The challenge of youth media

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How can youth media production promote civic and political understanding and activism? A review and an interview with Steve Goodman.

 

There’s been a fair amount of debate recently about the civic dimensions of media, and of media literacy. Claims about the liberating or empowering potential of digital media date back to the origins of the internet, but they resurfaced quite strongly in the 2000s with the emergence of ‘Web 2.0’. Some enthusiasts argued that social media would promote political debate, participation and activism, and ultimately lead to a revival in democracy. Others who looked more closely at the evidence – including Shaku Banaji and myself – were somewhat more sceptical. In the late 2010s – in the world of Trump and Brexit, with violent nationalism and fundamentalism running rampant, and political debate increasingly polarized and confrontational – this seems like a distant dream. In this context, some have argued that media educators need to take a more interventionist approach: Paul Mihailidis, for example, has proposed that we should move beyond media criticism, and seek to promote what he calls ‘civic intentionality’.

However, the use of the term ‘civic’ raises some problems. It’s well-intentioned, but it can be rather vacuous and ill-defined. People who argue for young people to be trained in civic participation often seem to imagine rather worthy, conventional activities, like youth parliaments, mock elections and debating societies. This approach seems to imply a kind of consensual politics-as-usual rather than a view of politics as necessarily and inevitably to do with conflict. It’s a kind of conformism. As Shaku Banaji argues, this approach regards distrust and dissatisfaction, however legitimate, as well as group anger, cynicism and unsanctioned protest, as forms of bad behaviour, which conflict with proper ‘civic’ action. Likewise, as Ioanna Noula has recently suggested, bland ideas of ‘digital citizenship’ seem to ignore the positive functions of dissent – and provide another means for digital media companies to massage their public image.

CoverIn this context, Steve Goodman’s new book It’s Not About Grit: Trauma, Inequity and the Power of Transformative Teaching is particularly worth reading. What we have here is not some anodyne call for civic responsibility, but a powerful sense of the political dimensions of media education. The book emerges from Goodman’s lifetime of work as founder and director of the Educational Video Centre (EVC) in New York City – one of the longest-established and most successful youth media projects in the world. EVC has always worked with the most disadvantaged and marginalized young people in the city, both in schools and in more informal neighbourhood settings. Its primary focus has been on enabling young people to create documentaries about the social issues and injustices that impact on their everyday lives. The book comes with a selection of video clips from these productions, which can be seen (along with transcripts) on the publisher’s website. There is also a massive archive of such material available from EVC itself. On one level, this is an extraordinary resource for social history; but for educators, EVC’s work is also an inspiring model of good practice.

Figure_3.2It’s Not About Grit describes an inter-connected spiral of problems that afflict these young people: poor housing, health problems, drugs and violence, the trauma of migration and family separation, racism, sexism and homophobia. These multiple forms of disadvantage typically lead to – and are in turn exacerbated by – educational under-achievement. Indeed, in many ways the state education and welfare system is part of the problem, rather than the solution: prejudice on the part of the police and the criminal justice system, of welfare and immigration agencies, and of some school boards, administrators and teachers, often reinforce the multiple forms of inequity and trauma in these young people’s lives. While the book provides wider evidence and research to set these experiences in context, the videos contain powerful and moving first-hand narratives. It’s important to recall that these are the lives of young people in one of the wealthiest countries in the ‘developed’ world; but they are a million miles away from those of the well-behaved young citizens imagined in most accounts of ‘digital citizenship’.

Figure_1.7Goodman’s title takes a justified swipe at currently fashionable attempts to address these problems. ‘Grit’ is a popular notion among educators in the US, which overlaps to some extent with the British concept of ‘character education’. These ideas offer recipes for overcoming disadvantage that are fundamentally individualistic: they imagine that kids will transcend difficult circumstances if they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. As Goodman argues, ‘they paper over the macro-level structural inequalities that produce the trauma in the first place’. Developing resilience and self-esteem is important, but young people also need to research and understand the political and economic forces that have created these conditions. EVC’s work provides very concrete examples of how media education can achieve this, and how it can enable young people to challenge the authorities that have power over their lives.

Figure_4.1As you read the book, the narrative becomes fairly relentless, and it’s hard to avoid a growing feeling of despair. Goodman’s epigraph refers to Gramsci’s famous aphorism, but personally I found that pessimism of the intellect was winning out over optimism of the will. Even so, there is hope and possibility here too: the book does offer specific, practical proposals for what teachers and school administrators can do, both inside and beyond the classroom. This isn’t just a matter of ‘compassionate listening’ and challenging stereotypes: it’s also about providing targeted resources, facilities and support. Curiously, It’s Not About Grit doesn’t say much about the video-making process that is at the heart of EVC’s practice. The focus here is more on the products themselves, and on how they might be used – and there are some useful resources to help with this on the website. For fuller accounts of how this work is actually carried out, and what it might teach young people about the media more generally, readers should seek out Goodman’s previous book, Teaching Youth Media.

