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Nothing About Youth Without Youth

June 23, 2014

“Nothing about us without us!” That’s an organizing principle that I first learned when I started doing sex worker rights advocacy years ago. Then, last week, at the Detroit Youth Passages Youth Sexuality Media Forum, I was invited think about this powerful principle again. I had the honor of participating in two days worth of discussions about the ways that young people are often left out of important discussions related to their own lives. We talked about how often it is that “grown ups” make the policy, tell the stories, and frame the issues about what young people need, and so often they do so without including youth voices in their discussions. But we also strategized about ending that pattern so that we can create communities and societies which truly facilitate the health and human rights of youth.

I came away from the Youth Sexuality Media forum so inspired by the powerhouse organizations that came together to form Detroit Youth Passages (DYP). They are doing truly fabulous work. DYP is a partnership between three community-based organizations – Alternatives for Girls, the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, and the Ruth Ellis Center – and the University of Michigan School of Public Health. One of six similar collaborations around the country, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Youth Sexuality, Reproductive Health, and Rights initiative, DYP “seeks to understand how structural conditions contribute to sexual vulnerability, and works to bring about positive change.”

Nothing about youth without youth! Last weekend DYP fulfilled part of the dissemination phase of its work by convening a Youth Sexuality Media Forum, attended by a host of advocates, researchers, young activists and media makers to strategize about ways to tell stories about young people that amplify their voices, support their communities, and contribute to, rather than jeopardize, their health and happiness. Young people are bright, creative and perceptive, with articulate voices that deserve amplification. Think about the most recent news coverage about teens or young adults and sex. It probably sounded alarmist, possibly sensationalistic, and I bet it wasn’t intended to leave you feeling like young people are responsible sexual citizens.

Messaging research by Ryan Schwartz points to some relatively clear strategies for making things better. Here’s a quick list you can memorize easily:

  • First and foremost: sources matter. Most sexuality-related stories stories about young people do not use youth as sources. Stories that quote young sources are much more likely to present a positive image of youth.
  • Second, the frames that journalists tend to use can be shifted to more accurately reflect the real lives of young people. Specifically, DYPs research indicates the following frames would be accurate and should be adopted:
  1. Youth are knowledgable experts about their own lives
  2. Behavior needs to be understood in the context where it occurs
  3. Talking about sexuality brings people together
  4. Focus on shared experience and values.
  5. Shaming sexual activity is more harmful than the activity we are afraid of.

Of course, it’s also important to recognize and acknowledge that stories are often about youth, sexuality, and structural inequalities like racism, sexism, and heterosexism even when they don’t immediately seem to be.

Sarah Stillman, a staff writer for The New Yorker gave a moving keynote in which she addressed exactly this issue, using an article of her own as an example. She told a story about the development of her New Yorker article, “The Throwaways” (Sept. 3, 2012), on young confidential informants. Before she new about the story, she new about the finding of a body in a lake in Florida. A young white woman named Jessica Lundsford was missing and a large-scale search, the focus of every local news program and many national ones, was under way. Stillman told us that as she watched the ongoing coverage, a headline scrolled across the bottom of the screen: Body found in lake not Jessica. No word ever emerged about who it was. Just “not Jessica” Disturbed by the lack of attention given to the body that was found, she ultimately contacted the sheriff’s office to find out who, exactly, was “not Jessica”, and she learned the name Donna Cook. Cook had been arrested in her youth for prostitution. She was poor, and unable to pay the fines associated with her arrest. The police recruited her to work as a confidential informant (CI) as a way of paying her fines. While researching Donna Cook’s life, Stillman learned of Rachel Hoffman, another young person pressured to work as a CI rather than go to jail over a fairly minor drug arrest. During a very risky operation, in which Hoffman was supposed to attempt to purchase a large quantity of drugs along with some a semiautomatic handgun, the police lost track of her. She was murdered by the men she was supposed to set up. This was not considered news until Stillman reported on the widespread problem of vulnerable young people being used in this way by the police. Stillman article demonstrates her empathy for the young lives at the center of the story, highlighting intersections of gender, race, class and sexuality, but this is relatively unusual. More common are sensationalistic or stigmatizing frameworks that do more harm than good to the people at the center of the story, and to others like them.

Young activists and media makers are already working to counter the misperceptions of young people and their communities, and to heal the wounds of stigma and shame. Three powerful examples were shared at the forum, each from a different partnership in the Ford Foundation grant cohort.

  • PhotoVoice is a program where young photographers document their communities in images and text. In this Detroit Youth Passages exhibit they focused on issues of violence, documenting elements of their communities that contributed to violence, and elements that contributed to resilience and strength.
  • Video projects like “Dear 40 Year Old Me” is a collaboration between professional videographers and young people from the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance who tell their stories and share insights about persisting through discrimination, harassment, violence, and trauma. Link to 40 year old self video – made by pros featuring personal stories told by young people from Illinois Safe Schools Alliance
  • Poetry slams provide opportunities for young people to speak passionately and creatively about their own experiences and about the issues that matter to them. Alexia Vasquez, who performed a very moving piece of her poetry at the Youth Media Sexuality Forum is spotlighted in this video from the Tuscon Youth Poetry Slam, where Alexia is the youth coordinator.

We wrapped up the Youth Sexuality Media forum by imagining headlines and stories we’d love to see. Here are two, just for starters.

Teens Explore Sex, Just As They Always Have, Only Now More Responsibly Than Ever!

Governor Meets With Teens Who Exchange Sex For Cash And Shelter. Commits To Expanding Affordable Housing, Raising Minimum Wage, And Fixing Broken Foster Care System

What stories do you wish were being told? What headlines, what movie plots, what documentaries would you like to see made?

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