Voices of Youth program offers Kalamazoo-area young people a chance to be heard

Kyd Network and Second Wave are working together on the program.
Kalamazoo youth have something to say.
 
What if they could say it using the medium of solutions-based journalism?
 
Second Wave Media and KYD (Kalamazoo Youth Development) Network have partnered to form Voices of Youth, a learning experience for Kalamazoo youth. Participants have chosen the topics, through mid-summer they will be out in the community interviewing, researching and recording; and will have their work published by Second Wave in August.
 
In 2020, we could see evidence in the streets that the youth are connected with, and wished to express their thoughts about, national matters on the local scene.
 
But what about issues closer to home, that may have a direct impact on themselves, their families, their peers?
 
Paul Schutt, co-founder of Issue Media Group, Second Wave's parent company, says the idea of the program arose in the southeast Michigan and Detroit area, pre-pandemic. In "conversations amongst community members, there was a concern that young folks, youth, are disconnected from local news; that they have a pretty good handle of what's going on at a national level, but they just don't really track what's going on in the local news as well."
 
The concern was, Schutt says, "could this lack of connection lead to a lack of civic engagement on really important issues in the community?"
 
Soon after these conversations, a global pandemic hit, then the world saw a police officer killing George Floyd.
 
The youth protest after the death of George Floyd and the pictures taken by J.D. Kelly, a Loy Norrix student, was one of the inspirations for the Voices of Youth Program.It became clear that young people were engaged and working in their own way to record history as it happened. For example, the journalism world recently recognized Darnella Frazier, who at 17 videoed Floyd's murder, with an honorary Pulitzer Prize
 
A big inspiration, Schutt says, for the Voices of Youth program was a story by J.D. Kelley. The Loy Norrix High School student took photos and wrote on the Kalamazoo Youth March, June 5, 2020, for Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground series. 
 
Another inspiration was Ke'Asia Shepherd-Friday's 2018 story on sickle cell anemia in her Northside family. She was 17, a participant in the On the Ground Community Correspondent program. 
 
"We really have been watching and thinking about youth voice for a while," Schutt says. "Locally in Kalamazoo, we've had some great experiences with J.D. Kelly, and also Ke'Asia, and we just really felt like there was a lot happening out there." 
 
IMG talked to the Stryker-Johnston foundation, "and they introduced us to Meg (Blinkiewicz, executive director) over in KYD Net... We've never run into anything like KYD Net before, or anyone quite like Meg either." 
 
Youth-Directed coverage
 
Neither IMG nor KYD Net set out to "pick and choose" who participates, Schutt says. "We have to offer it to all youth in KYD Net." He adds, "And all the kids had to be  paid for everything, which we agreed to, so there's pay equity."
 
KYD Net focuses on out-of-school time programs to work towards a vision of helping Kalamazoo County's youth to be college or career-ready by the time they turn 21.
 
"We're all about youth engagement, youth voice, youth leadership, and so it was a natural partnership," Meg Blinkiewicz says. "(Second Wave's) On the Ground has the content, the journalism piece, and we've got youth development and young people, and how to engage with young people." 
 
Meg Blinkiewicz is the Executive Director of Kyd NetworkTheir Youth Leadership Affinity group of 50-80 young members meets once a month to talk about issues in Kalamazoo. For Voices of Youth, they brainstormed to come up with six issues to cover: Youth mobility (transportation issues), youth experiencing homelessness, destigmatizing mental health, restorative justice programming in and out of school, and summer learning. 
 
Teams formed to cover each of the issues. In addition to researching and writing, there are options for members to cover an issue through photography, video, podcasts or other multi-media forms.
 
"They were very excited" about the project, Blinkiewicz says. "These young people have been engaged in social justice and trying to improve their community, make it a more equitable community for, some of them, for years. So this is an opportunity to learn a new way of thinking about the issue, and then having the opportunity to communicate to the wider, larger community. What they learned, possible solutions. This whole process gave them an additional outlet for their work, and different skills, too."
 
