Urban Youth: Writing for Change
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At 14, Crystal Medina loved to write but figured she'd never be able to make a living at it.
At 20, she is.
"It feels really nice," she said. "I'm getting paid to do what I love."
Medina is one of more than 150 Chicago inner-city youth who have benefited from an innovative program that trains young journalists to cover issues that typically go un- or under-reported in mainstream newspapers. She started as a reporter and now works full time as an editorial assistant. She has plans to attend college, but no plans to quit writing.
That's just what Ethan Michaeli had in mind when he envisioned a youth journalism project for Chicago's housing projects.
"We're giving public housing residents and young people access to the power of journalism," said Michaeli, publisher of Residents' Journal. "And we're doing it in the place where so many of society's most difficult issues -- race, poverty and gender -- intersect."
The Urban Youth International Journalism Program, founded in 1998, is on offshoot of Residents' Journal, a bimonthly magazine written, produced and distributed by and for residents of Chicago's public housing projects. Residents' Journal was founded in 1996. While at first tied to the housing program, it now is its own independent nonprofit organization, We The People Media.
Printed in English with additional articles in Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Korean, Residents' Journal tracks welfare reform, poverty, housing and other issues affecting the lives of its readers.
Michaeli's hope is that young people trained through Urban Youth will go on to study journalism in college and become reporters for mainstream publications. That, he said, is how change will happen to the nation's predominately white, predominately middle and upper class newsrooms.
At Residents' Journal, women make up nearly 70 percent of the staff. African Americans comprise more than 90 percent of the staff, one that also includes Latinos and East Asians.
How is it working? Already the publication has won half a dozen journalism awards.
"We've broken stories the mainstream press has followed up on," Michaeli said.
Payment and professionalism
Articles and columns written and reported by young journalists appear in a four-page youth section within the regular 24-page Residents' Journal. Youth are paid 15 cents a word for their work.
"That's a pretty good fee," Michaeli said. "Some of that just becomes shopping money, but I know some people put that money away toward college and their futures."
Michaeli said payment plus ongoing training add a level of professionalism to the work. All young writers must complete the newspaper's eight-week Journalism 101 class before joining the staff. Those interested many continue their studies in Journalism 201.
At any given time, between 20 and 25 students are in the two classes. The young writers tackle topics as controversial and complex as gun control, teen pregnancy, federal poverty programs, police brutality and drug abuse. Along the way, they also learn more about their community. Much of that learning runs contrary to stereotypes about public housing residents.
A 2001 readership survey, for example, revealed that 84 percent of public-housing residents who responded had voted in the most recent election. Many residents are activists, driven to speak out on causes affecting residents of public housing.
That doesn't surprise Michaeli now, but it did before he became publisher of Residents' Journal, back when he was a reporter for The Chicago Defender, where he wrote about public housing. "I kept running across people (in public housing) who were very different from the stereotypes I had grown up with," Michaeli said. "I was meeting hard-working, sophisticated, intelligent people."
And these people live in what are literally some of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Eleven of the country's 15 poorest census tracts are found in Chicago's public housing. Two-thirds of Residents' Journal readers survive on annual incomes of less than $10,000, and nearly half are working families.
That's why it's vital to Michaeli to pay young writers for their work. "I like it when they come in bugging me for their checks," Michaeli said. "That means they know their work is valuable."
The first time 14-year-old Corey Gathings had an article in Residents' Journal, the school announced his accomplishment over the loudspeaker at Hyde Park Academy. "My survey literature teacher, she was impressed," Gathings said, laughing.
But neither the money nor the publicity is what motivates the ninth-grader. "It's not that you're getting paid for doing it," he said. "It's that you're writing and reaching out to other people."
Looking ahead: 'I'll be writing'
In addition to journalism, the Urban Youth project has offered its participants a chance to see the world. Young journalists have traveled twice to Washington, D.C., as well as Ghana and Israel.
Medina's voice still carries excitement when she recalls those trips. "It's amazing," she said. "I never thought I'd go places like that."
After the trips and her work with Residents' Journal, Medina made another trip she wasn't sure she'd ever make: She attended a community college. She says she wasn't ready for college yet, and she dropped out. That's when she found work through her Urban Youth connections. "I'm 20, and I'm employed," she said. "When people ask me what I do, I get to say I'm a writer."
Medina plans to stay with Residents' Journal for a while, then make a second try at college, this time more focused and prepared. She's not sure what exactly she'll be doing in five to 10 years, but this much she knows:
"I'll be writing."