Technicity Times
    Issue 3• June 2003

Innovative Program Teaches Skills and Inspires Activism

YouthTech: A technology and media empowerment program at TecsChange

By Aram Falsafi and Betsy Rueda Gynn

Imagine a summer or after-school program for high school students where participants learn technical skills and realize that they have the power to change society at the same time. Where they learn to view commercial media with a critical eye and develop the skills to produce their own media using new media technology. Where they become active producers versus passive consumers of the media they are exposed to on a daily basis. That is the goal of YouthTech: An Institute on Technology & Media, an initiative for teens at TecsChange.


YouthTech: An Institute on Technology & Media


In December 2000, TecsChange initiated planning for a pilot program for young people that blended our mission - to provide technology to individuals and organizations working for social change locally and abroad - with technical training for high school age youth. The program emphasizes social awareness and citizenship building, using media literacy and technical training as tools to get there.


Since those first planning sessions, we've developed YouthTech: An Institute on Technology & Media. As the program has evolved, we've refined its three-point nexus: the combination of high-end technical training, with media literacy and "media presence". The aim is that young people develop media acumen and use the Internet, print and other outlets to disseminate media they've made that speak to issues critical to them and their communities.


A key component is the enrollment of teens involved with local community organizations and youth groups. In addition to strengthening our collaboration with others in our community, it extends the results of the program well beyond the summer. Working with youth engaged in their communities heightens their own technical and media skills, and brings knowledge back to their groups adding greatly to the human and technical infrastructure of the grassroots organizations they are involved with.


Last summer we enrolled twelve teens from two youth-based organizations in Boston: Teens Against Gang Violence and Teen Empowerment. These young people were already articulating their perspectives on social justice and other issues critical to them and their communities: violence in the home, in the street, and around the world; music's positive and negative effects on young people; stereotyping; racism; war; poverty; media portrayals of young people; and more. What they got from YouthTech were the skills to create media that spoke to these issues, and avenues to disseminate their work.

Peer critique and editorial sessions are a foundation of YouthTech. Here, students present a webzine-in-progress they have created to speak about issues important to them and their community. After peers constructively critiqued content and design, students agreed upon refinements to their finished webzine, Boston Street Beats. (Photo by Mark Forscher)

YouthTech now includes substantially more technical training on multimedia applications than the pilot program did. The young participants last summer learned graphics and web design applications to add effects to images they scanned and downloaded. From the images, they created issue-oriented, socially conscious digital 'ads', and linked them to larger websites they authored. They also collectively initiated a youth webzine, Boston Street Beats, which focused on social and civic issues they were involved with, as well as local news and events listings.
Finally, media literacy workshops and field trips are integral to the program and cover a range of topics. The focus is on independent media, and better yet, independent media produced by young people. The young participants learn how to get their media seen and heard via independent outlets.


Last summer, the Independent Media Center of Boston (part of the large and growing Independent Media Center movement which hosts www.indymedia.org, a news website free of corporate sponsorship and advertisements), presented a workshop on the why's, what's and how's of independent or 'alternative' media. They screened some of their own video footage of a recent news story and then showed a major network's coverage of the same event. The stark contrast engaged a lively discussion, and the young participants understood immediately the variety of 'interpretations' that are made, depending on who is covering the story. IMC-Boston also provided the students with a hands-on demonstration of how to publish news stories to the IMC-Boston site.

YouthTech teens dissect mainstream media images and gain media literacy. Technical training helps them create media -- using web, desktop, audio and video applications -- on issues critical to their lives and communities. They also and learn to disseminate their work via independent media outlets. (photo by Mark Forscher)


What's Up, a bi-monthly magazine published by a youth collective in Boston, presented a workshop on independent print media. They talked about why they publish this socially conscious arts/youth/music/culture magazine, how at-risk and homeless youth distribute it, and how their collective works to involve young people in writing, researching, technical production, editorial sessions, and more.


