choose between paying the water bill or the Internet bill.”

Young People Aren’t Taken Seriously, and They Demand Accountability from Adult Allies

Within organizations, young people face additional challenges, such as not being taken seriously by adults. Although we heard from some organizations that they work to transform ageist structures and practices and foster productive intergenerational relationships, four out of ten (40%) of youth survey respondents noted that youth input generally “was not listened to or well-received.” Respondents said they wanted more safe spaces, both peer-to-peer and intergenerational, as well as more accountability to young people who have chosen to share their stories as a catalyst for social change.

Media Work Needs to Be Compensated

Most organizations want to keep young people engaged and increase their leadership within the organization. Yet many find themselves increasingly vulnerable, let alone able to offer young people opportunities for continued engagement, stability, or employment opportunities. Nearly 60% reported they did not have paid media staff and rely on volunteers to do communications or media work. As one respondent expressed, “We need more funding to hire paid staff. It would be great to have a dedicated media associate as part of our organization, but at the moment, our organization is so small, we’re having interns handle most of our media work.”

Organizations Know What They Need to Turn the Tide

Media is critical to movement-building, but is being de-funded. Organizers said that increasingly media is the means by which youth are best able to change discourse, share their artistry, raise political awareness, and connect to community-based organizing. Yet funding for youth-led media projects continues to dwindle, despite the fact that nearly all organizations (83%) said that the top support they needed to continue media work was more funding:

Figure 6 - Top Supports Needed for Media Work to Continue

Figure 6. Top Supports Needed for Media Work to Continue

When asked what they need to scale up their media work, most said they need staff with the necessary skills (68%), followed by access to equipment or software (56%). Additionally, youth organizers said that their top priorities for training are in technical production (72%), distribution and outreach strategies (69%), and effective use of media for political education (65%).

Conclusions

New digital tools and mobile platforms have reshaped the possibilities of storytelling, aesthetics, outreach, and organizing. At the same time, there has been a drop in funding for youth organizing, right at the moment when conditions are ripe for youth to use media to build power on the ground. Young people occupy leadership roles in nationwide struggles against systemic inequalities, including the school-to-prison pipeline, police violence against black and brown youth, and detention and deportation policies, just to name a few. They use, make, and analyze mass media, alternative media, and social media in order to amplify their messages. Beyond using media as a means to publicize campaigns, media production and analysis are formative, creative ways to strengthen the leadership skills that youth organizers need.

In surveys, focus groups, and interviews we found that many organizations use a “transformative media organizing” approach: they invite members to participate in cross-platform media production that is linked directly to action, is accountable to the needs and self-determination of the group whose stories are being told, and strengthens critical consciousness.19 This approach builds the knowledge, skills, leadership, and self-determination of participants as they create change with the media they make, be it campaign-driven, personal narrative, or dramatic fiction. Media work, when it involves learning how to produce a narrative, shape the terms of the story, or engage in purpose-driven storytelling, allows youth to change discourse through artistry, political awareness, and community-based organizing experiences. Organizers see this work as key for youth leadership development, political education, and critical consciousness. Youth often lead organizational media work, and media projects often forge lasting intergenerational bonds. Contrary to stereotypes of apathy and disengagement, many young people are explicitly working to advance social justice. Young people are telling their personal stories to achieve greater goals, build community power, and inspire one another to action.

We also found that social media is important, but media practices in youth organizing today are cross-platform, participatory, and chosen in line with campaign goals. Social media augments, rather than replaces, other kinds of media production, while partnerships with other organizations and professional media-makers are powerful. Young people say storytelling for social change requires political organizing, not just clicks and likes. Additionally, many said that media production within an explicit political education framework can facilitate the study of history, power, and resistance. Many organizers conduct media analysis in their work, and this informs their frames and messages, as well as production and outreach strategies.

Important structural challenges to youth media organizing must be addressed. Challenges range from adults not taking youth seriously, to lack of access to training and equipment, to the criminalization and targeting of youth of color. Most agree that media is critical to movement-building, but that explicitly politicized media work is being defunded. Besides funding for staff, equipment, and software, youth organizers want training in production, distribution, and outreach, as well as in effective use of media for political education.

