YOUTH MEDIA: THE POLITICS OF SELF-EXPRESSION. by Twilight Greenaway.

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Much of today’s youth media stems from a long tradition of DIY (Do-it-Yourself). Look at the zines of the 1980s and ’90s. These self-published, cut-and-paste tracts took young people’s sense of expression to a new level. With names like Bamboo Girl, Dishwasher Pete, and Ben is Dead, zines were a fast way to tell your story and organize with other young people in ways that were often decidedly feminist, pacifist, vegan, or anti-corporate. Today, the Internet has eclipsed print versions of all but the most die-hard zines. It’s clear, though, that print zines have influenced other, newer forms of youth-for-youth media, many of which utilize radio, video, and the Internet and happen in conjunction with youth development programs around the nation.

Youth Radio in Berkeley is a great example of such a project. At Youth Radio, young people write and produce their own commentary pieces, some of which run on local Bay Area stations and are occasionally picked up by national NPR programming. Jean Chen, 27, the editor of Youth Radio’s new website, www.youthincontrol.org, came to youth media work after years of editing her own underground zine in the ’90s. She believes the two are integrally linked. “One thing that’s always interested me is authentic, real voice in media,” she says. “I made a zine because I couldn’t find media that was aimed at me.” She adds that a year as an editor for a dot-com woke her up to the way some corporate media use “marketing disguised as editorial content.” When she started working with youth, providing platforms from which they could speak for themselves, “it felt real,” she says.

Chen has stuck around ever since. Like many of the adults involved in producing youth media, Chen says she takes a backseat role in shaping the stories that appear on the site. “I ask them to be honest about what their friends would read and what they themselves would really read,” she says.

Youth Radio in Berkeley is a great example of such a project. At Youth Radio, young people write and produce their own commentary pieces, some of which run on local Bay Area stations and are occasionally picked up by national NPR programming. Jean Chen, 27, the editor of Youth Radio’s new website, www.youthincontrol.org, came to youth media work after years of editing her own underground zine in the ’90s. She believes the two are integrally linked. “One thing that’s always interested me is authentic, real voice in media,” she says. “I made a zine because I couldn’t find media that was aimed at me.” She adds that a year as an editor for a dot-com woke her up to the way some corporate media use “marketing disguised as editorial content.” When she started working with youth, providing platforms from which they could speak for themselves, “it felt real,” she says.

Graphic © 2001 Olivia Edith youth media

Chen has stuck around ever since. Like many of the adults involved in producing youth media, Chen says she takes a backseat role in shaping the stories that appear on the site. “I ask them to be honest about what their friends would read and what they themselves would really read,” she says.

The majority of the media aimed at youth is designed and written by adults and marketing experts. Everyday, it seems there’s a new corporate strategy to harness the “disposable income” spilling from the denim pockets of “generation Y.” In one example, some interactive websites, realizing that they can’t get by on advertising alone, have started selling their member demographics to marketers–meaning, they’ll do anything to get youth to log their statistics and register their identities.

Beyond this consumer-oriented mass media, which eats up a huge percentage of young people’s time and attention, there are some outlets designed for the expression and critique of culture through youth eyes. There are, in fact, numerous small (usually local), socially conscious media sources for young people. Not all of this media is made entirely by youth, but a large part of it does contain authentic youth voices.

Many of these projects are run by adults who have the experience to mentor youth and can pass along valuable skills. Many, like Chen, seek to directly counter the kinds of messages youth receive from mainstream sources. This, they believe, is a step in a progressive direction. But the most politically engaged, critical perspectives appearing in today’s youth media may never reach the majority of the American public. For instance, Youth Radio is subjected to severe editing. The threat of censorship to Youth Radio makes some people wary of the motives behind including youth voices in the larger media. Often, more value is placed on the age of the commentator than on the opinion he or she may hold. But that doesn’t mean that the process isn’t extremely valuable to the participants.

Terone Ward, the 21-year-old production coordinator and designer for Youth in Control, exemplifies youth media’s potential to foster talent and provide a bridge for youth interested in pursuing careers in the media field. Ward started as a Youth Radio participant back in ’97 and has worked his way through the program, from “peer teacher” to paid employee. Ward, who made the transition from radio to web production largely on his own, says his work is about helping increase access for folks like himself, who may not traditionally have had media training. “I grew up in East Oakland and noticed that people there were not buying computers or accessing new technology like they were in other places. So, I saw it as my job to introduce this stuff to my friends and family members.”

Media that involves youth is like a window that gives young people a view of the larger scheme of the media while giving adults a view of some of the unmediated realities of young people’s lives. In one example, in an article entitled “The Real Deal on Gangs,” an anonymous young writer for New Youth Connections (NYC) attempts to demystify gang involvement. He asks: “Are these teens trying to recover a missing part of their family that was lost a long time ago? Are they creating their own family because they honestly don’t have a family?” He goes on to illustrate the contradictions that cause many urban youth to join gangs, and at the same time, exhort their peers not to.

It is not an extraordinary piece of writing by most adult standards. What is most interesting about it is what the author does not try to do. He does not seek to portray the youth he interviews as naive or innocent, nor does he try to convince readers that they deserve to be locked up. There are no “super-predators” or bad guys. The author simply offers the reader samples of his peers’ voices and observations and his honest interpretation. By not making assumptions and not portraying gang members purely as malicious and unfeeling individuals, he provides a refreshing balance to much of the recent news coverage around youth violence and gang warfare.

