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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Street-Level Youth Soar: Students Learn How to Tell Their Stories

Students learn the art of digital expression.
By Noel White

A Street-Level digital postcard from a project in which young women envision themselves as active forces in shaping society.

Credit: StreetLevel

On a corner in Chicago's West Town, a low-income Latino neighborhood, sits a storefront known around the city as "that video place run by kids." It is one of three neighborhood drop-in centers organized by Street-Level Youth Media. A not-for-profit agency started by artists and teens, Street-Level is where young people, from grade school to high school, gain access to the tools of our information-based society. A visitor to any of the drop-in centers will find video production and editing facilities, multimedia computers wired to the Internet, and professional artists helping young people learn how to tell their stories.

A Street-Level jobs program participant prepares for a video shoot at the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Credit: Street-Level

Kids in Charge

"Kids can come in, they're in charge of what they want to do," says Angel, an eighteen-year-old Street-Level participant. "It's an open place for kids to come in and get hands-on experience with the latest technology."

Angel has stayed with Street-Level for over five years. While enthusiastic about the technology, Angel says he comes mainly because of the people. At Street-Level, professional media artists taught him video production skills, computer animation, and Web design. With these skills, he has contributed to Street-Level's home page as well as many other sites, and has worked on video collaborations with the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago Field Museum. Angel says he gained "a lot of knowledge of the latest technology," and "at the same time, I learned how to control myself a whole lot better."

Young people outside the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center (one of Street-Level's three drop-in programs) interview each other for a video exhibition on issues such as community identity, motherhood, and youth culture.

Credit: Street-Level

School Partnerships

One of the ways that Street-Level connects with young people is through collaborations in a dozen public schools, where its media arts program helps teachers to integrate curriculum and bring current media technology to students. According to Deidre Searcy, one of Street-Level's co-directors, "We're interested in working with teachers in partnership to try and develop curriculum that will further enhance learning." As one example, Searcy points to a science teacher doing a fourth-grade unit on soil. "We spent time talking about how video can be used as a means of investigation, of telling stories, as a part of representing what they've learned. ... We had kids create a completely animated story from the perspective of anything that lives in the soil." Along the way, students learned about science and gained experience with storyboarding, animation, and video production.

Giving Voice to Teen Interests

Nicholas, a seventeen-year-old newcomer to Street-Level, is already energized by his experiences there. "Normally I would just hang out with my friends. While that's fun, there's nothing really productive coming out of it," he notes. "Whereas when I come here, I get something in return. I get to learn how to use cameras, the editing machine, and how to light everything so that when I interview someone I know the proper techniques."

Students who become interested in what Street-Level offers can go to any of three neighborhood drop-in centers for equipment, training, and individual attention, all free of charge. "They introduce us to everything, and they take us step-by-step," explains Vanessa, a high school senior. "After that, we take initiative and do it ourselves. They give us a lot of freedom." Having trained in camera work and editing, Vanessa helped create footage shown on a Chicago television station focusing on "how we're messing up the environment, and how we have to stop before it's too late."

Her latest plans exemplify the kind of initiative that Street-Level promotes. "Right now I'm planning to do a video on racism, because I've just seen a documentary about that," she says. "It was like all guys talking about it. So I want to do an all-female one." At Street-Level, Vanessa found a place organized to support her initiative. Street-Level has made a special effort to give voice to young women who otherwise might not pursue interests in media technology. "Sometimes with teens it can become more of a boys' thing. As much as the girls early on are interested, we get to a certain point, and for whatever reason they would kind of shrink back," explains Deidre Searcy. "We have some strong teen girls who have come up now, given our focus on trying to do girls' programming and providing a place for them to do that. They've been much more vocal recently."

Real Work

Along with the school collaborations and the drop-in centers, Street-Level arranges a variety of special projects, including employment opportunities and collaborations with cultural institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Columbia College of Chicago, the Field Museum, and Chicago Access Network Television. Through these collaborations, Street-Level participants create videos, Web sites, and multimedia productions that have a real audience and serve a purpose in the community. For example, in collaboration with the Chicago Historical Society, Angel and other young participants use their video production expertise to document oral histories of community elders, contributing to an exhibit series on the history of Chicago neighborhoods. Not only do these activities develop the skills of participants, they help to keep Street-Level afloat financially. Creating media art generates about half of the organization's funding, freeing Street-Level from relying solely on grants or donations.

A Hands-on Mission

Through all of its work, Street-Level seeks "to reach inner city youth," as Searcy puts it, to provide "experience in terms of all the emerging technologies, and to talk about self-expression and social change, and all the self-esteem and critical thinking skills that you associate with media and media literacy." The organization specifically targets young people who, in the words of its mission statement, "have been historically neglected by policymakers and mass media."

Street-Level may provide a bridge for these urban youth to cross the digital divide, but the participants themselves must be the ones to walk over. The mission is decidedly activist. As Searcy emphasizes, Street-Level is not just about providing technology and training, but about doing something with the opportunities provided. "The whole thing about media literacy is, for us, that it has no meaning until the kids actually create work themselves," she says.

This hands-on approach is one of the things participants appreciate most. "At other places you would just sit back and let the older people do the work," says James, a nineteen-year-old who has been involved with Street-Level for almost three years. "But here, they let the youth do the work. You can go online, or if we have a piece that we want to shoot, you can go out and get footage and document your story."

Listening to Youth

Although technology is an integral part of the organization's success, the computers, video cameras, and editing equipment fade into the background when participants talk about the organization and how it has developed their talents and voices. Vanessa, working on her video that will show a female perspective on racism, sums up the value of Street-Level by saying, "It's like my forum. I get heard. My opinions get heard, and that's pretty cool. I say that a lot -- pretty cool, pretty cool."

For their help in providing information and images for this story, we are grateful to Street-Level, and in particular to Paula Kowalczyk and Deidre Searcy.

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