Youth Make Media for Community Change

At the Media Empowerment Student Summit, held in Pittsburgh last weekend, teens learned to be media creators and critical consumers—and how to use media to change the world around them.

Bullying, prejudice, and identity: They’re touchy topics, but the Hear Me project has plenty of experience tackling them with grace. The project, an initiative of the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, helps young people share their stories, opinions, and experiences through media. Last Saturday, the organization brought teens, artists, activists, and other community members together for the Media Empowerment Student Summit (MESS), which took place at Carnegie Mellon.

“The goal of the summit was really to try to bring youth who are interested in media leadership advocacy into one space for at least one day—to connect them to each other, and connect them to adults, resources, and allies,” said Jessica Pachuta, Hear Me project codirector.

Pachuta emphasized that although Hear Me was the summit’s main organizer, MESS wasn’t the “Hear Me summit,” per se—it was a community-wide event. Partners included the Environmental Charter School, the University of Pittsburgh, the Youth Media Advocacy Project, Teens 4 Change, Duquesne University, and others.

Hear Me has plenty of experience bringing community members together to listen to kids. In one campaign, Hear Me recorded kids and teens talking about their perceptions of police officers and featured their stories in “tin can” kiosks around Pittsburgh. When Mayor Bill Peduto began searching for his next police chief, the first community voices he heard came from seven of those campaign participants, who met with him for a roundtable. In other projects, young people recorded messages to incarcerated parents, talked about school climate, and expressed their thoughts on food security. The recordings are available on the Hear Me website.

The summit gave teens the chance to learn about the ins and outs of launching media-based projects. Much of the summit focused on helping participants build practical skills. Hear Me tapped nonprofits, experts, and young people in the region to organize various sessions on making media. The day kicked off with an audio workshop led by the Saturday Light Brigade, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that tells the stories of young people and families through radio and audio. Additional workshops taught attendees about making animations and using social media, and a panel of professional filmmakers wrapped up the summit.

But the summit had an additional goal: helping young people discuss the kinds of topics they might use media to address. At workshops, teens discussed stereotyping, race, and youth rights in the education system.

Pachuta said media is the number one tool young people turn to when they’re thinking about becoming advocates. A study by the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics found that 41 percent of young people had engaged in “participatory politics” in the 12 months before they’d been surveyed. Teens are participating by joining online political groups, sharing blog posts about political issues, and sending political videos to their peers.

“Anyone who cares about democracy needs to pay attention to this important dimension of politics for young people,” said Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at Mills College and one of the study’s authors. “Participatory politics spread information, mobilize individuals to act, and provide many ways for youth to voice their perspectives.”

When teens gain the ability to voice their views through media, they don’t just learn about animation and videography. They gain a sense of agency—a sense that they can use their experiences to make a real impact in their communities. “It’s so important for them to be participating in [media] creation instead of just consuming it,” Pachuta said. The more effectively they’re able to leverage it, the more powerful their advocacy becomes.

Published November 11, 2014