This book describes a very specific kind of youth media practice, carried out in a very specific context. This is undoubtedly its strength. Even so, there are questions about how far this approach might transfer to other contexts; and about how the emphasis on documentary sits alongside other forms of youth media production. Behind this are broader concerns about the politics and funding of youth media work, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. These were some of the issues I raised in an e-mail interview with Steve: his responses are typically clear, thoughtful and committed.

 

Interview with Steve Goodman

Historically, much of the funding for the kind of work you’re describing is premised on the notion that these are young people ‘at risk’. What would you see as the problems with this? How do you think you can escape it?

Yes, historically funders have framed the students I’ve worked with as being “at risk”. How we think about and describe our students, or any group of people really, has broader implications for education and youth policy. Funding in the US for “at risk” youth flowed from a prevention and deficit model. Like the “grit” character-building theories now, it identified the individual student as the problem with a deficit that needed to be corrected. Labeling those students as “at risk” – of dropping out, of becoming pregnant, of becoming drug addicted, of becoming incarcerated, etc. – puts an identity of failure on them. While these students are certainly struggling in school and at home with a range of problems, myself and others have argued that we need to shift our thinking in at least two ways. First, we need to adopt a “strengths based” view of youth, acknowledging that although they may have experienced failure in school, that failure does not define them. They still have intelligence, talent, dignity and a sense of agency. Second, we need to develop a systemic understanding that locates our students’ struggles in school within the context of oppressive systems that impact their daily lives – such as the school system, the housing system, or the health care system.

So we can challenge those “at risk” labels with alternative terms that point to the structural roots of the problem. For example, some use the term “pushouts” rather than “dropouts” to call attention to the overcrowded, poorly funded schools, with zero-tolerance discipline policies. These conditions contribute to the metaphor of the school-to-prison pipeline that describes the interconnected systems of education, child welfare, and juvenile justice that disproportionately fail low-income students of color, pushing them out of school and into juvenile detention institutions.

 

By contrast, in the UK, most of the rhetoric about youth media work is to do with (a) ‘creativity’ and (b) vocational training for employment in the media industries. Are those kinds of arguments relevant in your context? Are they arguments you might want (or be able) to use?

Placing students in professional internships and jobs with editing and production companies has always been a strand of our work at EVC. Over the last three decades, EVC graduates have gone on to work in nearly all the major television and film companies in New York. And there is now growing interest among funders and youth media programs in the US to move youth along what they call “talent pipelines” and “career pathways” for work in the media industries. They are also promoting media “badging” credentials to be recognized by employers in place of university accreditation. Film and television support for mentoring, internships and training initiatives particularly serving girls and youth of color has been more prominent recently – especially since the #OscarsSoWhite movement has publicized the great need for a more diverse workforce in the media industries.

So yes, these are relevant arguments to be made and important outcomes for our students. But vocational training does not get to the heart of our educational philosophy or practice. Teaching students to be curious, to question, research, tell stories, and speak out about the world around them does.
The young people you describe are experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage and oppression, and they are living in very difficult circumstances. How do you think the approaches you discuss might apply in other contexts – for example, with much more privileged young people? Or with young people who want to put across messages that maybe you wouldn’t agree with?

I have found from teaching in more affluent school districts that the student-centered and inquiry-based principles and practices that I write about are still effective, regardless of the students’ socio-economic status. Students are always engaged when they get to choose the subjects for their projects, ask their own questions, tell their story and present it for public audiences in school and in the community. We’ve also used this approach with youth in a range of international production workshops including in London, Belfast, Bangalore, and Soweto. In a sense, our approach with them remains the same. We meet all students where they are, building on their strengths and doing our best to address their needs.

But the flow of the workshop does look different depending on who the students are. Since more privileged students tend to have more developed literacy skills, a stronger sense of entitlement, and higher standardized test scores, less time would likely be spent helping these students develop their research and writing skills, and stay on track to graduate. But more time would be spent developing their understanding of difference, helping them to create media that didn’t objectify less advantaged people, but rendered their stories with respect and empathy. These “teachable moments” might tend to occur when the group travels to a different school or city, or a more impoverished part of town, or when they interview people of a different race, ethnicity or religion or who may not be native English speakers in the school or community. Time then would need to be spent addressing students’ attitudes of implicit bias and stereotypes and their representation in the media. These are usually hard, but essential, conversations to have.

I can address the question of students conveying messages that I, or their teachers don’t agree with as two different kinds of cases. The first, which are the most rare, are clear-cut racist, sexist, or homophobic messages. In those cases we talk with the individual student(s) and larger group restating our underlying values of equity, inclusion and social justice that guide our teaching, learning and production, and say that hate speech expressed in any form is not tolerated. The second is more about differing personal values or politics. So for example, while some students may believe in reproductive rights and their teachers may privately hold this belief as well, another student may express their conviction that abortion is morally wrong. So, all perspectives on the debate will be represented in the video. Again, in all cases it’s important to have the conversations, and create safe spaces for the students to have them.

