Media in Action: A Field Scan of Media & Youth Organizing in the United States

“Media — finding your voice and determining how to tell your own story — is the first essential step in your own liberation,” said Kim McGill, an organizer with the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition. Back in 2003, Kim and some 60 other people who had been jailed, imprisoned or deported got together to build a youth, family and prisoner-led movement to end juvenile detention.

“All of us had been through the system as young people,” Kim said. “Los Angeles county was locking up more young people than anywhere else in the world. People told stories of lock-up, and coming home.”

Youth Justice Coalition is one of an estimated dozens of groups in the US that use popular education and other methods of critical inquiry to support young people from marginalized communities to become activists, conduct participatory action research, and make media in the form of videos, written reports, and radio pieces. Their goal is not only to publicize their findings, but also to reframe ideas at the level of community dialogue and in the mass-media. Ultimately, they aim to organize and inspire audiences and youth producers to take political action.

“When we first formed, there were almost no organizations where formerly incarcerated people were speaking for ourselves,” Kim said. “It was always professional advocates with graduate degrees and lawyers speaking for us. We found that in order to move policy, we needed to create our own reports. Now we speak for ourselves and make our own demands. Creating alternative media has meant a lot to people’s sense of independence.”

Youth Justice Coalition has collected stories on video and created written reports to share with community members, elected officials and law enforcement. Youth Justice Coalition members have improved conditions at juvenile detention centers, reduced the county’s use of imprisonment for youth, and challenged “war on gangs” policing policies targeting low-income youth of color. While Los Angeles’ police department was touted as a “model” for reform in the era following the Rodney King beating, young people working with Youth Justice Coalition published the county’s first report to name all victims of police killings since the year 2000.

Other youth and their allies around the country were also discovering the potential of youth-led media projects to build political organizing skills and incite action on issues that were being ignored by adults and mainstream media. In New York City’s historically queer-friendly West Village, young LGBTQ people working with the Manhattan-based youth organization, FIERCE!, used video to document the loss they felt when they were forced by new, gentrifying residents to stop meeting at the Christopher Street Pier, a longstanding destination point for queer youth who had nowhere else to go.

In rural Kentucky in 2001, in response to a growing local crisis at the time, young people made a short video documentary, “Because of Oxycontin,” to expose the dangerous side effects of the prescription painkiller that they saw ripping apart their community.

“Students are on the ground and know what’s going on,” said Ben Spangler, who worked with the young film producers at the Appalachian Media Institute in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “They tackled this issue before anyone else was talking about it. After they produced the documentary, they sent it to senators and representatives in the state. Soon after, it began being discussed, and they ended up putting regulations on the drug.”