New York-based NYC is a monthly newsmagazine with a circulation of 60 thousand. In its pages, teens and young adults write about everything from losing family members and coming out of the closet, to their friends’ experiences with ecstasy, to the new Eryka Badu album. To a reader, it may appear that there is very little a young writer wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing up within the magazine’s pages.

But is it a magazine with a politically progressive goal? Keith Hefner, the director of New Youth Communication (www.youthcomm.org), the organization that publishes NYC and its sister publication, Foster Care Youth United, would argue that it’s not. Like many adults in the youth media world, Hefner has built an organization grounded as much in social service theory as in media making. He believes that having an explicitly political agenda can undermine a youth development approach, or one based around genuine youth-initiated content.

Promoting Youth Activism

With the advent of listservs, web rings, and websites, many of today’s youth have tools for becoming politically engaged. Youth-made media is only one of those tools, but it is an important one–especially, as a means for ending isolation. Socially conscious youth are constantly up against mainstream media that work hard to downplay shows of resistance and activism among youth. When 10,000 people attend a political rally, and the evening news reports that there were only 1,000, what does that do to youth morale? This is why media sources that actively encourage youth to share their experiences as activists, such as WireTap Magazine (www.wiretapmag.org), an online news source for socially conscious youth, and the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (www.corpreform.org/home.html), are becoming vital to youth.

As media monopolies grow and edge out all but the most established information sources, youth media remains the only fearless challenge to the status quo. But with a young audience, political issues cannot always be separated from the more personal aspects of navigating the world. Most youth media outlets try not to take any one political stance, but look to include a combination of perspectives–some more socially conscious than others–to create a content that is often diverse and engaging.

In the larger social context, there are several opinions on whether it is better to use resources to cultivate a small number of youth in making media that is critical, anti-racist, and inclusive of multiple perspectives, or to simply create media that is focused on putting counterspins on many of the messages young people are already hearing. Indeed, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, because the most effective youth media rely on models of social change that begin with individuals and work outwards.

For example, the media that has sprung up around hip-hop and the culture it generates often has the benefit of mass appeal. Jeff Chang, former politics editor of the Black Entertainment Network’s 360HipHop.com, left his work with small radical institutions like Colorlines Magazine (www.colorlines.com), because he wanted to reach out to the large number of youth hungry for news that pertains to their lives. Or, as he puts it, “to build a bridge from the world to the ‘hood.”

In 360HipHop.com, Chang infused what could have been your average glossy music site with articles about activism, the drug war, and the prison-industrial complex, filling in the spaces between rap lyrics that were already charged with years of class and race conflict. “The hip-hop world view is a lot more sophisticated than many adults give it credit for,” he says, pointing to the ways in which rap stars have long included songs about their struggles with giant white-owned record companies on the very albums that were making those companies millions.

Chang is a strong proponent of stepping into the mainstream arena just long enough to influence young people to start their own grassroots movements. Although BET succumbed to a buyout by Viacom and is now closing down 360HipHop.com, Chang believes that artists like Public Enemy, who used Colombia Records to get their word out to huge numbers of youth in the last 15 years, had the right idea. Chang cites the inclusion of news sections in glossy hip-hop magazines like The Source as a step in the right direction. But he points to less commercial hip-hop publications like Blu, Stress, and Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner (www.daveyd.com), as the places where much of the real dialogue is taking place.

Finding space for youth-driven media that is not directly related to the music or entertainment industries is a different challenge. “There are a lot of stories about young people in the news in which young people aren’t even quoted,” says author Makani Themba. She believes that this is rooted in the larger way young people are seen and perceived in our culture.

For years, young people have been deemed “unreliable sources.” This, Themba says, has everything to do with questions about the kinds of expertise valued by the media, and by extension, our culture. “The most ‘reliable’ sources,” she points out, “are often the most removed–the people who are impartial, the academics, the students of the issue.” And this often elevates a certain sector of the population and excludes those without privilege or centuries of power behind them. When we create media, we look to those who have the most information–but, she says, we must ask, what kind of information? Youth media forces the question: Is there value in the information youth are gathering through living their lives, however simple it may appear?

Perhaps the belief that those who are the most directly affected have the most to say is, in the end, a radical one. But Themba believes, we have to make space for it as a basic matter of democracy. Consider the way in which technologies like digital video editing and the Internet have made changes to the currency of self-expression. Video diaries and webpages are now a very common way for youth to speak to one another and to take fearless, often imperfect steps toward actively responding to the world around them. But does all this self-expression add to the critical discourse on corporate media, or is it just about deconstructing the lyrics to the latest rap song?

In the pages of youth newspapers like Youth Outlook (YO!) (www.pacificnews.org/yo/), it would be a mistake not to make space for both of these types of discussions. The editors of YO! believe that helping “build youth voice” should be a goal in and of itself. A project of the Pacific News Service, YO! is a newsmagazine that has been reaching young people in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1991, and its popularity is a good example of the way youth are attracted to story telling and writing that they perceive is produced, directed, and driven by their peers.

The adults involved with YO! stay as far out of the way as possible. Co-editors Kevin Weston and Cowy Kim believe that youth with the tools and skills to speak to one another have a lot to gain from excluding adults from the loop. All media serves as a way to open people’s eyes, but Weston believes that it is a bad idea to shape youth media based on the hope that adults will one day stop and take notice. “Youth can’t afford to wait for that,” he says. “They have to take it upon themselves to advocate for each other.”

Twilight Greenaway is the editor of WireTap magazine (www.wiretapmag.org), an online news source for socially conscious youth.

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