by Donna Ladd
YMP Program Director, Founder
Yowza! We're just over three weeks into the new Mississippi Youth Media Project, and what a ride it's been. I feel like I'm part of a very special family already, which most of the teens themselves are saying, too. The space, in the old Associated Press offices on the 13th Floor of Capital Towers down the hall from my newspaper Jackson Free Press, is inspiring with expansive views of downtown Jackson and cool furniture provided by Barefield Workplace Solutions. It is the perfect incubator for a creative, high-energy "startup." Starting with the pizza party we held before YMP launched June 1, we've urged the students to think and act as if they are media entrepreneurs starting up a new publication—to bring the nimble energy of doing what it takes to build something special and creative that can, in turn, make the world a better place for young people and others. And, they learn entrepreneurial soft skills to boot.
And this group is super engaged on all levels: I bought boxed-up desk chairs and dropped them off in the YMP newsroom; two of the female students, Kelsee and Maggie, grabbed and started putting them together; a group of the guys had already jumped in and assembled bookcases. When the folks I'd planned to do the video training decided they couldn't do it the way we needed them to, the students themselves pooled their equipment and started shooting video and helping each other: collective mentoring at its best. One of the students, Zaccheus, started quietly shooting and editing what he calls "Day in the Life" videos of students in the project and putting them on social media. They're wonderful, and we'll be posting some of them on this site soon.
The student journalists are making calls, interviewing people, planning videos (like one about LGBT teens), hitting the streets to report and take photos, podcasting (thanks, Beau of Podastery!), blogging about their experiences and collaborating on ideas. They are getting to know each other, navigating differences and learning about people in different circumstances. They are having rich conversations—from the Jackson 2000-led race dialogue on Day 3 to impromptu conversations about vital issues. They are wrestling with time management (and improving) and learning to lead workshops and use tools like Basecamp and GroupMe for project management and team accountability. (And I'll be honest, this group of teens have embraced shared accountability and information-sharing better than many older people I've worked with; nimble, I tell you.)
YMP teens are a delight to be around and to collaborate with. They've entertained many guest speakers so far, most of them focused on our loose theme for the summer project: juvenile justice. They walk up and shake the hands of people much older and introduce themselves. They talk about media literacy, and poverty, and the systemic roots of crime—and what can be done about it--solutions journalism. They are building powerful projects to express those things and from a younger perspective.
All the students are focusing either on writing, video/photography or podcasting—in three houses inspired by Harry Potter. But they're starting to collaborate cross-house, so to speak, and will roll out a collaborative project involving the mayor of Jackson by early July on their new publication website, which they are building with the help of J.C. Hiatt of Good Design & Co. (Tt'll be separate from this one). They pulled their hair out to agree on a name for it (and learned how difficult the consensus process can be), and they finally voted on a final one: JXNPulse. Follow them on Twitter @msyouthmedia to learn when the site is live.
My favorite times with the YMP team has been taking them out into the field and watching them in action. The video/photo team and I went on a ride-along through west and south Jackson with Mayor Tony Yarber. When we'd stop, and the mayor got off the Fire Department bus we were on, the team would surround him, paparazzi style, and start snapping and taping, guided by photographer Imani Khayyam, who is helping mentor them. It was wonderful to watch their young confidence and determination to be excellent and learn from every opportunity. The same happened when a group of them covered my One-on-One conversation with the mayor at Millsaps College, and one of them, Zeakky, snapped the photo of Yarber that the JFP bought to use, freelance, the next day with the news report about the event. It made me so proud to see them all scattered in the crowd, wearing colorful YMP press badges, gathering around the mayor afterward, and then to read their excellent tweets.
Through the years of doing some or another form of a Youth Media Project—before now, always in a corner of the JFP offices r—I've wanted to create a project that I would have loved when I was in high school in Mississippi and feeling like I was missing opportunities for expression teens in other states often had. The initial idea has really grown, helped by many outside forces including my W.K. Kellogg leadership fellowship that helped me see how vital it is to journalism to intentionally imbed equity and structural causes of poverty and crime into our reporting: to ask the why, not just the what. My work and training with the Solutions Journalism Network has given me tools to use and share with the students about how to research and present pros and cons of solutions. That is, to explore and vet possible solutions to deep problems like poverty, crime and racism.
I couldn't ask for a better group of teenagers to help build the Mississippi Youth Media Project from this year's model into something year-round and lasting, bringing opportunities to build professional and journalism skills, and to use them to tell vital stories, identify problems and causes, and then find and explore solutions for our city, state and beyond. We want to learn and demand rigorous, fair journalism, and this smart family of students is all in on that mission.
It is an honor to work with them, the team leaders (Lynne, Onelia and Adria), and four other Kellogg fellows who are helping with the project (Justin, Ashley, Lynsey and Yvonne). I seriously can't wait to see what they do next.