We believe our study carries key lessons for educators. In particular, we note that youth organizers have found the pedagogy of digital media to be most effective in structured, purpose-driven contexts. Our findings suggest that educators work with young people to integrate digital media skills-building into engaged pedagogy. Digital media education can become part of what bell hooks calls “education as the practice of freedom”20 and can help develop powerful solutions to systemic inequalities based in young people’s lived experience and political analysis. Media-making education should not only provide job skills and badges, it should also transform consciousness, skills, and creative capacity. It remains important to teach media analysis in a political education framework with root cause and intersectional analyses that build critical consciousness and youth leadership. Additionally, our findings suggest the need to challenge widespread assumptions that access to media tools such as smartphones is in itself transformative, that participation in social media automatically leads to increased civic capacity, and that all youth experience the world as “digital natives.”

There remains a need to foster safe, peer-to-peer youth spaces for self-determination and leadership. In some cases, educators working in schools may be able to support the creation and maintenance of such spaces, as allies to youth leaders in their communities. We also note the need for educators and school administrators to move beyond an exclusive “job readiness” focus in digital media education, to recognize the benefits of an approach that links digital media skills to storytelling as a form of self-determination by young people in communities most affected by injustice.

By self-determination, we mean that youth develop the power to demand better structural conditions and to put forward visions for change on their own terms. We also note the need for concrete accountability structures that support meaningful youth involvement in policy and administrative decision-making. Community lies at the heart of a transformative agenda, and solutions work best when they are rooted in the values, knowledge, expertise, and interests of that community. In many of our focus groups, youth organizers also described the power of positive intergenerational relationships to strengthen their organization’s capacity to tell critical stories for change.

Finally, it is crucial to ensure that media-making is seen as a core practice of leadership development in the digital age. Media-making, when it takes place within a political education and movement-building framework, can be a transformative experience for youth participants and their communities. We hope that our findings will encourage more educators to engage with youth-led, transformative media work that is deeply connected to community organizing.

Appendices

In the interests of space, rather than include a series of appendices here, we note that key additional information can be found in the full Media in Action report:

  • Detailed demographics of survey and focus group participants
  • An appendix of key terms
  • More information about the organizations behind this research (G.A.P., DataCenter, and RAD)
  • Full acknowledgments of the many people who contributed to this research.

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Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. “Youth and Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies.” The Role of Youth Organizations and Youth Movements for Social Change. Kinder & Braver World Project Research Series. Cambridge, MA: Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 2012. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/8096.

———. Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha, Chris Schweidler, and the Out for Change: Transformative Media Organizing Project. Towards Transformative Media Organizing: LGBTQ and Two-Spirit Media Work in the United States. Strengths & Needs Assessment by the Ford Foundation’s Advancing LGBT Rights Initiative, Research Action Design, and the MIT Center for Civic Media. New York: Ford Foundation, 2015. http://transformativemedia.cc/research.

Fals-Borda, Orlando. “Participatory Action Research.” Development: Seeds of Change 2 (1984): 18-20.

Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. Vol. 1. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1973.

Ginwright, S., and T. James. “From Assets to Agents of Change: Social Justice, Organizing, and Youth Development.” In “Youth Participation: Improving Institutions and Communities.” Special issue, New Directions for Youth Development 96 (2002): 27-46.

Ginwright, Shawn. Building A Pipeline for Justice: Understanding Youth Organizing and the Leadership Pipeline. Occasional Papers Series on Youth Organizing No. 10. New York: Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, 2010. http://www.fcyo.org/media/docs/6252_FCYO_OPS_10_ScreenVersion.pdf.

Harcourt, Bernard E. Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Hollar, Julie. “Dropping Dobbs: A Victory for Media Activism and the Challenge Ahead.” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (2010): 46.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 2014.

James, T., and K. McGillicuddy. “Building Youth Movements for Community Change.” Nonprofit Quarterly 8, no. 4 (2001). http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/3955_YouthMove.pdf.

