Sometimes when you’re an educator, you learn more than you teach. I had a summer like that.
Thanks to the University of Denver’s Center for Civic Engagement and Service Learning, my colleagues in the Graduate School of Social Work, along with me and some students from the Media, Film & Journalism Studies department and the Open Media Foundation, worked with junior high students on what was the first step in a year-long leadership development program. Ten students were selected because they have strong leadership potential. They’re part of the University’s Bridge Project, which offers academic tutoring and mentoring for young people in grades K-12. The Bridge Project is a partnership between the University of Denver and the Denver Housing Authority, as there are four Bridge sites located in four neighborhoods of publicly subsidized housing serving around 600+ young people each year.
There are a lot of youth media and arts programs around the country; one study suggests that there are probably about 700 of them. Most are in urban areas, and while they vary in size, more than half operate on less than $100K a year, according to the only authoritative study I could find on the topic. In designing our summer project, borrowed a lot from existing efforts, like confronting different experiences of privilege and holding the space for young people to learn and develop media expertise, growing into leaders while we follow their lead. But there are a few things that may be unique about this particular project.
- It’s not a “one-off.”
- Those 10 students will work as peer leaders for the rest of the year with about 80 of their fellow junior highers. It’s part of a longer-term youth voice project, otherwise known as a Youth Participatory Action Research Project, that has involved junior highers for the past year in identifying what they’d like to change in their communities. This effort will involve them over the next year in creating plans for them to lead their peers as they work with policymakers to make their voices heard and to participate in the change they want to see in their communities.
- We’ll do another media project in a few months, moving the students from personal stories to stories focused on the changes they wish to see in their communities. In other words, they’ll be working on what’s been called Solutions Journalism.
- It’s intergenerational. The storytellers were all in junior high, and the mentors ranged in age from high school to middle age plus. Senior educator/mentors mentored and learned from more junior educator/mentors, while they in turn mentored and learned from high school, college, and junior high school students.
- It’s interdisciplinary. As a collaboration between a media program and a social work program, we learned from each other about the benefits of developing trusting relationships with youth and their caregivers as we all developed a more sophisticated sense of media representations, the ways that they are interpreted in relation to various publics, and the role of distribution systems like Facebook in getting such stories shared (or not).
I’m working on writing up the report for the summer, and would love to hear from others who have worked in similar settings as we figure out how to communicate what we’ve learned so far, and how we should think about this work moving forward!