by Jason Wyman
Jason Wyman is the Senior Producer of The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture’s Youth Media Initiative
from left to right: Chazorae Bell, Jason Wyman, Izza Anwar, Fa’aolatoto Griffin. Photographed by the Asian Art Museum.
Balance. I’ve never really been all that good at it. As a child, I would take a running leap off the public dock, curl myself up, and land cannonball-style into Lake Minnetonka at the first hint of spring. It was the way I knew how to confront its frigid temperature and get what I wanted: a swim in its fresh water.
The cold shock always made me catch my breath. My lungs in response quickened their rhythm. I’d emerge panting and shivering. If I fought the cold, I would have to expend all my energy just trying to breathe and swim quickly to shore. If I surrendered, I could calm my breath and go for a proper swim. It was either retreat or surrender.
Balance wasn’t to be found in its icy depths.
I worked for a youth media program that facilitated an intergenerational queer media making camp over the course of eight weeks. By the end of camp, there were four to five films created and edited by teams of youth and elders working together. These films were then screened as part of an international LGBTQIA film festival, which always sold out. It was thrilling for the participants to see their films, in all their messiness and glory, on the big screen.
As the manager of the program, I was tasked with balancing the needs of the youth and elders, the teaching artists, and the film festival. This was a herculean feat, one that we were never really successful in balancing.
I remember one particular class session where one of the participants who was poor came in frazzled and disheveled. She hadn’t eaten in days because all of her assistance was used to pay rent for her room at an SRO. The participants stopped the class and addressed her needs. Before the day was over, there was a plan to go grocery shopping that afternoon and a commitment to bring in groceries for her through all of the remaining classes.
This small interruption lead to delays in production. And yet without meeting her basic need of food there was no way we would have been able to keep her in our community.
Post class, I facilitated a meeting with the teaching artists. All were worried about meeting the “high quality” expectations of the festival and the time it took to get to that kind of product. We brainstormed strategies for bypassing certain activities or truncating production shoots. We had to either retreat from our goal or surrender to the reality of all of us pulling additional weight, which wasn’t budgeted for. We surrendered because we believed in the program, and we wanted it to be seen by the festival as worthy of continuation for another decade.
Our surrender didn’t really matter, though, the festival cut the program because they ultimately wanted “higher quality” movies screening at their festival.
At the end of 2018, I started articulating a set of Youth Media Emerging Practices that were identified by The Alliance members and member organizations through a series of Video Roundtables over 2018 co-hosted with Gemikia Henderson from RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, CA. These practices highlight the complexity of what youth media practitioners do within their classrooms, programs, organizations, and communities.
A recurring theme from the Emerging Practices Roundtables was around the act of becoming and belonging, otherness and selfhood. Youth media practitioners help young people discover who they are and provide supports and opportunities for them to present who they are to the world. In the context of youth media training, that often includes revealing raw and vulnerable aspects of personal or familial history.
Within this process, a balance is sought between cultivating brave space for creative risk taking and developing workforce ready skills all while creating art and media that often is expected to be screened or shared with others. It is a balance that seems Sisyphean: you finally get the balance just right only to have it come crashing down one side of the mountain when a funder dictates a certain topic be explored, a presenting partner asks only for the “best” youth media, or life comes crashing down around the vulnerable populations youth media programs often serve.
Within this process, a balance is sought between cultivating brave space for creative risk taking and developing workforce ready skills all while creating art and media that often is expected to be screened or shared with others.
The tension between these very distinctive approaches and expectations of youth media leads me to new questions: Is balance even possible or a goal? How can we center youth media on who young folks are right now (and not the assumptions adults have of them)? What role can we as adults play in being their champions in spaces where they are not? When do we retreat from funding and opportunities that take us away from centering youth? When do we surrender because a funding source or an opportunity moves us towards economic sustainability (or maybe even liberation)?
I met Kafi-Ayanna Allah through Facebook, and she is the Community Librarian at the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Her position spans both adult and teen services, and trying to find a balance between the two different audiences can be challenging. She is passionate about making sure that libraries are places where folks who have historically been left out of the library feel included and welcome. To this aim, Kafi set up a Teen Advisory Board that helps inform the development of the Teen Center at her small, rural public library outside of Durham.
