"Tell It Like It Is": Digital Stories From The Youth Movement

rise up There are places where silence roars, but no one hears it.

Where 12-year-old Walles lives there is no running water or electricity. But there is conflict. The rural, rocky landscape of Big Mountain, Az. is the heart of a political land battle between the Peabody Coal Mine Company, and the Hopi and Dineh nations. Walles has seen her brother arrested and her home demolished in forced relocation schemes by the mining company. And for a long time, no one heard her story.

But six months ago Walles and 19 other youth organizers from across the country were given a digital camera, a computer and a chance to record their experiences. In late August they gathered together for a three-day long convergence in which they learned how to turn their work into short documentaries on their movements. And on the following Saturday night at the Youth Empowerment Center in Oakland, Calif., around 300 youth activists from around the country gathered to watch a showcase of these "digital stories."

The conference was organized through a partnership between Third World Majority, a new media women of color collective, and the Active Element Foundation, a funding organization for youth movements. They reached out to 20 different organizations from around the country, and sponsored an older and younger activist from each group to fly into Oakland to learn the skills of new media organizing. The training focused around community-based digital storytelling, and involved a three-day workshop process that integrated aspects of popular education, creative writing, oral history and filmmaking. Once there, the diverse group of young activists spent three days in intense training, sometimes all night, working on their video footage.

Walles has seen her brother arrested and her home demolished in forced relocation schemes by the mining company. And for a long time, no one heard her story.

"There is a split in how the movement uses this new technology," said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, one of the conference organizers from Third World Majority. New media technology is a novelty in many communities of color, many of whom are unaware of the ways to use it to their advantage within the movement, she explained.

In many communities of color, certain technologies have a history that makes technology hard to trust. "Almost all this technology has a political legacy that was used violently against us," Soundararajan said. "Whether the camera or the Internet -- they were used for military purposes... surveillance, policing, colonial ethnography. We had little control over how technology could be used for our own self-determination," she said.

For almost all of the youth in attendance, this was their first time working with video-making production technology. But the end product left many awe stuck. "The youth produced absolutely empowering digital stories of the problems facing their communities and the ways they organize for social change," said Bernadette "Anpao" Moreno, 18, a conference organizer from Active Element.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Laura "Ya Ya" Ruiz, a 20-year-old organizer with JustAct, a San-Francisco based youth global justice organization, attended the conference, and praised Active Element and Third World Majority for bringing the groups together. "I think it's important for people that have resources to open up doors for those that don't so that they can work against injustices in their communities," Ruiz said. "That's how it should be more often in life -- finding way that young people, especially low-income people of color, can express their experiences in a way that is true to their culture."

This expression is what attracted organizers like Soundararajan to using the technology in the movement. "Many of us are marginalized as people of color in this [technology] field, and especially as women of color... But we are learning this not to get jobs in some company, but as tools to help our communities evolve, to tells our stories," Soundararajan said.

At a time when many media monopolies often misrepresent and stereotype communities of color in their broadcasting, diverse storytelling from low-income communities of color is more and more necessary to balance the coverage. The rise of the community digital storytelling movement came as a response to this mainstream exclusion. It has been described by Third World Majority as "a grassroots media phenomena, in which communities create their own digital stories from the found material in their lives (art, oral history, creative writing, photographs, music, written script, letters, news clippings) combined with new media production (digital video, the web, graphic design, sound engineering, animation) to tell their own truths in their own voices."

Participants took on issues that were direct and personal to their experience: institutional racism, police brutality, failing schools, homophobia, cultural identity, street life, immigrant rights and hip hop organizing.

This was illustrated at the conference as participants took on issues that were direct and personal to their experience: institutional racism, police brutality, failing schools, homophobia, cultural identity, street life, immigrant rights and hip hop organizing.

Life Allah, 25, co-founded Cincinnati Copwatch in the wake of the 2001 riots. "I'm from that area... I was down there looting. My film is about the reality of my neighborhood," he said. His organizing partner, Rodney Beanmon, 16, also put together a documentary on the organizing that occurred in the community after the shooting death that led to the riots. "There have been 15 black men shot dead by the police in this community...this is a way of showing more about our community."

'The conference was very experiential... none of us came in knowing how to make movies or really knowing what each of us were about," Allah said. He complemented the diversity of the group both in terms of ethnicity and the variety of issues brought to the conference.

As well as being informative documentaries, many activists used their videos as teaching and outreach tools for their organizations. Underground Railroad, for example, a youth group that organizes hip-hop events in the Bay Area, showed how they used music and culture to bring awareness and change to their community.

Other participants viewed the workshop as a place to network with the community of organizers they encountered. Gavin Leonard, 21, of Cincinnati Copwatch, and Refat "Shoshi" Dozen, 16, of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a group that organizes Southeast Asians in New York, both felt the workshop was a good place to meet other young activists.

Nahed Freaig, 23, of the Arab American Action Network, said she learned a lot from the ways other activists organized. "It was great to see how all our struggles connect, to see how everything comes together. This is the unity we have been needing," she said.

Many others viewed the event as a way to find out about the broader movement and the different actions happening around the country; they had the chance to hear about the larger youth social justice movement spreading across the country. Many of the attendees were surprised to learn that other groups were dealing with issues and experiences quite like their own.

Moreno emphasized the importance of connecting these separate strands of the movement. It was this sense of "unity" that she saw as the important end result of bringing the 20 groups together.

For many the event, which had its funding approved only two and a half weeks before the conference was to take place, was as one of the organizers, Billy Upski of Active Element, called " a miracle."

Cultural Weaponry

Soundararajan, 25, who was recently featured as one of Utne Reader's top 30 under 30, emphasized the importance of reclamation through vehicles like digital storytelling. "We are reframing how our stories are told, how we use this technology to put our lives in a new political context," she said. "We can use it to define our culture as a tool... this wasn't just about telling stories; it's about reclaiming histories."

Third World Majority follows the principle that "culture is a weapon" -- all cultures have learned to resist in different ways stemming from the experience of their communities. The workshop enabled the participants to wield, share and exchange their cultural weaponry: songs, chants, rhymes, poetry, zines, T-shirts and organizing skills in a total integration of diverse revolutionary culture.

This generation's youth movement has gone by many faces -- from the rumbling anarcho-streets of Seattle's anti-globalization movement, to the urban hip hop activism of the No More Prisons movement -- and yet it continues to expand itself, bringing together new organizations and smaller community activism into a larger context of radical youth organizing. This conference was no different.

As the conference attendees pumped their fists, danced, recited poetry and hugged after an intense three-day movie making experience, it became obvious that for many attendees the movement became larger than just their own personal struggles, their own street corners.

The movement is a 16-year-old boy named Fredrick campaigning for better services in his community in Philadelphia. It's youth organizing in Selma, Ala. to restore the first black owned radio station. It's using hip hop as a cultural weapon against superjails in California. It's communities organizing for a free Palestine and against racial profiling in Chicago. It's fighting a militarized border town in southern Texas.

Organizers found the conference to be a unifying cultural experience that they would bring back to their home communities. Quoting a Ghanaian proverb, one youth organizer summed up the significance of bringing their movements to light through digital storytelling: "Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall ever glorify the hunter."

For more information on community based digital storytelling, and to view the participants' videos, visit http://www.thirdworldmajority.org.

Desiree Evans, 21, is an Alternet intern and a senior majoring in journalism at Northwestern University. In her free time she likes to write about the youth movement.

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