New Media and Collaborative Learning at Youth Radio: Interview with Elisabeth Soep, Part I.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 11:09 am

This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed Elisabeth Soep — research director and senior producer at Youth Radio — on subjects including Youth Radio’s peer and adult collaborative teaching methods, how the organization has helped participants in other areas of their lives, the importance of audience, and the shift in the type of media produced by participants, as well as how media drives student interest. Here, in the first part of the interview, she discusses how Youth Radio has facilitated peer-to-peer learning and adult-peer mentorships and describes how Youth Radio programs support participant health and careers.

Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep is research director and senior producer at Youth Radio, a national youth-driven production company in Oakland, California. With a Ph.D. from Stanford, she lectures and has published widely on youth discourse, learning, and digital media culture, including Drop that Knowledge (with Vivian Chávez, University of California Press) and Youthscapes (with Sunaina Maira, University of Pennsylvania Press). The Youth Radio stories Lissa has produced for NPR have been recognized with honors including the Peabody Award, three Murrow Awards, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. She is principal investigator for a winning entry in the MacArthur Foundation’s 2010 global Digital Media and Learning Competition, which launched Mobile Action Lab (youth partnering with pro developers to create mobile apps serving community needs). With National Science Foundation support, Lissa co-created the Brains and Beakers series — interactive dialogues between youth and inventors. She teaches grad classes on ethnography and education, including a 2011 Urban Education course at UC Berkeley. In 2011, Lissa joined the MacArthur Foundation's Youth Participatory Politics Research Network. From 2000 through 2010, she served on the board of Youth Speaks, the nation's leading presenter and producer of youth spoken word performance, as seen at the White House and on HBO.

Describe Youth Radio’s approach to developing meaningful relationships between adults and young people. How does media production, youth voice, and citizen journalism provide an entrée to that?

I would say that the relationships between youth and adults at Youth Radio essentially come in two forms… Youth Radio does have bureaus in Los Angeles, D.C., and Atlanta, and we work with people all around the country and across the world. But if we focus for a moment on our Oakland-based program, young people are recruited from the local public schools, and they come in after school on Wednesday and Friday. They produce a live radio show, and they do transmedia production, video, online, et cetera. Their initial learning is facilitated by and large by peers. So, the first structure for learning that dominates the experiences for newcomers to the program is, really, peer education. Kids who’ve graduated out of the program have gotten additional training, above and beyond the media skills, to do professional development around teaching, learning, and collaboration, et cetera. They become peer educators, and they’re the ones who facilitate a 12-week session where the young people develop skills across all these various media, and then come out the other side — and are eligible themselves to eventually become peer educators. The adults in that scenario are a little bit stepped back from the moment-to-moment encounters that the students experience.

When they move into internships, which is what students do once they’ve gone through introductory and advanced training, and when they come on board as interns within the organization (at any given time, we have between 35 and 50 young people on the payroll at Youth Radio), in that capacity, there is heavy youth-adult collaboration. Vivian Chávez and I, in our book Drop that Knowledge  (which focuses in on Youth Radio, the inside story), we describe that youth-adult relationship as collegial pedagogy; what we mean by that is that young people and adults work together as colleagues to produce content, to produce applications, to produce events that go out to significant audiences. And it really is a collegial back-and-forth, meaning that the young people couldn’t do the work by themselves, nor could the adult experts do the work by themselves, but it’s creating these new kinds of partnerships where those pairings of youth and adults, where those emerging and veteran producers of media, work together to create an excellent product.

Describe Youth Radio's approach to serving the young person as a whole — professionally, intellectually, and emotionally.

Youth Radio’s origins really are in journalism, so when the organization first started in the early 1990s, the first media that was generated out of Youth Radio was a commentary series. But, very early on in the organization’s history, there was a recognition that, in order to become a real opportunity for young people beyond a single story getting on the air, there needed to be expertise in youth development and in education, career opportunity, and, eventually, in health. If you took a look at the organization today, you would see those kinds of wraparound services supporting youth, so that any young person who comes into the program hooks up with a college and career advisor and sets up an individualized action plan to set a path for themselves that makes sense in terms of where they are in school and where they want to head.

We have a health department that offers therapy and group work, as well as referrals to outside support as needed. So there really is a sense that it’s not just about producing youth voices, but it’s about supporting both the individual and community needs that young people have.

That being said, what’s distinctive about Youth Radio is that the media production really drives the activity and excellent standards for the content that’s being produced. We hold ourselves to those standards and we have no choice [otherwise], because the outlets that Youth Radio delivers to are professional media outlets, like National Public Radio and National Geographic, as well as local sites and local radio stations. So, I do want to emphasize, you asked why media is a hook, or how media serves as a hook, and it really is the driver — again, people are here to make media, to make technology, to use technology, to work together, to collaborate with peers and with adults. And then those other support services are what make it possible for those outcomes to benefit not only the public who gets to hear the media, but also the young people who’ve contributed and have made it.

Why is Youth Radio’s model of leveling up inside the organization important? What does it reinforce for the young people who work at Youth Radio?

It’s key. Whenever we ask students in evaluation what’s the thing that they love about this place, one of the first things they always say is the peer education model and the fact that they’re learning from other young people who share experiences with them, who might be in school with them, or in schools like theirs, and who can model, in a very near-term way, where they could end up.

Young people, the minute they come in the door — they come in on a Wednesday, let’s say, and by Friday, they’re on the air. There’s this immediate access to audience and to being on a mike or being published online. But then there’s this expectation of an escalation in skill and reach of the media, as well as in responsibilities to educate others and to collaborate with professionals.

There’s always a line of sight towards where you can end up based on where you are, and we’re very intentional about how we create those pathways, and they are transparent because the young people see who’s teaching them, or they can look at who’s in the studio developing or on deadline for a story that’s going to go out on NPR, be published on the front page of the Huffington Post. So the way the building is organized, all of the pathways are very visible for young people to see, and, I think, like every other leveling-up experience, it motivates, incentivizes commitment. It also, in just a very real way, creates a talent pool of young people who are acquiring professional skills that they can apply to their pursuits both within Youth Radio and beyond Youth Radio in their academic and professional development. So, as the stakes get higher, the impact intensifies and the responsibilities go up, as well.

To be continued...

How does Youth Radio reach and engage its audience? What is Youth Radio doing to meet the demands of today’s changing media technology?

Next week we will publish Part II of our interview with Elisabeth Soep, focusing on how Youth Radio and its approach to media production engage participant interest.