YRM Summer Institute and Ideas

Interns from Youth Rights Media participating in team-building exercises

When I first heard that Youth Rights Media would have 28 teenagers participating in our summer institute program, my reaction was similar to the rest of the staff: “What. Wait, what?” 28 is a big number! But after the first week I have to say it’s going very well.

Youth Rights Media, as I’ve said before, is an non-profit organization that runs an after-school program for youth in New Haven to learn community organizing, media literacy and production skills. It was created with the intention of empowering youth to better understand their rights and raise awareness on those issues, specifically in encounters with police. In the past few years the youth in the program have produced documentaries on gun violence, the “school to prison pipeline,”  and youth jobs, as well as a host of other issues relevant to their community.

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Media Literacy: All things to all men

I recently got the opportunity to co-teach a class for this semester on Media Literacy with Youth Rights Media, a non-profit in New Haven, CT. I have to admit I didn’t fully understand their mission for a while; as I understood it, it was an after-school program designed to teach kids media production and civic advocacy. It goes a bit beyond that, but all the ideas flow very nicely together. Here’s one of their projects (they usually produce one documentary each year).

Youth Rights Media was founded in 2000 by a pair of Yale law students and an American studies student, who were looking for a way to educated teens on their rights for encounters with the police. You see, New Haven has a rather ugly history of racial profiling,  and minority teens faced the problems of

[Connecticut’s] spending on incarceration, the racial disproportionately in its juvenile and criminal justice system, and the percentage of youth incarcerated in adult facilities.

Over time, they’ve addressed other issues, all while teaching how to analyze, encourage and facilitate these discussions in the community. So, YRM is about empowerment, providing young people with the understanding and ability to express issues which affect them directly, especially when they’re used to not having a say. Media literacy is major part of this; public discourse and “common knowledge” is shaped by media products in a technologically mediated society. These products are the work of enterprising corporations and (occasionally) public-interest groups, all of which have various agendas, which sometimes satisfy the revenue driven interests of said corporations (think the NRA and it’s ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council).

Media studies and media literacy are complementary topics – literacy is a basic skill which is bolstered by further study. To digest and produce messages, we have to have an understanding of the medium. There are numerous working definitions for media literacy. The Center for Media Literacy has one which emphasizes the educational aspects:

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

I think I’ve mentioned NAMLE‘s definition before, it’s a little more rigorous:

– Media refers to all electronic or digital means and print or artistic visuals used to transmit messages.
– Literacy is the ability to encode and decode symbols and to synthesize and analyze messages.
–  Media literacy is the ability to encode and decode the symbols transmitted via media and the ability to synthesize, analyze and produce mediated messages.
–  Media education is the study of media, including ‘hands on’ experiences and media production.
–  Media literacy education is the educational field dedicated to teaching the skills associated with media literacy.

Media literacy as a grade-school curriculum or even a discipline is far less popular in the US than it is in other English-speaking countries, an irony only highlighted when you realize the US media industry has the largest reach (with an incredibly homogenous concentration of ownership) and that other countries began their media literacy programs as a way to combat that foreign influence. In fact, it raises the curious question of why? Especially in a country where the media industry comprises “20,620 companies generating $95.4 billion in revenues in 2010” in film and music alone, notwithstanding the journalism, publishing, communications, advertising, and public relations industries, all multi-billion dollar industries in their own right.

Ultimately, media literacy provides necessary critical thinking skills to help youth and other citizens become more engaged audiences who can more skillfully mediate the impact of messages, the intentions of a producer, and the agenda of any cultural elite, who have always had those resources on hand for whatever aims they desire. It also alerts youth and citizens to their abilities in engaging new media and production tools to promote personal, community, and civic goals to potential audiences. I believe training others in media literacy is about as altruistic as you can get, because it’s one of the most useful and relevant forms of education for today.

My own classes at The New School start up again tomorrow, I’m especially excited that I’ll be taking Nitin Sawhney‘s Civic Media & Tactile Design course, which deals with participatory culture and DIY media in the interests of social change, much in line with the ideas behind YRM.


Kubey, R. “Obstacles to the Development of Media Education in the United States.” Journal of Communication 48, no. 1 (1998): 58–69.

New Year, New Interests

I’ve always felt that New Year’s celebrations were a little silly – a mark on an arbitrary calendar has about as much meaning as we want it to have. Nothing really has changed, yet like so many other social phenomenon, when enough people have decided it’s important, it’s difficult not to be moved by that energy alone. The real significance is the passing of the seasons, as the days have begun to get longer and not shorter. I can say I’m really happy about that.

How I've been spending my winter break - catching up on reading something other than papers

When your life is inexorably tied to university, then the big deal is the winter break and the change of semesters. I’m looking forward to some of the work this spring; a methodologies coures (so I can finally realize how to research things better), digital media theory and a “civic media and tactile design” course which is really all about “DIY media” and participatory culture. I’m also looking forward to getting involved more with Youth Rights Media, a New Haven non-profit which equips teenagers with media literacy and production skills to address the social issues that are important to them. It’s really exciting stuff, and I’ve followed them for about a year and a half now.

While we’re on that, I recently overheard an NPR discussion on YRM and another group out of Toronto called “The Remix Project.” Their goals seem similar, but the Canadian organization has a different scheme which is slightly troubling to me. Gavin Sheppard describes it as an “arts and cultural incubator” for underprivlidged youth, but Through the discussion he references the need to for “making money, making change” and how their work attracted corporations who realized they “have the year of our demographic focus groups” as he put it. One of the ventures they established is Blackboard Marketing, a “boutique lifestyle services agency” which “connects corporates with the millennial market in a more authentic way.” Most of the staff comes out of the program and is hired from the areas and communities serviced by The Remix Project, and the work they do included marketing and event coordinating for BMW Cooper Mini 50th anniversary, as well as online  and social media marketing for Mark Ecko watches, through Timex. Most importantly, it’s a way for those companies to find out “what is cool” in an effective and direct means, by letting the youth do their marketing for them.

If you’ve ever seen Frontline’s “The Persuaders” piece, this should be ringing a lot of alarm bells. If not, it’s certainly worth a watch, if you want to know in what way major brands and corporations use market research and any means possible to discover the essence of “coolness” and how to attach business strategies to trends. It seems like a fundamentally inauthentic and exploitive practice – instead of teaching kids how to analyze and interpret social and corporate media and marketing campaigns, giving them those critical skills which are sorely lacking in our society, they are turning them straight over and incorporating them into the culture industry.  If anything it’s certainly less than altruistic. And the directors would probably freely admit that, saying it’s important to give youth job opportunities. I’d agree, but it’s still ironic that youth media projects would funnel their students into the very machine that produces and encourages said economic inequalities and structures.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long about that. I’m also interested in book sculptures now – how old media has been repurposed to create these art projects, and what it represents. I haven’t read anything about this, although it’s been going on for a few years, and I don’t think it’s extremely popular yet. There are at least several artists out there doing this, and I even found a “how to” book. And I’m wondering what it would be like to travel and do research – I’d love to do some interview-style qualitative research and maybe make a podcast out of it. It’d be fun, though possibly not academically rigorous. Which is why I’m glad for the methodologies class coming up.

Also, it may be gauche to mention this, but it’s been interesting to see the functionality of an iPhone up close – my wife and I recently got our first smartphones ever, and it really is more of a mobile computer than a telephone (since I hardly talk to people on the phone!). Really illustrates the capabilities of “citizen journalism” and diy media which I had only really read/speculated about before. I know, I’m years behind the rest of you.