Dancing with the interns: An exploration of how youth build community
By Michelle Alimoradi, SPNN Visibility Coordinator & 2012 Youth Intern Program Co-Coordinator
"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community,
and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can"
-George Bernard Shaw
The thing that has always appealed to me about youth media is not so much the fact that it encourages democracy or helps close the digital divide or even that it fosters creativity in our upcoming generations. Don't get me wrong, all of those things are wonderful, but if those things were what was most important to me, I would be a politician or a computer programmer or a high school art teacher.
Rather, there is a human phenomena that occurs when you mix youth and media-its a catalyst for a certain kind of joy that acts like a truth serum. The curiosity of young people can work like magic on a crowd, a random person on the street, or even a stubborn executive that doesn't normally accept calls from strangers, especially when they're making media. Most adults are intrigued by what young people think about, even more importantly, most people want to know what young people think about them. You just don't get the same kind of response from people or enrichment for the youth with any other kind of training program.
The first time I ever really thought about it was during a conversation with a fellow youth worker in the Twin Cities. After we had established that many of the youth we work with do not move on to become media professionals and therefore may never use the technical skills we teach them in their adult lives, we were trying to pin down why these digital media programs still matter to the youth who participate in them. She said what she enjoys most about the youth video programs she coordinates is how they serve as a backstage pass for the youth, that they are afforded opportunities while gathering footage for their videos that other youth probably won’t ever have. She told a story about how a group of her students got to go inside the new Twins stadium before it was finished and open to the public, because someone with the Twins agreed to do an interview. As an adult there is an extremely rewarding feeling that comes over you when you know that a young person thinks what you do is so cool that there should be a video about it. It makes people open up in ways that they normally wouldn't.
Her response inspired me. 'That's totally it!,' I thought, that mysterious power that is created when you send a young person out onto the streets of their community with a camera and microphone. Most people already love to tell others about what they do and what they care about. Add that to the fact that hardly anyone can ignore the pure sincerity of a young person's intrigue, and you have a very powerful force for community voice. All of sudden, the dynamic of adult and youth is shifted. The camera exaggerates that captivating quality that young people have-they are like sponges waiting to soak up any knowledge spewing their way- and that quality helps these youth in particular experience a level of empowerment that most people don't achieve until they are much further established in their careers.
I experienced this phenomena for the first time for myself this summer when I took on the job of co-coordinating our summer Youth Intern Program here at SPNN. I was given the task of organizing a tradition we started last year of collaborating with the Community Productions department to have our interns shoot a live event out in the community. Being the theater geek that I am, my mind immediately drifted toward the idea of taping a performing arts event for downtown St Paul’s foremost performing arts institution, Ordway Center.
Now for those of you who have experience in broadcast media, you know that trying to bring a camera to a theater event can quickly become a legal and logistical nightmare. We were trying to bring five cameras, a large production van, and a 20 person crew. But rather than let my skepticism get the best of me, I went for it. The good news is, the Ordway went for it too. They agreed to let us tape an installment of their summer dance series featuring live swing dance instruction followed by a live band performance.
Then, the day of the event finally arrived. We had decided that this year, rather than just having only passive camera footage of the event, we were going to send a crew of four youth around with a handheld camera to interview members of the crowd. Given my past field reporting experience, I was tasked with supervising this crew. So again, my skepticism began to build. I prepared myself for answers like, ‘you’re not going to use this footage for anything right?,’ or ‘no thank you, I don’t want to be on TV,’ or ‘I’ll do the interview, but can you blur out my face?’ I also thought about how I was going to build up my crew’s self confidence after each time they got turned down by someone. But yet again, I was delighted to find that only one person out of all the people we approached did not want to be interviewed. The dance instructors and the band even agreed to be on camera. One member of the band even offered up an intimate solo performance for the camera on his bass. There was so much joy being spread around that night, I’ve really never experienced anything like it.
The best part of it all of it was the reckless abandon that each of the youth showed as they pursued conversations with the crowd. Unlike me, past encounters with rejection weren’t a factor, heck, even not knowing what to say to these complete strangers wasn’t a factor. They were so eager to find new people to interview, sometimes they wouldn’t even know what they were going to ask, but most people were willing to wait while they gathered their thoughts.
That night finally solidified for me a realization I have been trying to arrive at for the past three years that I’ve worked with youth. The kids will be alright. It’s the adults that are the delicate ones. Youth programs, particularly youth media programs, can be a strong driving force for community building and social change. Not only because the youth will use the skills they learn as adults, but also because the media they create will show how youth bring out the best in adults. When our adults are at their best so many future generations will benefit.
I can’t wait to see what they will teach me next.
The Youth Intern Program is an intensive summer paid intern program for St. Paul high school students entering 9th though 12th grades. Interns work with mentors and with each other for seven weeks during the summer to make meaningful media about community issues. This program provides interns with hands-on media production experience. The 2012 Youth Intern Program and Community Productions collaborative shoot at Ordway Summer Dance will air on SPNN channels this fall.