Making Media to Make a Better World

This post originally appeared on A Platform for Good and has been reprinted with permission by the editor of A Platform for Good and author Tony Streit. Tony has more than 20 years of expertise in media education, technology, and informal STEM learning. Through YouthLearn and other initiatives, he helps educators harness 21st-century tools and use project-based learning within and outside classrooms to promote hands-on, student-centered learning that engages, motivates, and inspires youth. For the past 7 years, he has worked with the Adobe Foundation on Adobe Youth Voices, their signature philanthropic effort to help young people tell their stories through media. In this post, he reflects on his work promoting youth media making and offers "tried and true tips to help youth media projects shine."  

Twenty-two years ago this past summer, I took a freelance job that would change my career and life forever. As a twenty-something filmmaker living in Chicago in the 80’s, you didn't have the liberty to turn down work, and when asked if I could teach a bunch of alternative high school students on the west side of the city to produce a documentary about their lives, I reluctantly agreed despite having never taught before. It was the same year that the ground-breaking civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize aired for the first time, and one episode chronicled the summer that Dr. Martin Luther King lived in Chicago just a few short blocks from the school where I was teaching. Simply walking my students over to the empty lot where Dr. King’s building once stood launched a media investigation into what had happened in their neighborhood over 30 some years and just what legacy was left for them. Their film would air on our local PBS station and receive an Emmy nomination, and I would continue to teach there for the next five years.

That summer I learned more about media making and the power of storytelling than in all my years of academic study, and from that point on I became dedicated to learn about and advocate for youth media making in all forms. I learned that young people in this city and everywhere have amazing stories to tell, and that the simplest of media making tools, the right encouragement, and the freedom to speak from one’s heart is all it takes to inspire. Inspired by the young people I had the fortune to work with, I went on to help found Street-Level Youth Media, an organization dedicated to “educate Chicago’s urban youth in media arts and emerging technologies for use in self-expression, communication, and social change.” There I witnessed that the opportunities for youth media making are boundless — web publishing, installation art, audio production, and graphic design. The bottom line was working to give young people a voice in our communities and inclusion in what is now a global information-based society.

For the last seven years, it has been my great privilege to work with Adobe Foundation on Adobe Youth Voices, their signature philanthropic effort to help young people tell their stories through media — perhaps the most significant contribution to the practice of youth media in its thirty-plus year history. Together we’ve built a comprehensive training strategy to bring youth media to any educator anywhere in the world. I never would have imagined when I started working with young people all those years ago that we would have a community of 15,000 educators from 100 countries all dedicated to facilitating creative self-expression through media.

Despite the wealth of technological tools and the ability to stream content around the world, many of the basic tenants of youth media making have remained the same since the days of tube cameras and videotape. If you are just starting out, here are some tried and true tips to help youth media projects shine:

  • Have young people watch and critique lots of media, especially by other young people. Most first time media-makers like to imitate things they’re familiar with. Spoofs and blooper reels can be fun but they’re not likely to engage a broad audience. The Adobe Youth Voices gallery is a great place to start when trying to come up with an original idea.
  • Push young people to try to make something about the things they really care about. I’ve found that there’s a big difference between what a young person likes and what they care about. They may like a particular performing artist today, but they’ll likely always care about their family, community or an issue that concerns them. A line we used to use at Street-Level to get young people thinking differently about media making is, “you can make anything you’d like as long as it is something only you could make.”
  • Get involved and help them work it out. Many educators are reluctant to start a youth media project with young people because they in fact know less about making media than the youth they’re working with. Better to see that dynamic as an asset – but know when to step in and give shape and boundaries to a project. A three-minute video is more likely to get completed than a 30-minute piece, and experimental projects are actually much easier to pull off than traditional narratives. Help young people figure out what’s really doable with the resources and time they have available.
  • Think about the audience before you start. It is natural for a media maker to want to post their work online to sites like YouTube in hopes of getting millions of hits. But, that may not really be the best way to get your point across. If you are trying to inspire your neighbors to think differently about an issue, maybe you want to go door-to-door with DVDs or screen the work at the local grocery. There’s no limit on the creative ways to exhibit works and often the most compelling experiences for young people are when youth artists and their audience are face-to-face talking about the issues they care about.
  • Get someone to review a rough draft of the work before it is done. It is amazing how this simple step, so much a part of the professional production world, gets overlooked in youth media projects. Young people can be nervous about getting negative feedback, but if facilitated properly, respectful critique from peers can be the best way to catch mistakes and really make a work effective.
  • If posting online, follow standard safety practices. Groups like FOSI and others have been doing a great job to help educators, parents, and young people understand how to stay safe online. Not everything needs to be shared with the world and as media makers we need to always be thinking about the rights and safety of those identities we capture in any way. And don’t forget copyright issues as well. A young person’s favorite music or image might be fun to play with, but can’t be posted online without permission, which is often very hard to get. Why not be original and create new content.

Besides the wonderful projects young people will make, weaving media into teaching and learning will ultimately change for the better the relationship between you and the young people you serve. That alone is a reason to celebrate the power of new technologies.