Karpf, David. “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism.” Policy & Internet 2, no. 4 (2010): 7-41.

McDermott, Meghan, Chris Schweidler, Teresa Basilio, and Puck Lo. Media in Action: A Field Scan of Media & Youth Organizing in the United States. New York: Global Action Project, Research Action Design DataCenter, 2015. http://bit.ly/1IbYYdJ.

Movement Strategy Center. Bringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability. Oakland, CA: Movement Strategy Center, 2005. http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/2502_BringingItTogether.pdf.

Quiroz-Martinez, J., D. Pei Wu, and K. Zimmerman. ReGeneration: Young People Shaping the Environmental Justice Movement. Oakland, CA: Movement Strategy Center, 2005. http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/5548_ReGenReport.pdf.

University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Broadband Subscription and Internet Use in New Mexico. 2013. http://www.doit.state.nm.us/broadband/reports/NMBBP_bb_use_0613.pdf.

Young Wisdom Project of the Movement Strategy Center and The Youth Speak Out Coalition. Making Space, Making Change: Profiles of Youth-Led and Youth-Driven Organizations. Oakland, CA: Movement Strategy Center, 2004. http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/1892_MSMC.pdf.

Youth Justice Council. Don’t Shoot to Kill: Homicides Resulting from Law Enforcement Use of Force within L.A. County, 2000-2014. Los Angeles: Youth Justice Council, 2014. http://www.youth4justice.org/new-release-of-data-from-yjc-on-law-enforcement-use-of-force-resulting-in-a-homicide.

Zimmerman, K., and Y. Wisdom. Reframing Power: An Evaluation of the Youth Media Councils’ First Three Years. Los Angeles: Youth Media Council, 2006.

 

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1973).
  2. Orlando Fals-Borda, “Participatory Action Research.” Development: Seeds of Change 2 (1984): 18-20.
  3. See YJC reports at http://www.youth4justice.org/ammo-tools-tactics/yjc-reports.
  4. Youth Justice Council, Don’t Shoot to Kill: Homicides Resulting from Law Enforcement Use of Force within L.A. County, 2000-2014 (Los Angeles: Youth Justice Council, 2014), http://www.youth4justice.org/new-release-of-data-from-yjc-on-law-enforcement-use-of-force-resulting-in-a-homicide.
  5. For more about Fenced OUT, see http://www.fiercenyc.org/fenced-out-fierces-youth-produced-documentary.
  6. Sasha Costanza-Chock, “Youth and Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies,” The Role of Youth Organizations and Youth Movements for Social Change, Kinder & Braver World Project Research Series (Cambridge, MA: Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 2012), http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/8096.
  7. Bernard E.Harcourt, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
  8. https://fcyo.org/resources/2013-national-youth-organizing-field-scan-the-state-of-the-field-of-youth-organizing
  9. Sue Bennett, Karl Maton, and Lisa Kervin, “The ‘Digital Natives’ Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence.” British Journal of Educational Technology 39, no. 5 (2008): 775-786.
  10. Brown, Wendy, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
  11. K. Zimmerman and Y. Wisdom, Reframing Power: An Evaluation of the Youth Media Councils’ First Three Years (Los Angeles: Youth Media Council, 2006).
  12. J. Quiroz-Martinez, D. Pei Wu, and K. Zimmerman, ReGeneration: Young People Shaping the Environmental Justice Movement (Oakland, CA: Movement Strategy Center, 2005). http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/5548_ReGenReport.pdf
  13. Costanza-Chock, Sasha. “Youth and Social Movements.”
  14. See T. James and K. McGillicuddy, “Building Youth Movements for Community Change,” Nonprofit Quarterly 8, no. 4 (2001), http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/3955_YouthMove.pdf; Movement Strategy Center, Bringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability (Oakland, CA: Movement Strategy Center, 2005), http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/2502_BringingItTogether.pdf; Young Wisdom Project of the Movement Strategy Center and The Youth Speak Out Coalition, Making Space, Making Change: Profiles of Youth-Led and Youth-Driven Organizations, (Oakland, CA: Movement Strategy Center, 2004), http://www.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/1892_MSMC.pdf.; S. Ginwright and T. James, “From Assets to Agents of Change: Social Justice, Organizing, and Youth Development,” in “Youth Participation: Improving Institutions and Communities,” special issue, New Directions for Youth Development 96 (2002): 27-46; and Shawn Ginwright, Building A Pipeline for Justice: Understanding Youth Organizing and the Leadership Pipeline, Occasional Papers Series on Youth Organizing No. 10 (New York: Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, 2010), http://www.fcyo.org/media/docs/6252_FCYO_OPS_10_ScreenVersion.pdf.
  15. Sasha Costanza-Chock, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
  16. Julie Hollar, “Dropping Dobbs: A Victory for Media Activism, and the Challenge Ahead,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (2010): 46.
  17. Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  18. University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Broadband Subscription and Internet Use in New Mexico. 2013, http://www.doit.state.nm.us/broadband/reports/NMBBP_bb_use_0613.pdf.
  19. Sasha Costanza-Chock, Chris Schweidler, and the Out for Change: Transformative Media Organizing Project, Towards Transformative Media Organizing: LGBTQ and Two-Spirit Media Work in the United States, Strengths & Needs Assessment by the Ford Foundation’s Advancing LGBT Rights Initiative, Research Action Design, and the MIT Center for Civic Media (New York: Ford Foundation, 2015), http://transformativemedia.cc/research.
  20. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 2014).
Sasha Costanza-Chock, Chris Schweidler, Teresa Basilio, Meghan McDermott, Puck Lo, & Mara Ortenburger

