Recognizing and unlocking the wisdom of everyday people.
Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories
By Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez
(University of California Press, 2010)
240 pp., $21.95
When Berkeley High School student and Youth Radio reporter Brandon McFarland did a story on “sagging,” the teen style of letting one’s pants droop to precipitous levels, his friend Gerald Ward II offered some serious insight: “It’s like code-switching when you speak,” he said. “I speak ‘Oaklandese’ when I speak to other folks that are from the town [Oakland], and when I’m not, I might switch into a more universal language or lexicon. Same thing with my pants. I might sag in certain areas, and in the other areas I’ll pull them up so I can infiltrate the system.”
Brandon is impressed, and responds: “That’s my man Gerald, dropping that knowledge.”
Authors Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez are apparently impressed as well, for the phrase “drop that knowledge” becomes title and frame for a dazzling journey through the world of Youth Radio, an 18-year-old youth development organization and independent media production company in Oakland, Calif. Soep is Youth Radio research director and senior producer, and Chávez is a Youth Radio alumna and San Francisco State University professor. For them, dropping that knowledge is a generative idea, vital and resonant on several levels at once: It means recognizing and unlocking the wisdom of everyday people; and it points to the power of analytical and critical thinking that folks always have the potential to engage. It offers challenges to both young people and adults. The charge to young people is to honor their own experiences and knowledge even as they investigate the life worlds of others. To adults the demand is to please drop that patronizing pose as experts and authorities as they open their eyes and ears and become the students of their students. Drop That Knowledge provides a pathway toward creating forward-leaning learning communities in and outside of schools, places where “young people are safe to be, to hear, to question, and to tell.” Students who come to Youth Radio’s development program represent the diversity of Bay Area urban populations. The majority of the participants are working class, African American and Chicano/Latino; some have been referred through school or city disciplinary institutions.
Soep and Chávez avoid a trap that awaits well-intentioned progressive educators everywhere: romanticizing students and young people and valorizing the “authentic voices of youth,” a stance that is all but inevitable when the brush with youth and youth culture is quick and breezy. Rather than heroizing the young as objects of adulation (or demonizing them as objects of fear—the opposite but similarly uninformed response), they delve into the conflicts and contradictions that are at the heart of this work, and of teaching more generally.
They explore the tension inherent in kids coming to trust their own views and knowledge—learning to “claim the right to speak unapologetically about experiences over which they hold authority”—while seeing that their views are but a piece of a complex world in which the experiences and knowledge of others are also vital. That’s a central feature of successfully negotiating adolescence, and they dive into stories of this contradiction with zest, humor, and wisdom.
In this regard, the story of Youth Radio reporter Anyi Howell is instructive. He was stopped by Berkeley police in a BART station on the way to a staff meeting. In a clear case of racial profiling, Anyi was placed in handcuffs as the police questioned him about nearby robberies. “Leave me alone,” he said. “This is not how you approach a citizen.” As Soep and Chávez observe, “Even with handcuffs snapping around his wrists, Anyi had the presence of mind to pose a question about youth citizenship.” Coincidentally, a television crew was at the station and caught the confrontation on tape, but Anyi could never get the other news media group to share the tape for his complaint. His particular power was that he was able to produce a story about the incident, including the lack of solidarity from the TV crew, and explore the implications about power, race, and youth.
Another tension that Soep and Chávez write into (rather than run away from) is that between the explosion of new tools for media production (that might render the adult gatekeepers irrelevant), and the necessity for intergenerational relationships and rethinking the roles and responsibilities of teaching. Although young people are often described as “digital natives,” more adept at the use of technical tools of production than their elders, powerful journalism requires extensive training and experience with mentors who have been there before. Youth reporter Sophie Simon-Ortiz encountered a young woman at a party who was in a marriage of convenience to a Marine. Such a marriage to get benefits—increased salary, the right to live in an off-base apartment for him, health benefits for her—is well known among youth but often unnoticed by elder journalists. Her dilemma was how to report the story in a way that was more than sensational—to examine issues of low pay and survival in a war economy. In addition, she needed to research how broad this phenomenon was, to talk to sociologists, attorneys, and other military personnel. Finally, she needed to protect the identity of her source. All of this required extensive collaborative work. This story, along with the Youth Radio series on veterans, “Reflections on Return,” eventually gained these youth access to more military exposés, leading to a groundbreaking series on harassment of gays in the military as well as torture and atrocity stories.
Soep and Chávez recognize that the dire predictions of mass media dominating and brainwashing youth have proven much more complex on the ground. On the one hand, the corporate-controlled U.S. media create a stifling narrative of individualism, racism, and competition that distorts the perspective and values of so many youth. But big media is not just a smothering totality because young people often manage to reappropriate, repurpose, and subvert media to tell their own stories. Youth, even those most marginalized by the walls of racial oppression and global corporate power, at times provide a counter narrative. Through a process of sampling, collaging, inventing, and mixing genres of expression, these young producers struggle to reshape media to express their truths—in a kind of hybrid literacy. Thus Youth Radio shows might mix poetry and reportage, personal perspective and investigation, in boundary-shattering ways.
Modeling how education can develop as a collaborative project, Youth Radio is forging new directions in social justice pedagogy. The key issue in youth media and youth literacy is whether a program forwards the capacity of young people to be critical. As Soep and Chávez point out, “Literacy implies a capacity to understand and critique the way the world is organized by virtue of being textualized.” Reading this book, we begin to see that youth are not just the reluctant learners that our national education debate complains about. Instead, they are the constructers of the next generation of cultural expression and our hope for the future.
This is a book that is rich with stories—evidence and argument are mirror and window to one another here. As activist/educators and storyteller/researchers, Soep and Chávez are perfectly positioned to illuminate the power of Youth Radio as a model of teaching and learning for the 21st century. While too many academics pontificate about the potential of the new digital media, Soep and Chávez write in a quiet voice, without pose or posture. Their message is earthshaking.
Rick Ayers founded the Communication Arts and Sciences Small School at Berkeley High School and teaches at the University of San Francisco.
William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago.