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How Old School Could Meet New School

As with most progressive movements, the average age of media activists is over 40. Younger activists are trying hard to change that.
 
 
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"Could people below thirty raise their hands?" asked Mark Lloyd at the national Media Reform Conference in St. Louis. In a crowded room of about 50, eight hands slowly rose.

"People, this is your movement!" Lloyd, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, charged.

The recent conference -- held May 13-15 and organized by Free Press -- was both a milestone in grassroots organizing and a tribute to populism. More than 2,500 people from 50 states and eight countries came together, barely fitting into over 50 panels. There were community media producers, low-power radio station builders, city-owned internet advocates, hip-hop activists, lawyers, countless concerned citizens and some of the best-known voices in progressive media, including Bill Moyers, Naomi Klein, Al Franken, Davey D, and Jim Hightower.

Free Press, a national, media reform non-profit and conference organizer, cited increasing the diversity of participants as "one of the top priorities." The group put together an Outreach Committee including Youth Media Council, Clamor Magazine, and Media Tank to bring in younger faces and interests to this year's gathering. The Outreach Committee awarded $50,000 in scholarships and fee-waivers to youth and low-income activists.

But similar to most progressive movements, young people under 30 -- especially young people of color -- were an obvious minority. The median age of most participants hung stubbornly above 40.

Getting young people to give up their school breaks for a policy conference is not an easy task, though Free Press should be commended for attracting as broad a range as it did. The Youth Caucus that gathered about 40 partakers, revealed a broad cross-section from different sides of the map. There were 14-year-old high school students who in some cases heard about media reform for the first time, as well as 30-year-old veteran student organizers.

"Josh Breitbart from Clamor magazine invited me and got me a scholarship," explained Gavin Leonard, 24. Gavin heads Elementz, a Cincinnati-based hip hop arts center for low-income youth aged 14-24. Located in the city's Over-the-Rhine district, Elementz provides a free arts after-school program in a neighborhood where over 70 percent of residents are African-American and close to 90 percent of them live below the poverty level.

Jeanne Frith, 21, is majoring in Theater and Peace and Conflict studies at Cornell College. Jeanne belongs to a progressive student group of about 500. "I really enjoyed the conference. My friend told me about this," Frith said.

Colin Rhinesmith, 31, co-founded one of the first student-led media reform groups, called SCAMM (Students Concerned About Mass Media), at Emerson College this year. He got an invitation from Earl Dax, who heads student organizing efforts at Media Tank. "I wanted to see how people were talking about media reform ... in a clear and simple language. Students and youth have no idea what reform and policy means," says Colin.

Cynthia Blancaflor, 27, heard about the conference from Youth Media Council. She is an artist, singer and video coordinator for Oakland-based Youth Sounds. "It was useful to learn who calls the shots, to learn about consolidation and the recent FCC rules being pulled out," says Cynthia.

Why should media reform groups spend limited resources and energy on engaging youth?

"Historically, if you look at major social change movements, students were always at the forefront of it," Dax explains about why he chose to volunteer his time to organize students within media reform. "Students are one segment of society that is insulated from the real world responsibilities--high-paying jobs, mortgages. They can risk taking a confrontational stance."

As a genuinely grassroots, bi-partisan effort, the media reform movement is a unique success story. Free Press has become its de-facto national voice, and it's engagement with grassroots organizations around the country helped place media as the number two concern among Americans, according to recent surveys.

Most other progressive causes--environmentalism, civil rights, labor and women's issues--are suffering political defeats. Organized and managed in a top-down hierarchy, these movements have become inextricably linked to the Democratic Party.

But the continued success of media reform will depend on the willingness of its key leaders -- like Free Press -- to broaden their agenda-building meetings. "We want media in this country that reflects the American people in all of its diversity: racial, class, gender, voices, opinions," says Colin Rhinesmith when asked to articulate the vision of a just media system, which his student group is advocating for. "We should be invited to planning meetings, funders meetings. ... Also, as much as I like [Al] Franken and [Amy] Goodman, they are not speaking to me. We need to stop interviewing one another. We need to open up that circle," says Jared Ball, a professor at the University of Maryland, who trains young people of color to create their own music and radio shows through FreeMix Radio in Washington D.C.

Media reform groups also seem to lack a unified, clear vision of what media they are advocating for. "The first myth of [media reform] is that US media used to be democratic and has become less so over time. ... For people of color, women, and queer people, there has never been a free press," said Malkia Cyril of Youth Media Council arguing that communications rights must be tied to economic and racial justice.

Cynthia Blancaflor believes that adding diverse perspectives to the table will help activists make media issues more relevant in their back yards across the country. "They poked at corporations, inundation of logos, brands. They talked about the Big Six owning all media outlets," says Blancaflor. "But when I tell my largely poor youth community of color about the Big Six, I gets the 'So, what?' stares. There are more urgent concerns--poverty, violence, drug addictions."

Gavin Leonard argues that opening up media reform and progressive circles in general to youth will make media reform ideas more appealing to mainstream America. "Three years ago I subscribed to the Nation, Utne, the Progressive... And I felt depressed by how disconnected they are from young people, people of color, urban populations, regular people in the mid-west. At times, this conference felt like reading aloud from the Nation. ... I didn't hear anything new," comments Leonard.

"Progressives don't pay enough attention to design, marketing and presentation," Leonard adds. Young people can help make dull, serious information more entertaining and appealing.

As participants packed their suitcases and returned home, they shared suggestions for increasing youth engagement. "We need more young presence on the panels. It's adults talking about young people," Blancaflor reflected. She would like to hear young panelists share their methods of connecting national media policy issues to more immediate local needs. Discussions like these can help turn abstract political concepts into personal issues.

Leonard would like to see more long-term, ongoing, earnest conversations between the different groups at the conference. "Calling us once a year and inviting us feels very alienating. It breeds a process of tokenism. The left needs to spend time in their communities and build trust and relationships. Crossing this line is very important. ... We need to be more patient, do more planning, work together on that plan."

Jeanne Frith left wanting more tools for action. "I've heard about consolidation before and left somewhat depressed. There is so much corporate money in there. It's a much bigger beast than I thought."

"We need more caucuses and organizing on campuses. Panel workshops for students by students," says Rhinesmith. "We will work with Media Empowerment Project at the United Church of Christ to develop clear messages on why young people should care about media reform. ... We will tell them about existing policy groups, public access channels, encourage them to write for independent papers."

Earl Dax summarized key suggestions at the Youth Caucus and found that most participants asked for a national youth coalition. "We need to create a follow-up beyond the conference," says Dax, who is coordinating an online youth discussion group that will appear on Media Tank's website in the next few weeks. " We probably need separate tracks for high school and more advanced college students. ... And we need a youth introduction session before conference begins next year."

As debates over the long-term future of social security, war, environment and education policies continue, young people have arguably more at stake than any other group. With conservative cable networks expanding, church-groups mimicking Clear Channel in its domination over the low-power radio stations, and corporate advertising increasingly moving into the public education spheres, the battle over young minds and hearts becomes more urgent than ever.

"We're not going to win or lose -- it's a continuing battle," Mark Lloyd explained to a group of eight young students in a room full of veteran media activists. "But the continued success of this movement depends on your talent and your energy."

Kristina Rizga is an associate editor at AlterNet. She edits WireTap, AlterNet’s youth-oriented section.