Using Media to Listen to Youth

How one nonprofit in Pittsburgh is using digital media and mentorship to amplify youth voices and spark community change.

Ever heard the phrase, “Conversation is key?” Probably. As journalist and author Melinda Blau wrote for Shareable, “Conversation is the basic unit of human sharing.” This is especially resonant when it comes to engaging youth.

Thinking back to when I was a child, my most influential relationships were with those adults who would take the time to talk with me, find out my interests, and share stories or resources to help me explore them. This level of engaging with youth takes a certain amount of time and commitment, but turns out it’s well worth it. The stories that surface are ones that can surprise and enlighten—as the folks behind the Hear Me initiative, a nonprofit group in Pittsburgh, have found.

The program aims to make sure young people’s voices are included in public dialogue about how to improve their communities. Hear Me works with kids, from all ages and backgrounds, through schools, after-school programs, and community organizations. The goal of the program is to make kids feel heard on issues of “regional and global significance.” The four main topics they discuss are education, health and wellness, community, and environment. The program allows kids to voice their thoughts in a variety of mediums. They share their stories through writing, audio, video, and artwork. The program then blends these responses through “digital storytelling.” It should be noted that the site specifically states that they “don’t do cute,” meaning that they take kids’ thoughts seriously.

Hear Me organizers and participants then take the responses and share them with the world through their website, which has become an online library housing thousands of students’ stories.

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]It’s not just to collect kids’ stories but to get them out there and let kids know people want to hear what they have to say.[/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

“It’s not just to collect kids’ stories but to get them out there and let kids know people want to hear what they have to say,” Heide Waldbaum, Hear Me’s former director, told PopCity Media. “It’s giving the kids in our region the opportunity to voice things that are important to them in their lives, in their schools and in their communities so they have the opportunity to create positive change.”

The project started at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, a space designed to foster youth’s technological fluency. But the initiative has evolved to work on region-wide issue based campaigns that collect stories based on a specific theme and tied to a strategic action plan.

Their latest partnership is with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership to raise awareness about food insecurity and to increase participation in school breakfast programs. [/two_third_last]The program gathered student stories about food security and nutrition from kids around the region. The stories are collected online and shared through social media. The Southwestern PA Food Security Partnership is also sharing the stories with school administrators so they can use it to improve outreach and programming.

The organization’s website is an amazing collection of children’s aspirations and thoughts about the world around them. Now, anybody can read about how eight-year-old Kamir dreams of becoming a chemist, scientist, and a scholar, or how one teenager, Sophie, is coping with the drug abuse rampant in her community. It has even provided a space for nine-year-old Lyric to share endearing illustrations of breakfast foods with peers.

Young learners can visit the site, comment on Lyric’s drawing, for example, and then post their own. In fact, many of the titles reference other stories on the site, creating an ongoing conversation that crosses mediums.

Organizations with similar missions around the country, like Oakland’s Youth Radio and Chicago’s Free Spirit Media, also believe it’s crucial to provide young people a platform for participating in a larger dialogue about issues that affect their communities. Like Hear Me, these organizations also provide mentoring and crucial training in media literacy production that kids will use later on their lives.

The project changed its approach to include more mentoring after realizing that students needed adult support in order to make meaning out of their own stories, according to a great piece on the project at Slate this week. They noticed that students and educators “valued having us, or a third party who has legitimacy and skills to work with kids in the way that we do, visit and bring technology, programming, and ideas to them,” directors told Slate’s Lisa Guernsey.

As Digital Youth Network founder Nichole Pinkard pointed out in a recent interview, even media-savvy children still need development and coaching to create what Pinkard calls more “intentional” content.

“Seven years ago, you wouldn’t assume that someone could make a video on the internet,” she said. Pinkard explained that this once-intensive activity is now something youth can do anywhere and at any time with a smartphone or flip camera. “The challenge is that just because they can do these things with low-level tools, they might think they’re better than they are. A kid can create a video quickly on the phone but that doesn’t mean they’re editing or really creating a story structure around the video. You have to be able to help kids see that just because they can do something technically, it doesn’t necessarily mean they truly understood what they’re doing in any kind of intentional sense.”

This kind of purposeful storytelling is something that Hear Me hopes to foster, providing outreach and mentorship to help children make meaningful connections about their world and the way they describe it. You can help by sponsoring a “kiosk,” or by registering with the site in order to help a child you know to upload stories of his or her own.

Published October 09, 2013