Padres y Jovenes Unidos: Student Empowerment through Critical Media Literacy
Digital Media Club is an extracurricular digital media literacy effort that I started in 2011 with a staff person at one of Denver’s most ethnically and economically diverse urban high schools. The club brings university students and high school students together on a weekly basis in an effort to support the high school students as they seek to “use media to make a difference in their communities.” The club’s focus is rooted in ideas of critical digital media literacy as students both critically evaluate and create media (see, e..g., Hobbs, 2010; Kellner & Share, 2005; Livingstone, 2004; Thevenin, 2012; Turner, 2011). Throughout the school year, students are encouraged to think about what community they would like to change, what difference they would like to see, and how they might utilize media to bring about this change. The program’s design therefore draws upon concepts of political and civic education in that we recognize the need for relevant and deep knowledge about the roots of social problems, and encourage the students to think about “what is” and “what ought to be (see, e.g., Gordon, 2013; Levin, 2011).”
In our desire to foreground using media to create change, we’ve also had to address the “audience problem” of youth media in creative ways, because as Peter Levine (2008) has pointed out, youth media programs tend to focus on the production of student voice rather than on its reception (see also Soep, 2006, 2011). . This case study discusses how we helped students to experience empowerment as they thought not only about the audience for their particular media product, but also about how their media efforts fit with the larger efforts of a local grassroots organization; an organization that had long been working for better educational outcomes in economically challenged communities like theirs. By playing a role in that organization’s expansive reach, the students were contributing to expanding the audience for the organization’s efforts; thereby channeling their energies toward broader efforts that were already making a difference in the bigger community. In this way, this case study is an example of an alliance-oriented digital media literacy project—an exploration of what happens when digital media literacy is positioned at the core of civic education in an effort to push further the agenda that’s become known as “participatory politics,” or the effort to link student interests and digital media enthusiasm with political initiatives (Mihailidis, 2009; Mihaidilis & Thevenin, 2013). This experience has convinced me that partnering such programs with longstanding community activist groups is a way in which students can experience a more sustained approach to political engagement, and it’s therefore a model I’d like to see tested and developed further.
Our school/community partnership began when two of the students in Digital Media Club, Ezana and Karim, introduced the group to the work of Padres Y Jovenes Unidos (Parents & Youth United, or PJU), a group that started in Denver and that was engaged in a campaign that PJU called “End the School to Jail Track.” Their target was zero tolerance approaches to discipline that disproportionately affect students of color in schools across the United States. As part of the campaign, PJU produced a report demonstrating that police involvement in high school discipline had resulted in an increase in school suspensions; showed that there was a link between increased suspensions and higher high school dropout rates, which in turn related to higher rates of incarceration. PJU wanted to turn this around by limiting police presence in schools and by offering support for more effective in-school disciplinary policies so that vulnerable populations would stay in school and out of jail. With funding to implement pilot projects they developed alternatives to the “zero tolerance” approach. They established several restorative justice programs in urban high schools that encouraged students to assume responsibility for repairing the damages that they caused. PJU regularly held rallies to increase support for their efforts statewide.
The students’ work in creating a story of “what ought to be” and circulating it among their communities helped them see themselves as communicators who were part of an effort to address injustices in their community—an effort that had begun before them, and that would continue long after after their own direct involvement ends.
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