Telling It Like It Is

A stone's throw from the CNN Tower, CBS Television City and the Disney-ABC headquarters, close to 80 young activists sit in a circle and talk about ways to wage war on the mainstream media. In the hollowed-out lobby of the Gershwin Hollywood Hotel, a hostel on Hollywood Boulevard, a four-day workshop to create new media begins.

The workshop, called "Tell it Like it is 2004: Target Hollywood," was organized by Third World Majority, a non-profit new media training and production resource center based in Oakland, Calif. The group, which trains young strategists and organizers to tell their stories, “digitally,” has hosted workshops like this one before. But this time they have come to Los Angeles – home to Hollywood and some of the biggest corporate media companies in the world – perhaps as a way to remind the media-makers-in-training just what they are up against. The participants are representatives from 30 different youth organizations, from as far away as Colorado, Mississippi, New York and the Virgin Islands. The goal this week is to send everyone home with a film that will help them get their group’s message out to a wider audience, and to empower them to find ways to continue making media that counteracts the effects of corporate media.

What do “digital stories” look like? Imagine a cross between a film and slideshow that can be shown either on a large screen or a Web site. Most use a combination of found images, stills, video, music and narration. More important, each story is shaped by someone engaged in the issue it tackles. In order to ensure that all participants had a film to take back, they were each told to bring along images, raw video and, in some cases, snippets of audio from their organizations.

For youth organizers like Rod Starz, 25, a hip hop artist and youth organizer for Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), the workshop provided a powerful, new medium with which to spread their messages. Starz said he was “excited about not only using audio, but visuals." He pointed out that visual representation is especially powerful with youth. Music videos, for instance, he added are as important as the songs they are made for.

The YMPJ film, indeed, often had the feel of a hip hop music video. In it Starz worked to capture the flavor of the Bronx – the part of New York he proudly calls the birthplace of hip hop. Along the Bronx River, Starz and the other youth of YMPJ hope to see a park rather than a truck route built for the better health of the low-income families who live in the area. News footage and real testimony woven between photos and hard-hitting beats give the film a dramatic edge far beyond the power of video footage.

Starz described the experience of making the film in four days as, “definitely a learning experience."

That learning experience says Third World Majority executive director, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, is the beginnings of a media justice movement, a movement where in the people take back a media system that misrepresents or does not represent too many groups. "It's about recognizing that we are not an alternate to the corporate structure. We are a challenge to it," says Soundararajan.

Not to say, they didn’t have challenges of their own to overcome, of course. "A lot of hotels turned us away because they didn't want to house this many young people," says Soundararajan. So, the group ended up in a hostel. The 30 organizations present at "Tell it Like it Is 2004" worked out of a large, warehouse-like room in the hostel. They provided the group with 40 Macs, mostly rented for the event, and some basic media-editing programs. Mentors from several organizations – the Seattle Youth Media Institute, Q Team, Unearthed Media and Third World Majority – helped the first-time filmmakers with the hardware and software. With limited resources and limited time, the young activists created scripts, soundtracks and narrations to go with the images and footage they brought to Los Angeles.

Joyce Brown of the Saint Croix Unity Coalition, a drug and violence prevention program for teens in the U.S. Virgin Islands, says she hopes that by learning to use digital media, she will give her organization another medium to get the word out. "We need to be there [on the Internet]," she says. "We need to tell our story – by us, not by other people." Brown came to workshops with images, music and poems and molded those three elements together over the course of the four days. The final product was a short film about the difficulties St. Croix teens face because of inadequate educational and extracurricular funding.

The group then screened the films – along with an audience filled with parents, film buffs and activists at Los Angeles’ Vine Theater. The historic Hollywood venue was virtually taken over by the young filmmakers, local spoken word artists and a hip hop DJ on Saturday evening. The digital stories dealt with issues ranging from mining operations on an Arizona reservation to equitable education in East Los Angeles to the environmental contamination of low-income residential areas in Brooklyn.

Many of the films made their mark, says Matt Keener, a filmmaker and script doctor from Hollywood. Keener heard about the screenings on his local community radio station and decided to check it out. "I'm really impressed, particularly with this new emerging style of digital storytelling," said Keener. Keener says that the the medium, because of the stills and audio overlay, forces the filmmakers to be creative and does not allow them to rely solely on video footage to tell the story. "There's definitely some rising talent here," he added.

Brandon McDowell, 24, who came to the workshop from Boston, representing Youth in Action, said he felt that the collective nature of the conference provided an added bonus. "Our stories are very connected in social justice," he said, adding that seeing that connection alleviates some of the isolation people who work for social causes often feel. McDowell’s film includes video footage of young men in Harbor Point, Mass., talking about their experiences with police harassment. One unidentified interviewee says kids in his neighborhood are searched four or five times a day.

The Youth in Action film then ends with a quote from the poet Audre Lorde that reads, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." By the end of the workshop, it was clear that the participants had internalized this concept. As McDowell put it, "We have our own tools. We're building our own house."

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