Starting the Pilot Program Focused on Youth and Social Change


Three years ago, TecsChange's then-Executive Director Mimi Jones led the initial planning process for the summer pilot program. It took several months over that winter. . She and the planners directed the program's social change component toward the content (the message being transmitted) versus what had been our focus for years: the conduit (the hardware and wires), and the focus was on examining electronic media, since it is highly influential in shaping today's youth.
Mimi ran the pilot during the summer of 2001 with a local activist and media consultant and three summer interns. Its first young participants analyzed the media, produced their own community-based newsletter [1], and added pages to existing websites highlighting issues they analyzed in the media: youth-based advertising, gender roles, stereotyping, and more.


The program started with a medium that they are familiar and comfortable with: videos and television. The group watched and discussed several documentary films that helped deconstruct the role of the mass media in shaping the public's (and especially young people's) behavior, images of themselves, and worldview. Killing us Softly addressed the notion of female "beauty" as promoted by the entertainment and cosmetics industries, and its effect on the self-image of young girls. Merchants of Cool investigated the tactics that advertisers use to "hunt down" and lure youth into becoming bigger consumers. Finally Pack of Lies and Making a Killing exposed the role of tobacco advertising, especially to young people. As a result, the students then participated in a petition drive being done by a corporate accountability group. The students roamed the streets and public transit stations to obtain petition signatures for the removal of the Marlboro Man. This was just one of the many ways media awareness was transformed into media activism. From this, we taught technical skills so that the participants could write about what they experienced. They published their newsletter MediaWise that summer.


The financial cost was high for TecsChange, an organization used to working on a shoestring budget with lots of volunteer sweat, this program was run without substantial seed money. But the investment was worthwhile, the program meaningful and effective. The organization learned valuable lessons about implementing a program that blends aspects of technology, media and social change. More importantly, the pilot demonstrated that it is possible to offer a rich, rewarding program that teaches its students valuable skills while inspiring them to activism and social change.

 

Value Neutral Technology?


Some believe that technology itself is value-neutral. It can be used to control and monitor, and it can be used to liberate and empower. It can also be used to promote more consumption.
In the end, though, what kind of technology research is funded, and what products it results in are a function of who controls the funds - sometimes directly, sometimes via control of government institutions. During the 1990's, we heard a lot of predictions about the empowering potential of the Internet. According to the pundits, the so-called "information superhighway" was going to liberate us all, enabling everything from on-line town meetings to distance education. The utopian predictions of the early 1990's ignored a fundamental characteristic of the Internet - its eventual ownership structure.


As syndicated columnist Norman Solomon pointed out in his insightful essay about media coverage of the Internet and its potential [2], the 1990s started with a lot of stories about the Internet as a source of learning and communication, only to end with the same media outlets singing its praises as a shopping mall. Solomon notes that at the peak of the hype, in 1995, "major newspapers in the United States and abroad referred to the 'information superhighway' in 4,562 stories. Meanwhile, during the entire year, articles mentioned 'e-commerce' or 'electronic commerce' only 915 times." By 1999, the information superhighway received 842 mentions, while electronic commerce received 20,641.


Perhaps most interesting is the author's opinion of the role of the mainstream media in this transformation. "The drastic shift in media coverage mirrors the strip-malling of the Web by investors with deep pockets and neon sensibilities. But mainstream news outlets have been prescriptive as well as descriptive ... Many of the same mega-firms that dominate magazine racks and airwaves are now dominating the Web with extensively promoted sites."


Of course, for those who seek information and communication, the Internet is still a wonderful resource. However, the first challenge is to convince the general public, bombarded with consumerist messages, that there is more to the Internet than online shopping. How do you convince a fourteen-year-old who may not even remember the "information superhighway" that there is more to the Internet than download music, chat rooms, games, and stores? TecsChange and our YouthTech program seek to address that question [3].

References
[1] Media Wise, Volume 1, Issue 1, August 23, 2001, the summer newsletter of the technical and media empowerment program at TecsChange.
[2] Norman Solomon, "What Happened to the Information Superhighway?" January 6, 2000, syndicated on the web at http://www.fair.org/media-beat/000106.html
[3] For more information about TecsChange visit us at http://www.tecschange.org


Aram Falsafi is an electrical engineer, long-time TecsChange volunteer, and a member of its steering committee and Board. Betsy Rueda Gynn is the Program Director of TecsChange. They can be reached at www.tecschange.org or at 617.442.4456.

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