Natalia Smirnov, Barbara Ferman, and Nuala Cabral
Devalued because of their age, color and economic status, low-income minority youth have been excluded from the civic arena and its rich and varied concentration of resources (Levinson 2010; 2012). In response, many youth retreat, thereby reinforcing the cycle of systematic disenfranchisement (Smith 2013). The following case study of POPPYN (Presenting Our Perspective on Philly Youth News), a youth-produced TV News Show within the University Community Collaborative at Temple University, illustrates how a technology-enabled process intercepts this cycle of exclusion and retreat. By mobilizing youth cultural capital, institutional resources and channels (e.g. public access channel; university students, faculty and infrastructure; local youth leadership; and organizing groups) and the symbolic capital of the “news,” POPPYN facilitates mutually beneficial relationships between youth and local institutions, thereby producing a more civically inclusive public.
Root Causes of Civic Exclusion
“Publics do not exist apart from the discourse that addresses them” (Warner 2002, 54). In many U.S. cities, low-income youth of color are systematically excluded from the public sphere: not addressed as participants within it, they instead are treated as a problem to be addressed (Amundson et al 2005, Massaro and Mullaney 2011). Subjected to extreme income and race segregation, negatively biased media representation, and severe underemployment, urban youth lack access to the levers of power and institutional resources to effectively exert influence on issues that impact them (Levinson 2010, Levinson 2012, Ginright and James 2002).
In Philadelphia, where over one third of students don’t graduate from high school and the unemployment rate is double the national average (Pew 2013, Tsoi-A-Fatt, 2009), young people are depicted on local news as flash-mobbers, dropouts and criminals. This persistent framing leads to policies that further segregate youth from the public sphere, such as mass school closings, teen curfews, and laws that send juveniles to adult prisons (Hurdle 2013, Massaro & Mullaney 2011, Heitzeg 2009, Youth United for Change 2011).
Creating a civically inclusive public – defined as an interconnected system of local and global communities, institutions, and governments engaged in mutually beneficial and ongoing relationships – requires us to see young people and other marginalized groups as valuable participants in the system, not problems to be fixed by it. Institutions can foster civic inclusion by positioning excluded groups as legitimate members of the public, valuing their knowledge, providing them with tools and discourses to navigate the local culture and economy, and facilitating the circulation of resources and information needed for effective political action. Community journalism can be a catalyst in this process (Lowrey et al, 2008).
Started in 2010 by the University Community Collaborative at Temple University, POPPYN is a half-hour news-magazine show produced by a team of youth and young adults in Philadelphia. A play on the word “poppin” - which in youth vernacular means something that’s cool and happening - POPPYN is a news show for youth, by youth, about youth. The show fills a gap in the local media landscape, providing quality journalism about issues and initiatives that affect young people in Philadelphia.
POPPYN has produced episodes deconstructing topics such as school budget cuts, food access, the youth vote, arts entrepreneurship, immigrant rights, sexual health, and more.
The show supports youth to express their “voice” and to ensure that their message reaches an audience. POPPYN is distributed to over 350,000 viewers on the local public access channel, and screened in high school and college classrooms, in community spaces in Philadelphia, and is spread via social media outlets.
POPPYN Values Youth Perspectives and Contributions
A team of teens, college students and an adult coordinator create a 30-minute episode of POPPYN over the course of 10 weeks. Youth members of the POPPYN crew are positioned as experts, partners and professionals in all aspects of production (Chavez & Soep 2006). Their knowledge and skills are valued as labor (they get paid) and as cultural capital (they know how to make the show culturally relevant to other youth). Newcomers are apprenticed into journalism through immersion in authentic collaborative media making. They learn camera skills, interviewing and editing by studying previous episodes, taking on roles as reporters and videographers, shooting multiple takes, and receiving ongoing feedback from peers and program staff. Because POPPYN’s target audience is other teens and young adults in Philadelphia, youth crew members are seen as authorities on how to appeal to their own demographic. They drive the show’s aesthetic and decide which topics to cover. Adults and more experienced youth mentors make the final episodes look polished, maintaining a consistent brand and tone, and activate their own professional networks to connect the crew to local organizations and events related to the featured issue. The show’s style is a testament to this hybrid approach: colorful and full of youth cultural references, POPPYN prides itself on being sleek and high quality, balancing serious topics such as the school to prison pipeline,1 police brutality2 or sexual content3 with humor, music, dancing and playful expression.4
POPPYN Mobilizes Local, Grassroots and Social Media Channels
Full episodes are screened every Thursday at 4;30pm on Philadelphia’s Public Access Channel (PhillyCAM). The local broadcast goes out to over 350,000 households in the city and suburbs. Precise audience metrics for the news show are unavailable, but anecdotally, the team has heard “I saw you on TV!” from neighbors, friends, classmates and even inmates who are part of Temple University’s Inside Out prison education program. These viewership reports suggest that the show has broad appeal and a sizable organic reach. Full episodes and shorter segments are also uploaded to YouTube, and promoted through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To cultivate a youth audience, POPPYN mobilizes the producers’ personal networks, some of which include over a thousand followers. Teens tweet out segments and updates from their own accounts, and POPPYN re-posts them to its larger organizational base. Using topical and timely hashtags (e.g. #homelessness, #philly, #p2) and mentions of people and organizations featured in the show, POPPYN’s social media channels position youth media makers within local and global conversations concerning social issues and institutions.