About Sasha Costanza-Chock, Chris Schweidler, Teresa Basilio, Meghan McDermott, Puck Lo, & Mara Ortenburger

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar and media maker who works in the interrelated areas of social movements and information and communication technologies; participatory technology design and community based participatory research; and the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights, including comunicación populár. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. While living in Los Angeles, he worked on a variety of civic media projects with community-based organizations, including the award-winning VozMob.net platform. More information about Sasha's work can be found at schock.cc.

Chris Schweidler is a long-time practitioner and advocate of research by and for grassroots-led movements for social justice. She works to support social justice advocacy through community-led research and popular education. She is co-founder and co-owner of Research Action Design (RAD), a worker-owned cooperative that partners with grassroots organizations on research, tech and media for their organizing campaigns. She holds a master's degree in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master of public health degree in epidemiology from the University of California at Berkeley.

Teresa Basilio is co-director of the Global Action Project, which works with young people most affected by injustice to build the knowledge, tools, and relationships needed to create media for community power, cultural expression, and political change. She holds a master's degree in international and transcultural studies from Teachers College of Columbia University.

Meghan McDermott has been a supporter of young people’s positive development through media, technology, and the arts for nearly 20 years. After her tenure as a researcher with the EDC Center for Children & Technology, Meghan led Global Action Project from 2003-2013, leading implementation of its social change mission and strengthening G.A.P.’s position as a national leader in the field of youth media. She has served as an advisor for the Youth Media Learning Network, the Youth Media Reporter, as well as joined grant-making panels for NYSCA, the Smithsonian, and the NEA. Meghan received her masters in education from Harvard and has continued to develop her leadership through participation in NAMAC’s Media Arts Leadership Institute, Columbia University’s Institute for Non-Profit Management, the Rockwood Leadership Institute, and most recently as a Coro Fellow.

Puck Lo writes and makes films about political struggles, diaspora, intersections of race, gender, class — and all things hidden in plain sight. Puck has published work in Al Jazeera America and The Nation, and was a staff producer for two nationally syndicated radio shows. She co-founded the Social Movements Oral History Tour, which recorded the testimonies and reflections of migrant, labor and queer organizers across North America. Puck finished a master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and is pursuing an MFA in documentary film at Stanford University.

Mara Ortenburger is a researcher at Research Action Design. She holds a master's degree in public health from the University of California at Los Angeles.

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