It’s Alright Ma, It’s Life, and Life Only

At 12 I was happy my parents’ volatile marriage had ended and initially wanted to do everything I could to help my mother, who was unemployed and didn’t have a high school degree. I emptied a small savings account to pay her divorce lawyer retainer and brought home a school bus driving hiring flyer – a job she still holds today at 63. But deciding what bills to pay versus groceries to buy eventually became overwhelming. I would cower away in the back of her rundown ’89 Mazda van when she would walk into church food pantries. I pushed for her to get a GED and was heartbroken when work got in the way of her continuing education at the local community college. I was a naive teenager who wanted her to try harder against circumstances.

In high school I thought becoming the president of everything, scoring in the 95th percentile on tests and holding down a lucrative tutoring job could hide my family’s poverty and instability. I foolishly thought going to the best undergraduate journalism program might somehow reverse my family’s circumstances and the damage that came from my mother taking her fear out on me. Instead, I discovered a different, unexpected strength and resiliency in the practice of journalism. By telling stories of Zimbabwean orphans in South Africa, women’s water rights in northeastern India, restorative justice in Chicago and many others I began to better understand systemic oppression. I turned this critical lens inward to reflect on how my family is caught in cycles of poverty and abuse. I became empowered to overcome these circumstances – I can pay my bills, have health insurance and eat. I cannot currently say the same for my mother and siblings. My continued struggle to support them and sustain myself directly influences my work.

I’ve used the above experiences to create hyperlocal digital news programs that contextualize learning and build on students’ cultural capital within schools or community spaces in Chicago since 2011. The youth and communities I work with are predominately on Chicago’s south and west sides and have largely experienced complex trauma, “exposure to multiple traumatic events. . . [with] wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure.” The adverse childhood experiences, such as “emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect, and growing up in a household where someone was an alcoholic, a drug user, mentally ill, suicidal, where the mother was treated violently, or where a household member had been imprisoned during the patient’s childhood” and community trauma, largely a product of institutionalized racism, these youth have grown up with can lead to early deaths. I believe that creating a collaborative learning environment that is rooted in journalistic training has reinforced resiliency factors in these young people and allowed them to make healthier decisions given circumstances. Pursuing a PhD in New Media and Technology and building on USC’s community partnerships in South Central LA will help me more intentionally document and measure outcomes of digital civic media making in communities of complex trauma. This is the next step in ensuring the model can be more influential and effectively replicated.

The work I’ve been doing as a full-time program coordinator at Free Spirit Media (FSM) and part-time teaching artist at Young Chicago Authors (YCA) is already influencing how other educators and non-profits frame and implement new media practices around digital civics and solutions journalism across Chicago. The greatest example is Real Chi Youth (RCY), a program I’ve built and sustained for the past two years. At RCY and any other program, I am a collaborative editor and strategist who sets the basic production standards and identifies opportunities for youth to take more ownership through remixing mainstream media or troubleshooting mobile tools. Crucial to my role is fostering a safe space that embodies the higher rungs of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, where youth agency and efficacy equals mine. Spaces for individuals like my student Sidney to identify and value her experiences of racism, classism and sexism as a 17-year-old black woman. I’ve watched Sidney pursue stories on the juvenile to adult prison pipeline, as well as mental health concerns of Chicago trans youth with increasing confidence. More importantly, she’s strengthened her own critical consciousness. Self-identified as a shy girl, Sidney has taken to public speaking, most recently amongst a panel of professional journalists about Chicago school closing media coverage. “It’s not the parents or the students who have failed, it’s the system… Closing schools sends the message that we should just give up,” she said, highlighting RCY’s discussion of root causes within our solutions journalism framework. Even in e-mail she’s expressed, “nothing can stop us,” which has become something of a mantra we exchange as she faces familial struggles and the daily drain of commuting two hours to school.

Sidney, the dozens of other youth reporters and I are building upon University of California San Diego Communication Professor Angela Booker’s “hybrid space” concept where “rich learning happens . . . between formal curriculum and informal projects.”There is rich learning happening in our newsroom as Booker had identified when her college students conducted oral history interviews with senior citizens, but I would argue the impact is greater, more empowering because of our hyper localized model. I would like to build on Booker’s work because I believe the intimacy and immediacy of these issues allows for a more tangible discussion around internalized oppression, as well as greater local impact. RCY has grown into a space where youth and I are getting asked to deliver workshops for the School of the Art Institute Chicago and Chicago Ideas Week, as well as consult on the Illinois Humanities Council’s digital media events. But when the reporter hat comes off, they go home to more intimately face those very same socioeconomic issues. For students I work with and for myself at their age, having these kinds of programs are critical to finding personal stability despite unstable homes. This is why I always stress to youth that their experiences are a relevant part of our particular type of media making when they are creating news pitches. We are intentionally echoing Paolo Friere’s rejection of the banking approach to education where participants are passive and push to re-humanize learning — where knowledge is gained through taking action and non-dominant ways of speaking are valued.In addition to using our identities and media-imposed stereotypes to inform our solutions journalism story ideas, we also heavily document process and create opportunities for personal reflection.

These RCY students take on a dutiful assertiveness as reporters that they carry with them into new spaces and interviews. In this space, they circumvent adultist, racist traditions that prevent them from being at the decisionmakers’ table. What’s more they epitomize University of Chicago Professor Political Science and Black Youth Project Founder Cathy Cohen’s participatory political process, where influence and voice is sought through non-formal processes for disenfranchised people to amplify voice and exert influence while also presenting a tangible answer to her study’s concern that “proponents of participatory politics, including youth themselves, will fail to focus on the distinction between voice and influence.” I can expand their research at USC by creating a tangible project like RCY in a Los Angeles neighborhood that is similarly under-resourced as where I’ve worked in Chicago. This program would respond to Cohen’s findings, hyper localize Booker’s study, draw connections to positive health impacts defined by ACES and generate a framework for schools or community-based spaces that operate in racially segregated areas.

I believe that this kind of work can help non-profits and schools that work in similarly underresourced communities implement digital learning that better meets their specific socioeconomic conditions — something often not directly addressed in emerging learning networks like Chicago’s Hive Learning Network. I would like to take bring my deep understanding of connected learning pathways and complex trauma amongst Chicago youth to USC to more comprehensively understand the distinctions of creating a safe space in community-based versus school environments. I want to bring my research and ideas to USC because I believe my findings can add to key conversations around race, class, development and digital learning. I was drawn to this program because of Henry Jenkins, whom I met at the 2014 Digital Media Learning Conference, — I had been following his work at MIT and wholeheartedly believe in his hybrid academic-practical approach. I’ve already begun to expand my work into shareable tools — I conducted research and created a new media and emerging technology report for FSM from 2013–2014 and am now creating a teaching artist’s best practice toolkit and video series for Young Chicago Authors. After meeting with Francois Bar, visiting the Innovation Lab in June and witnessing the build up to opening Wallis Annenberg Hall, I am even more certain that this program is the right learning environment to grow my ideas. I’ve helped build something in Chicago with young people that I am incredibly proud of — but to sustain this work and make it shareable, obtaining a PhD is necessary. I want the work we’ve created to be integrated in high school’s and learning spaces Chicagowide.

As someone who challenges students to go regularly beyond their comfort zone to further their knowledge and showcase their critical thinking prowess, it’s time I do the same.