In addition to TV and social media, POPPYN uses grassroots distribution techniques, organizing local screenings at community centers and parks, and in high school classrooms and college courses.
The screenings enable youth producers to engage in direct dialogue with their target audience. Producers value these opportunities to get feedback, both to learn what people like and how the show can be improved. Often, the first thing audience members want to know is how they can be involved with POPPYN and learn production skills themselves. Others are grateful to find out about community resources they did not know, such as programs for LGBTQ teens or free training in music, poetry or sports. For teachers and college professors, POPPYN’s episodes are useful pedagogical tools that make pressing social issues real and relatable. As one university professor commented after showing an episode of POPPYN to her criminal justice course: “It allowed my students to reflect on the actual lives of those affected by the topics we discuss, in this case it is the targets of mass incarceration, young black men. It added a humanistic depth to class discussion that you can’t get at though statistics or any amount of rational convincing that these issues are real and that they are politically actionable right now.”
POPPYN Produces Social Currency
Media is a powerful form of social and cultural currency, because, like money, it circulates. POPPYN is an example of how under certain conditions media production can enable young people to leverage their existing knowledge and skills to produce a form of currency that can be converted into other forms of personal and community-building capital.
POPPYN produces both a news show and “POPPYN fans” – people who actually and potentially watch the show. Each offers value to different stakeholders. POPPYN’s news coverage and audience provide visibility and validation for the work of organizations and individuals featured on the show. Teachers and college professors use the episodes as pedagogical tools to create dialogue about local issues. Youth viewers find out about important community resources, develop awareness and analysis of social issues, and learn that they can get media attention for being positive, informed and politically active. Finally, POPPYN helps its youth producers develop transferable skills and a portfolio of creative work that can help them build college or career prospects. Several of the youth producers are majoring in film and communications, and many have used their experience in POPPYN to find other paid video production work making music and promotional videos, or doing photography and graphic design. Using the skills and production process learned at POPPYN, four of the crew members started their own web show side project – a mystery thriller with dramatic acting and suspenseful plotlines. They used POPPYN’s lab to edit and release 5 webisodes, attracting thousands of views on YouTube. Another youth producer used POPPYN’s equipment to make a video about media representations of girls and women, recruiting her friends to narrate and act in it. She then screened the video at a rally for women’s rights that she organized at her school, creating a platform to assert her cause and launch her career as a feminist filmmaker.
POPPYN Creates Connections and Circulates Resources
When organizations collaborate to create and circulate media, they develop new relationships that facilitate the circulation of resources between communities, institutions and local youth. For example, when POPPYN created a segment about the National Liberty Museum’s youth program, the museum offered to host a screening of an episode in exchange. The crew uses Temple University’s equipment and spaces to make their episodes and several professors have shown these in their classes. Representatives from organizations featured in the show are invited to join the screenings, helping them reach a broader audience and facilitate community dialogue. At a screening of POPPYN’s episode #7 celebrating Philly’s Youth Producers, a youth performer networked and secured a gig MC-ing an event at another arts organization. These connections are dialogical, reciprocal, empowering and value adding for all parties. In the process of building and sustaining relationships between youth and the community, POPPYN creates a more connected, inclusive and representative public, one that recognizes and values the civic contributions and perspectives of youth.
Related POPPYN videos:
Amundson, Daniel R, Linda S Lichter, and S Robert Lichter. 2005. “What’s The Matter With Kids Today–Television Coverage of Adolescents in America.” Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Chávez, Vivian, and Elisabeth Soep. 2005. “Youth Radio and the Pedagogy of Collegiality.” Harvard Educational Review 75 (4): 409–34.
Ginwright, S., and T. James. 2002. “From Assets to Agents of Change: Social Justice, Organizing, and Youth Development.” New Directions for Youth Development (96): 27–46.
Heitzeg, Nancy A. 2009. “Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline.” In Forum on Public Policy Online. Vol. 2009. ERIC. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ870076.
Hurdle, Jon. 2013. “Philadelphia Officials Vote to Close 23 Schools.” The New York Times., March.
Levinson, M. 2010. “The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions.” Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth, 331–61.
Levinson, Meira. 2012. No Citizen Left behind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Lowrey, Wilson, Amanda Brozana, and Jenn B. Mackay. "Toward a measure of community journalism." Mass Communication and Society 11, no. 3 (2008): 275-299.
Massaro, Vanessa A., and Emma Gaalaas Mullaney. 2011. “The War on Teenage Terrorists: Philly’s ‘Flash Mob Riots’ and the Banality of Post-9/11 Securitization.” City 15 (5): 591–604.
Smith, Amanda Marie. 2013. “Youths’ Access to Public Space: An Application of Bernard’s Cycle of Juvenile Justice.” The Hilltop Review 6 (1): 4.
Warner, Michael. 2002. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14 (1): 49–90.