Program Teaches Skills and Inspires Activism
YouthTech: A technology
and media empowerment program at TecsChange
By Aram Falsafi and Betsy Rueda
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
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
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
, and added pages to existing websites highlighting issues they
analyzed in the media: youth-based advertising, gender roles, stereotyping,
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
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
As syndicated columnist Norman Solomon pointed out in his insightful
essay about media coverage of the Internet and its potential ,
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 .
 Media Wise, Volume 1, Issue 1, August 23, 2001, the summer newsletter
of the technical and media empowerment program at TecsChange.
 Norman Solomon, "What Happened to the Information Superhighway?"
January 6, 2000, syndicated on the web at http://www.fair.org/media-beat/000106.html
 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.