Harnessing the Power of Youth Voices

Students in their own words

Harnessing the Power of Youth Voices

Students in Keisha Green’s Youth Media, Storytelling, and Civic Engagement seminar combine their voices with media technology to engage their peers in activism.

Keisha Green speaking at an event

In the fall of 2018, Keisha Green taught a one-credit honors seminar that gave her the opportunity to pilot a new course based on her scholarly passion, the impact and possibilities of youth media. 

Green is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education's Secondary Teacher Education Program, working primarily with language arts candidates. In her research, she explores both teacher development and how educators can engage culturally sustaining pedagogies: “helping teachers acquire cultural competence and the ability to connect meaningfully with young people while enacting rigorous curriculum.”

Green’s fascination with youth media comes from her work investigating and documenting “what young people do outside of school to inform what we do inside school.” She looks at extracurricular organizations serving young people, particularly young people of color, where they often excel in ways they do not in the classroom. She considers why these spaces are successful in engaging youth, what learning and literacy development look like in these spaces, and how we can use that to rethink pedagogical strategies.

The course—entitled Youth Media, Storytelling, and Civic Engagement—was an opportunity for students to explore why youth media organizations matter and why is it important to amplify young voices. “We looked at the intersections of youth voice and activism and how that is an opportunity for youth civic engagement,” Green explains.

We looked at the intersections of youth voice and activism and how that is an opportunity for youth civic engagement.

Keisha Green

The students in the course came from a wide range of majors: engineering, biology, communication, journalism, and public health, among others. They studied the variety of youth media organizations—what kind of programs they’re producing and what kinds of technology and platforms they’re using—to get a grasp of the possibilities. They looked at how youth media gives young people a way to get involved in the public sphere, while also giving them, in Green’s words, “an opportunity to express themselves and navigate identity and their place in the world.” They also explored how youth media is an opportunity for participants to understand and be critical about the power dynamics in all communication, language, and culture.

Portrait of Assistant Professor Keisha Green

Because Green is a literacy scholar, she also used the opportunity to “demonstrate how young people are engaging in learning and literacy outside of schools in ways that sometimes are in contrast to the way that they are performing in school,” as she explains it. In the classroom, these kids are often framed as struggling and underperforming, whereas with alternative forms of literacy, they can express themselves and excel.

In order to begin developing their own media projects, the students in Green’s course engaged in conversations about what issue were important to them and to their peers on campus. They discussed the history of young people leading social movements, such as the civil rights and antiwar movements, and how that is continuing today in contemporary activism like Black Lives Matter and the gun control efforts of the Parkland teens. From there they explored how they could mirror what youth media organizations are doing—using their access to technology and media to raise awareness and engage in activism around the topics that concern them. 

Green was impressed with the projects the students created, describing them as thoughtful, and engaged, with the potential to spread widely and really have an impact, particularly on other college students.

Creative Guide to Sustainability Homepage

For their #NotYourAverageTreeHugger campaign, Madison Billingsley and Grace Buckner built the website, A Creative Guide To Sustainability, an effort to “make the UMass community more climate conscious by inspiring students to take action, change their daily habits, and encourage their friends to do the same.” It includes a guide to living more sustainably, links to campus resources, and inspiring student interviews.

Boys Will Be Webpage

Katherine Scott, Nikki Ready, and Caroline DeCoste created #BoysWillBe, a movement to “change the discussion around the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ and examine the nature of “locker room talk” in the era of #MeToo and other movements.” Their websites initiates discussion with students’ response to the phrase “Boys will be boys,” and encourages students to expand the conversation among their friends and communities.

Dorothy Vaughan slide from Women in STEM

With #SupportGirlsInSTEM, Rachel Gross encourages young girls to pursue STEM fields. She created a video, Women in STEM, to address the low numbers of women in STEM fields, counter stereotypes, and inspire girls in their STEM passions. “I want girls to see that they are not alone,” she writes, “and that they are immensely capable of doing whatever it is they want.”

#UMass Do More Campaign

#UMassDoMore, by Emily Bevacqua, Ciara Venter, Kara Wright, and Jenny Tamkin is a short documentary addressing sexual assault and harassment on campus. It presents UMass students expressing their perceptions of the issue and the way it’s handled on campus, facts on assault and harassment, and a call to action to the university and campus community. 

Drawn to the class because of her interest in activism, sophomore Katherine Scott calls it the most impactful she’s ever taken, both for the technical skills she built and the inspiration it provided. “I left with new passions and skills. The power of youth activism is often pushed aside, but I learned true change can be made—not just in D.C., but here in Amherst.”

I left with new passions and skills. The power of youth activism is often pushed aside, but I learned true change can be made—not just in D.C., but here in Amherst.

Katherine Scott

In Green’s view, the inherently interdisciplinary nature of youth media helped the students break out of the silos we often see in academia. “This engagement provided opportunities for the students to consider how they might include different parts of their interests and themselves in their trajectory.” This was particularly true for Scott, who, after taking the course, decided to add second major in journalism to her initial political science major. The multimodal quality of the course also helped students see a variety of strategies in presenting data, and how to go beyond papers and poster with art and creativity.

In the end, Green was particularly gratified that her students were able to see themselves in the young media journalists they were profiling. They were able to experience in very real terms how representation matters, and that young people’s voices and messages are an ideal way to engage other young people and inspire them to action.

Green will offer the Youth Media, Storytelling, and Civic Engagement honors seminar again in the fall. Given its success, she is also hoping to create a full-size course on the topic to teach in the College of Education.