There was no mandate for Kafi to set up the Teen Advisory Board. Instead, she recognized the need for teens to see themselves represented within the library system. She was also aware that teens have multiple and competing priorities and just setting up a club for teens at the library wouldn’t attract the kinds of interactions she wants. So she structured the Teen Advisory Board to play a significant role in guiding and facilitating Teen Center programming and identifying policies and partnerships that encourage more teen participation. Since its inception, teens have helped carve out physical space for their peers within the library, hosted poetry and zine contests, and written and drawn submissions for The Issue #2.
Balancing her duties, though, can be fleeting for a lone librarian in rural North Carolina in charge of both adult and youth programming. And figuring out exactly what to do with the Teen Advisory Board can be daunting. Kafi was eager to find a network of support.
Orange County Public Library was one of our institutional partners for the production of The Issue #2, published October 2018. As part of their commitment, Kafi — along with partners at Open Signal (Portland, OR), Austin Film Society (Austin, TX), and Free Spirit Media / The Real Chi (Chicago, IL) — participated in a series of four video calls. During the video calls, we opened and closed in circle, providing a space for folks to call themselves, whoever they are in that moment, into the virtual space. It is a way to help move beyond our roles within our organizations and be more present with one another.
At first, this process was awkward. People are more comfortable being representatives of their organization or identity, so folks would share their titles or their affiliation first and then maybe get a little deeper or more personal. But over the course of those four video calls, all of the participants started revealing more and more about who they are. Two folks shared stories about being camp counselors for a summer camp for youth survivors of sexual abuse. Through sharing that piece of themselves, we started unearthing practices for how to cultivate safety and reevaluate success within classrooms that had yet to be discussed. Another shared a story of being a mom, needing to be there for family, and how that is their guiding star for decision-making. We even had a moment where we dreamed together.
By the end of our calls, we had a tight knit group of youth media practitioners from four different states that knew more about each other than just their titles or affiliations. They got glimpses of the complexities of identities and representation. One participant even remarked that they found such ease and joy in the video calls that even though there was a sense of possibly becoming overwhelmed by the whole process they never once felt out of balance; they even found ways to integrate what they learned into their staff support structure.
What I learned through facilitating the video calls and helping co-produce The Issue #2, was that we are always trying to balance who we are with what we do, and that is the exact same thing we ask of our young folks in youth media programs.
The Alliance Youth Media Programs in 2019 provide a structure that tries to balance both the individual and the collective. We do this by providing a space that allows our members opportunities to show up in whatever ways work for them while simultaneously working towards a larger vision. In facilitating this space, we model how youth media practitioners create these spaces for young people. We are creating a feedback loop that helps deepen the work of youth media: discovering who we are while building skills and collaboratively working towards larger goals.
…we are always trying to balance who we are with what we do, and that is the exact same thing we ask of our young folks in youth media programs.
This kind of work requires a culture of reflection, iterative design, layered accountability, and vision. In 2019, our Youth Media Programs cultivate this culture through a brand new National Youth Media Fellowship and three new Advisory Groups. The Youth Media Fellowship brings together four fellows from different geographies (urban, suburban, and rural) and diverse cultural (i.e. indigenous, first generation, multiracial) backgrounds. As part of the program, Fellows work with Advisory Group members (both youth and adults) to achieve our collective goals and receive support in furthering their own personal, professional, and creative goals. This combination of both the collective and the personal mirrors the work done within youth media programs, creates a formal process to continually refine end goals, helps ensure accountability to both organizations and individuals, and boldly models a vision for intergenerational, cross-territorial, multicultural co-creation.
It is a big task to balance. And I am sure we will both retreat from our initial goals and surrender to the this chaotic process at different times. Through it all, we show up. Again and again we show up. We embrace the possibility of balance even when it may not exist.
For me, 2019 is off to a rough start. I cannot find my balance and it feels like I am swimming in the ice cold waters of Lake Minnetonka during the polar vortex. I am unsure of a lot of things right now, and I am both retreating from commitments that do not sustain me and surrendering to support from friends and family. It is liberating to not need to fix or control this right now. I’m just showing up where I can and letting it be.
(And maybe that is exactly what balance is.)