I was brought into this world by a woman who falls victim on the daily to a cycle of circumstance fueled by abuse inflicted upon her (from the direct sexual, mental and physical to being on the periphery of others’ substance abuse), while being marred by financial instability. Her agency diminishes evermore as she ages with a body that is revolting against her. And I’ve bitterly accused my mother (with the tone of someone who’s never stepped foot in food pantries for the holidays—to grocery shop, not volunteer—despite having regularly) of not trying hard enough to pull up bootstraps she wasn’t given in the first place (before she dropped out of high school she fought hard for females to wear pants, so I guess boots and skirts weren’t couture then). But she’s my queen of England, so if someone outside our Hart Tribe criticized her they gonna get shanked (I am Sicilian, after all).
And all of this is to say she is innately nearsighted when it comes to problem solving.
So when, in 2011, a Princeton economist discovered that “Poverty may reduce free will”—I was like, “no shit.”
The above, and my continued struggle to unpack my upbringing/familial relationships, shapes how I approach teaching youth who are currently in the throws of a similar, if not worse, socioeconomic upbringing that is further complicated (read—open to a whole other set of institutionalized discrimination) by race. These experiences of circumstance, usually not of choice, are why I advocate for them as journalists. They have the ability to more accurately depict Chicago’s peculiar beauty—a both frustratingly contradictory and earnestly resilient kind.
But the reality is I’m asking these youth to simultaneously function as outsiders while they are very much insiders on issues of education, juvenile justice, health, etc. (not usually in a statistically pleasant sense) in Chicago. The reality is they’re first to suffer the consequences of budget cuts, gun laws, etc. but last to break bread at the policymakers’ table (and when it happens, it feels more for show and less for efficacy.) In sum, I’m asking for a lot.
So, how do we/they/I balance it?
First, you (as an instructor and they as a crew) have to understand what is their experience/current relationship with media, mediamakers and policymakers, etc. Second, the crew identifies commonalities and agrees to the mission of their collective work (not necessarily political in agenda or overtly so, it’s THEIR choosing). Meanwhile they’re given a job description as journalists/storytellers—you interview private/public individuals, you travel around your city, you ASK QUESTIONS and you produce a piece of media. Third, they grow to understand the significance of statistics and their ability to give weight to the humanizing reporting they are doing (this is built upon them recognizing the access their experiences/identities gives them and how that is A TRUE VALUE. Anyone can Google and read reports, but not just anyone can plop down in the Austin neighborhood— on Chicago’s far Westside—and get a one-on-one with a 91-year-old community activist). Fourth, you let them go.
But when they come back to you, the post-production process is two-fold. They can trudge on dutifully making media because it is their job, hell, they can power through because that is what these youth are good at. As they’re full-speed ahead on a deadline you set just to see how they’d handle under pressure, you have to give them moments to step out of their profession and back into themselves. Recognize that sometimes they gravitate towards stories of suicide, broken homes, drug addiction, etc. because these topics hit close to home (directly or indirectly and this doesn’t make them broken—this is a Bell Hooks’ moment of repurposing unchosen wounds.Remember it is giving them insight to uplift a conversation on these topics that is MORE ACCURATE. They are wonderful).
Recognize—these are moments of catharsis.
So what do you do with these moments? How do you channel them?
Poetry is one idea. During a summer program I co-piloted youth were given the opportunity to produce individual artwork that was a reflection of their reporting, as well as their newsroom experiences (youth were meeting other youth from parts of the city they’d never been to.) Sometimes even snapshot Instagram photos of intimate interviews were helpful in understanding what just went down. Let them decide the medium. Let this cathartic moment also help them build skills. But to build strength within your crew—make them share it. Be it online, or presenting to their crew, or presenting during a final banquet.
It’s easy to forget ourselves in the stories of others. It’s easy to become desensitized as a journalist. It makes it easier to survive and make it out (I know). But remembering what it feels like to share yourself—that release is vital. It’s a vision test to make sure you haven’t lost sight of why you came here to begin with. Everybody’s gotta get their eyes checked (at some point).