Youth Voice: An “On Air” Need

By Sam Graulty, Youth Voice Coordinator

It was recently public radio fundraising time here in Vermont. I’m a big Vermont Public Radio fan and have been known to stay tuned through their repeated membership pitches. However, a few weeks ago, during one of these breaks, I slid the dial to another public radio station and was so happy I did. There, I caught a story from National Public Radio about Boyle Heights Beat, a “a bilingual community news project produced by youth, offering ‘noticias por y para la comunidad,’ or ‘news by and for the community.’”

This community newspaper (and podcast!) is entirely produced by young people. Its 33,000 copies are distributed quarterly to every member of the neighborhood of Los Angeles that is its focus. Not only do these dedicated high school-aged reporters tackle stories ranging from city council meetings to public health, they also amplify others’ voices in the community. This is done through regular meetings where anyone from the neighborhood can come and give feedback on stories they have written, as well as suggest areas for coverage in future editions. This strengthens the community’s social ties, plus it leads to better coverage. As founder Michelle Levander put it, “You know, people feel very hopeful about youth, and they are nicer to them. And they really came to trust them with their stories. And so it was just a very powerful way for these young people to give back to their community and the community to give to them.”

While we have ever expanding media choices, from a seemingly endless menu of viewpoints and leanings, the perspectives of young people are often sorely lacking. Recently, there has been some great coverage about young people by caring adults, and even the occasional powerful piece directly from a young person. As far as programs go, there have been good pushes in the past to capture and disseminate youth voice, such as Youth Radio Vermont, a program of the Vermont Folklife Center. And currently The Young Writers Project is doing some great work on creative writing with young people, by supporting them to take creative risks. However, these are the exceptions, not the norm. They oftentimes feel like only a small carve-out, an aside, from a communication landscape largely monopolized by adults.

Not only is it the comprehensive scope that impresses me so much about Boyle Heights Beat, it’s the dialog it creates. It puts youth right into the middle of the discussion. Not only are they a central part of the conversation they are the conveners of the conversation, and the custodians of what comes out of it. For youth voice to truly matter, it must be part of a culture shift where every member of the community can feel welcomed and engaged at the table of ideas. While some may fret about young people leaving Vermont, we need to pay attention to the ones who are here and trust young people with the responsibility of being full members of our community and the responsibility of telling its stories.

Youth want and need what we all want and need, and it’s pretty universal to want to be heard. While I’m still a realist, and know that by the time the next VPR membership drive rolls around, we’re not likely to have a fully youth-run radio station produced out of a local high school I can tune into. But I do hope that it’s not just through periodic happenstance that I hear young people with the opportunity to share their stories and those of their communities.

Note: Vermont Afterschool’s new Youth Voice Initiative is funded in part by the Vermont Community Foundation, the C.S. Mott Foundation, and the Vermont Department of Health. We will be featuring more youth storytellers, authors, artists, and activists in our monthly blog posts throughout 2019.