I’ve been busy with, what is it, week three? of Youth Right’s Media’s Summer Institute, which has been going really well. Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to lead a workshop in research skills for a group of about twenty six youth. As anyone who’s worked with teenagers knows, the mere mention of the word “research” can cause one’s eyes to glaze over and induce a slumber so severe, you think they’d been doing relay races all day. But the following day, the interns presented a creative media project we had them do to showcase what they’d found out. I was genuinely surprised by the means by which they presented, as well as the depth of work they’d done. All of them used video projects, but they included different techniques found in other PSAs and advocacy shorts. There was an intuitive knowledge gained during the research by seeing other examples, and it translated very well to the youth emulating that type of product and presenting it to each other.
I’ve also been busy writing a working paper for the Berkman Center’s CFP on “Youth Movements for Social Change / Youth Organizations.” I just submitted my work earlier, which I’m proud of because it drew from my experience at YRM and synthesized it with some foundational and cutting edge work on the subject of media literacy and participatory politics. I’m referring to Henry Jenkins’s White Paper from 2006 and Cohen and Kahne’s recently released ᔥParticipatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action.
What really struck in researching and writing, was that youth who are most likely to engage in participatory politics are the same sort who are from underserved by public education and the least likely to develop strong critical thinking skills. What this means is that people who need to address problems in the community are those who are most ill-equipped to do so. This familiar pattern echoes traditionally high rates of illiteracy among the poor, or the way that whites used inequalities as a barrier to prevent African-Americans from voting.
On top of that, youth who are underprivileged can be used to being slighted, but not in ways that they’d be able to articulate or have the language to express. Growing up in a type of historically excluded group, as some term it, participatory politics can be a powerful way to advocate for prosocial changes. But when society denies them the skills they need to improve their condition, it becomes a way to maintain the status quo.