Throughout your career, you’ve kept a pretty single-minded focus on documentary. I’m not aware that you’ve ever got young people making fictional dramas, for example, or music videos – even though these are forms that most young people are probably more familiar with. Can you explain why you’ve chosen to work so exclusively in documentary?

Well, actually students also produce a range of works including music videos, public service announcements, claymation, skits, and short narrative pieces in EVC’s school-based “professional development” programs. These are usually short projects where teachers are coached to integrate student media production in their classes and afterschool clubs.

But you’re right that the student projects created in EVC’s signature program, the intensive afterschool Youth Documentary Workshops, have all been documentaries. And although we understand them as works of non-fiction, I also think of them as works of art. In telling their stories, the students always add in plenty of what we might call “creative” elements including hand drawn animation, re-enactments of experiences, acting out of dreams and nightmares, narrating video diaries and poems, and composing, performing and editing original music and spoken word.

The design of the program grows out of my own formative experiences learning, producing and screening documentaries as part of community empowerment efforts in the late 1970’s – the early days when community and cable access was taking hold in the United States, when we had high hopes for its potential to democratize communication.

It’s remained a central focus for me and my work at EVC for a number of reasons related to pedagogy and social action. Teaching students to create documentaries, at least the way we’ve developed it, means engaging them in collaborative, open-ended social inquiries. It’s a complex process of exploration and self-expression that taps into students’ existing knowledge, while pushing them to leave their comfort zone, take risks and investigate uncharted territories. I think teaching documentary is important precisely because it’s a form they are not very familiar with and it’s a learning experience that students rarely, if ever have in their schools.

First, they are asked to think about what problems or issues matter most to them, and what questions they have that they want to investigate. EVC gives them a curricular framework of critical literacy and media production skills that guides the process, but the students determine the subject. The documentary form gives them multiple opportunities to pursue their inquiry through dialogues with a range of people from school and the community – often people with whom students might have otherwise never spoken. It conveys the idea that while the teacher is the most experienced person in the class, they are not the only valid source of information. Knowledge is distributed. So-called “average” people including the students, their family members and community, can be valuable sources of stories worth listening to and knowledge worth learning about, regardless of their class, race, nationality, accent, or educational status.

Dialogue and learning continues even after the end of production when the students screen and lead discussions of their final documentary with their fellow students and intergenerational public audiences. The students’ finished documentary is not only a reflection of what they have learned, but also what they want to say, and teach others about.

As I’ve written, engaging students in documentary production is not only an effective process for teaching and learning but also for inspiring social action. It allows young people to shine a light on problems of injustice that they and others in their community may experience, and connects them to those who are working to improve conditions. A camera, an instructor and a film crew gives them a kind of passport to travel to various neighborhoods in the city, and admission into offices of power they would not ordinarily have. It shifts relations of power so that the youth are the ones posing questions to authorities such as a head of school, a police officer, or a public housing administrator. The completed documentary (or edited clips from it) is often a valuable resource for student and community advocacy groups, and also brings youth perspectives to government hearings where policy is debated. Finally, I think the archive of EVC student documentaries is a rich historical record, giving us a window into the social conditions, culture, and voices of New York City youth from over the past three decades. That’s why they play such a central role in my book, and why I’ve included links to access them online.

When you started youth media work, making videos was a very rare and exciting opportunity for most young people. These days, almost all of them have video cameras (on smartphones) in their pockets. How has this changed things? What does your way of working offer them that they can’t get elsewhere? 

Yes, when we started, video cameras and all the recording and editing equipment that went with them was much too expensive (and cumbersome) for most people to have. New York City schools were badly underfunded and offered students few arts or media production programs. So providing students with access and training on this technology was an important service.

Now young people all have cameras in their pockets, as you say, and most schools have laptops or tablets for their students to use. Students are more fluent in the language of media production, and of course social media, and are generally quick to pick up the technical aspects of shooting and editing. But even though we’re all drowning in technology, in some ways, the fundamental challenges remain the same.

While students tend to know more of the technical skills, developing their creative and critical thinking skills takes more guidance and practice to learn. Students know how to communicate with images on Instagram, texts, and videos. But they still need help learning to master the art of the interview, to analyze still and moving images, to construct an edit plan with a compelling story arc or build a well-reasoned argument. They know how to use Google for research, but particularly now in the era of “fake news” they need guidance finding what sources are credible and how to weigh, analyze and interpret the evidence they find. They have their own opinions about the various media they consume (and it’s important we adults respect them!), but students need structure and practice in giving and receiving detailed constructive criticism, and being self reflective about their own creative process.

Then there are the thorny questions students need to consider of how to be fair, respectful, and ethical as media makers in the claims they make and the ways they represent people and their communities. There are no easy answers here. But I think we educators have a key role to play in continuing to have these conversations with our students. Just as we need to teach them to make their voices heard through a range of media, we also need to keep cultivating their critical habits of seeing and questioning the media they produce and the media they consume all around them – no matter how many smart phones they may have in their pockets or tablets in their classroom.

 

For more information, you can follow this links in this post, or contact Steve directly at: sgoodman@evc.org.