On April 4, nine of Oakland, CA’s mayoral candidates participated in a debate on public safety in front of 400 audience members. One of the questions that had people talking—and  tweeting—was posed not by a veteran political reporter but by Youth Radio’s Bianca Brooks.

The only youth reporter on the panel, Brooks, 18, pressed current Mayor Jean Quan about her plans to improve her office’s relationship with the Oakland police department, considering the resignation of two police chiefs during her term. In a very direct way, Brooks was helping to shape the debate and using her voice to effect change in her city.

In Youth Radio’s award-winning newsroom and in its training programs Oakland teens learn everything from Photoshop to music production. Students like Brooks are gaining the tools they need to shape their personal stories for a wider audience and enter into the public dialogue—whether via a local platform, like the Oakland mayoral debate, or national coverage granted by the media outlet’s affiliation with NPR.

Photo/ YMCA Lighthouse Project.

Photo/ YMCA Lighthouse Project.

“At Youth Radio, like in lots of other programs, we emphasize the tools and technical skills that will prepare young people for jobs,” says Lissa Soep, senior producer and research director at Youth Radio, adding that teens also learn “social capital–building and network-building soft skills” that are critical professionally.

The program has received numerous accolades for producing high-quality journalism. In 2010, Youth Radio received a Peabody Award for “Trafficked,” an expose on child sex trafficking in Oakland; the series also won an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2011.

Fluency with digital tools is not just important academically and professionally—it’s part of what it means to be a literate person today. “Is someone literate if they cannot critique media, take media in, if they’re only taking in traditional text?” asks Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network and visiting associate professor at DePaul University.

Pinkard started the digital literacy program nine years ago in part because of the realization that students in underserved neighborhoods in Chicago weren’t necessarily exposed to digital media and technologies at home, she explains in this Edutopia video. Yet school wasn’t the ideal venue for this learning either, Pinkard found, because in most classrooms, “the purpose was to try to get teachers to be the ones who taught kids how to use technology… and our kids were more digitally sophisticated than teachers.”

Digital Youth Network, which is an afterschool program that also coordinates directly with classroom teachers, emerged as a way to enable students to develop these critical skill sets “in ways that are… first personally beneficial, but also beneficial to their society.”

Closer to home in Pittsburgh, several innovative programs are taking the same approach and having a similar impact—teaching urban students digital media skills to empower them to think critically and to shape their own stories about their lives and their Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

90 percent of regularly attending Lighthouse participants graduate from high school—an important outcome at Westinghouse, where only 67 percent of students graduate.

The YMCA Lighthouse Project is one such program. The afterschool program at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA serves students from Westinghouse school.

“Our mission is to develop young people who are creative, connected, and prepared for college and career,” says James Brown, YMCA Lighthouse program director.

The Lighthouse Project accomplishes this through classes in the media arts, with core programming in music production, graphic design, photography, and filmmaking.

“It’s based in a belief that the digital arts create a set of multiple outcomes around computer literacy and access to technology and have all the transferable skills that can prepare kids for working in a 21st-century workforce,” Brown says.

Notably, nearly 90 percent of regularly attending Lighthouse participants graduate from high school—an important outcome in a school like Westinghouse, where only 67 percent of students graduate.

Perhaps just as important for students in low-income and underserved neighborhoods are the comprehensive services the program offers, including healthy meals and transportation.

“In order for kids to achieve,” Brown says, “they can’t be stressed out about how to get home.”

Whatever medium they choose to work in, Lighthouse students begin in the fall by putting together an autobiographical piece called “My Story.” In the winter, they collaborate on a story about their community, called “Our Story.” The year culminates in a spring project with a social justice focus called “Our Cause” that addresses a community-wide issue such as violence. This approach allows students to widen the lens as they gain confidence and technical skills. The program also bolsters critical thinking.

“We live in a social media society right now,” Brown says. “We all have access to multiple sources of information, and we have to embrace that.”

Through these projects, students are forced to consider ideas of ethics and credibility. When the students put together a video news segment, for example, they conduct research and determine which sources are reliable—and, through the process, learn about editorial voice and objectivity.

Pittsburgh’s Steeltown Entertainment Project runs the film component of the Lighthouse program. One recent student film focused on longtime Homewood resident Vanessa German and her Love Front Porch community art project, where kids gather on her porch to paint and create mixed media works. The students collaborating on the video wanted to shift national media attention from the violence plaguing Homewood to the positive contributions of community members.

“I think the kids who are older and have a little more perspective and are really honing in on their craft, they’re realizing that they can create the media that is digested,” says Rachel Shepherd, program manager at Steeltown. “You don’t have to just consume. You can make your own. You can tell your own story. You can choose how people view you by the stories you tell.”

Students attending the afterschool media lab at the Sarah Heinz House, which launched last year, are also learning how to shape their stories via courses in journalism, digital photography, filmmaking, and DJing.

“You don’t have to just consume. You can make your own. You can tell your own story. You can choose how people view you by the stories you tell.” 

A $10,000 Hive Pittsburgh grant from The Sprout Fund enabled the program to purchase high-quality video and photography equipment as well as hire professionals to train students in using the tools.

“If we’re asking the youth to dedicate their time and their energy into this program and we want them to produce quality content, then it’s our responsibility to provide them with quality materials,” says Paul Boone, Sarah Heinz House boys program director. “Because they can tell when you’ve set high standards for them but you’re not empowering them to achieve that.”

So far, media lab participants have contributed articles to Teen Kids News and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America teen website, and created a two-minute PSA on the impact of video game violence on youth behavior, among other projects.

“It’s very important that we’re able to give them a megaphone so that they can have their voices heard,” Boone says.

The digital component is especially important, he adds, “because once you put it out there, everyone has the chance to read it. The likelihood that it can be snuffed out or silenced is dramatically reduced.”

Photos by students in the YMCA Lighthouse Project.