Pick up any major news publication this month and you’re bound to see young people front and center. From Connecticut to Missouri to California, teenagers and young adults are speaking out about racism, fear, and injustice in their communities.
Even when they don’t make the New York Times, plenty of young people, including here in Pittsburgh, have a lot to say. But they aren’t always given a platform.
Enter the Media Empowerment Student Summit (MESS) at Carnegie Mellon University. The second annual free event drew some 100 teenagers and adult allies from the Pittsburgh region on Nov. 7 to talk youth leadership, media, and social justice. The event is hosted by CREATE Lab’s Hear Me and a handful of regional partners.
“Young people in our region are really driven and motivated to create change, and they’re grasping at opportunities to be able to do that,” said HEAR Me’s Jessica Pachuta, who worked with young people to plan MESS.
When she first solicited suggestions for MESS programming, Pachuta was not surprised to hear that Pittsburgh participants had a lot of “big questions.” They wanted to talk about race and the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They wanted to talk about their rights.
The youth-designed agenda for MESS was packed with sessions on the prison industrial complex, student legal rights, and digital media tools. Half the sessions were led by “really dynamite youth facilitators,” Pachuta said.
Megan Marmol, a freshman at Carlow University, attended MESS last year and embraced the chance to take the reins on the planning committee this go-round. A disability-rights activist, Marmol facilitated a session called “One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” She led her peers in a discussion about what it means to be able-bodied or disabled, and how to close the communication and respect gap between people who identify as disabled and others.
MESS, a conference about media and empowerment, struck Marmol as the right forum for those topics. “There’s a lack of media coverage and representation of all kinds of people,” she said, explaining that the diversity of disabilities that exists in the world is not shown on screen. As an activist, she has realized that the lack of media representation breeds a lack of empathy and awareness.
Conversely, media can be a powerful tool for youths and others who lack a loud voice in society, Marmol said. The summit attendees really responded to a video she showed where people with different disabilities described their daily lives.
Three other MESS sessions aimed to teach participants how to “amplify their voices” through podcasting, web design, and other media creation tools. Many young attendees posted photos and thoughts on social media throughout the day, spreading what they learned to a near-infinite digital network of peers. That way, their peers who couldn’t make it to the event weren’t spared the empowering discussion and spirit.
Much of the conference focused on the power young people can find in networks, be it meeting like-minded peers face-to-face, working with a community organization, or starting a dialogue on social media. Even during lunch, the teenagers strolled around a “resource fair,” meeting representatives from Pittsburgh organizations that have operate their communities. Chatting with peers from different backgrounds and schools opened Marmol’s eyes to the potential to collaborate on community projects.
“Doing a lot of interactive, engaging work opens the doors, and makes people realize something is possible as an interest or a career,” she said.
Of course, not all young people are staging rallies on campuses or spending Saturdays at youth media summits. In fact, young people are pretty abysmal when it comes to civic engagement, especially voting. In 2014, 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, the lowest youth turnout ever recorded for a federal election. In 2009, the last year for which CIRCLE released data showing how frequently high school students volunteered in their communities, the percentage had been on the decline since 2005.
Part of the falloff is a cultural shift after years of fractured politics. Millennials say they are turned off by politics. In addition, where once non-college-bound youths found a hook into political and civic participation at work, through unions or other organizations, those options have largely disappeared.
Yet as researchers like Joseph Kahne argue, we may be overlooking fresh forms of engagement when we talk about the demise of civic participation. Some of the bigger social movements use unconventional means of engagement—Black Lives Matter protests, for example, have been ignited by social media. That’s good news because new media and other nontraditional models of participation bypass conventional hierarchies and skill-level barriers, and “help counter youths’ relatively low levels of engagement with many dimensions of political life,” writes the Civic Engagement Research group.
At MESS, teenagers of diverse backgrounds came together to engage on pressing issues and think up solutions. If such nontraditional venues continue to pop up, youth civic engagement levels could start to thrive.