Journalism as civic engagement
 
Blinkiewicz says that after publication, there will be follow-through to make sure that not only Second Wave readers see the youths' work, but local powers-that-be will see it as well.
 
"We're super excited about August to hear from each one of the groups, and then we will be helping to reach out to elected officials and different community-based organizations, their leadership, so they can listen to young people. Part of our role is to make sure that it doesn't end in August, because we're with young people on an on-going basis. This isn't' a one-and-done," she says.
 
The work will be in the Second Wave model of solutions-based journalism. This is, basically, journalism that reports on issues, not only pointing out the problems in the community or the world, but also highlighting ideas and the people working to fix these problems. 
 
Blinkiewicz hopes "the solutions they come up with get some legs and get some resources.... It's not just an experience learning journalism, it actually brings about some community change."
 
Voices of Youth sounds like an exercise in journalism as civic engagement.
 
"That's a great way of putting it," Earlene McMichael says.
 
Earlene McMichael is the Project Editor and Instructor for Voices of Youth.McMichael is project editor for Voices of Youth, and has been conducting online classes with the participants that will continue through June. Guidance from writing mentors will continue after the classes. 
 
She's also morning host and reporter for WMUK (102.1 FM), and former editor, columnist, and reporter for The Kalamazoo Gazette, where she co-founded a similar youth journalism program, Rising Stars.
 
"Yes, it was about journalism, but it was also about creating great citizens," she says of the 12-year program which saw students go on to become leaders like Kalamazoo vice mayor Patrice Griffin and former executive director of the Black Arts and Cultural Center Yolonda Lavender, now a program officer for the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 
 
McMichael is teaching Voices of Youth participants the usual Journalism 101 concepts like ledes, inverted pyramids, how to interview, etc. But this form -- solutions journalism -- is a bit different than what might be the usual local government, vehicular collision, or crime story in the paper.
 
In the past, "people would say, 'if it bleeds, it leads.' This is a whole different way of doing things," she says.
 
She recalls why some high school subjects like history were boring to her as a teen. "I found it boring because it was just a recitation of facts... It did not connect as to why the past is relevant to the present. Nor did it even put in context with what was going on at the time."
 
Since "journalism is history, but in real-time," the way to help youth engage with it is to have them put the facts they uncover into the proper context, to show how a subject connects to their lives or their peers' lives.
 
Also, a way to help youth engage with journalism is to teach it in a way "that says you matter," to let them know their voices matter.
 
The youth protest after the death of George Floyd and the pictures taken by J.D. Kelly, a Loy Norrix student, was one of the inspirations for the Voices of Youth Program.McMichael has always believed that "everyone brings something different to the table, everyone has had a different background and a different experience. So that's why it's important to have diverse newsrooms. So that you can bring those different voices," she says.
 
"I've always advocated for things that I thought were stories, as an African-American woman, an African-American person, that probably weren't regarded as news," she says.
 
"Over time it's been recognized that there is no one hundred percent unbiased journalism. Because we all bring our backgrounds, right?"
 
"When a reporter arrives on the scene, you will see different things depending on your background. Let's just pick the (BLM) protests -- when you arrived, you see angry black people. Is that how you see it? Do you see, 'who are these vigilantes,' or do you see, 'oh, look at all the white people here.' What do you focus on initially, because that drives who you go up to and interview, that shapes the kind of questions you ask," she says. 
 
The concepts of journalism are changing, but this doesn't mean standards of accuracy and honest reporting are set aside. "At the end of the day, is it accurate? And are you telling a complete picture? Is there another opinion?"
 
What happens when a reporter in their teen years tells the story? So far, in her classes, "I can tell already as they're discussing their issues, that they are bringing their background," McMichael says. 
 
"By getting the young people involved, we are saying that there is another (perspective)," she says.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.