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.