I have conducted participatory media programs and examined their outcomes with Palestinian youth in refugee camps from 2006-2011, however upon moving to New York City I began devising such programs with marginalized urban youth. In 2011 New York City had the highest-ever graduation rates of 60.6 and 58.2 percent, respectively, for Black and Hispanic students, and an overall rate of 65%. But this still left 35-40% of high school students not graduating on time, or dropping out (15%). Youth living in inner-city neighborhoods and those from migrant communities face many additional struggles.

After-school programs often seek to engage at-risk youth in alternative activities to improve school retention and address their life struggles. What role can participatory media program play in such settings? How should one design compelling programs that foster creative learning, narrative expression and civic engagement among youth? What affect do such programs have on the trajectory of peer-based informal learning and high school retention among participants? How might these young participants be engaged in their own neighborhoods and communities in training peers, journalism or storytelling? And finally, how should one go about assessing such outcomes in a longitudinal and participatory manner?

Designing Participatory Learning, Mobility Shifts
November 22, 2011

To gain some insights into these questions, I began developing several exploratory programs since fall 2011 using participatory media and digital storytelling with marginalized youth in neighborhoods of New York City and initiated pilot studies to assess outcomes with my graduate students. The first such program, White Noise/Blind Spotwas conducted in partnership with the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center and the People’s Production House (PPH)in 2011-2012. The project was supported in part by a $50,000 Link grant from the New York Community Trust (NYCT) and Hive NYC Learning Network. A cohort of 10-12 adolescents aged 13-17 joined the program, through a selective process of online and interview-based recruitment across public schools in New York City. The 5-month program consisted of intensive  participatory media workshops conducted at Eyebeam in Chelsea, followed by a paid-externship at The New School to engage youth with civic media projects in communities and mentoring of younger students.

The workshops began by having the participating youth collaborate in groups to explore the sensory experience of urban neighborhoods using digital photography, sound walks, and audio interviews with the community. The youth produced digital audio narratives and experimental photomontage, which were integrated with social media narratives using an open source online media production platform called Mozilla Popcorn. In more advanced stages of the program the youth were trained to used video cameras and digital video editing to produce visual narratives, focused on journalistic and fictionalized narratives in their neighborhoods. Through these weekly workshops the youth not only learned narrative and media production skills, but also team-based creative collaboration and journalistic inquiry to amplify their civic engagement and leverage digital media to express critically informed perspectives in the public sphere.

While participatory media and digital storytelling programs with youth have become more widespread, systematic assessment of outcomes is rarely conducted. Most organizations do not have the capacity and expertise to evaluate the efficacy of such programs and their impact on young participants. In collaboration with Prof. Howard Steele (Psychology/NSSR), I designed an exploratory pilot research study to develop a comprehensive methodology and assess outcomes emerging from our program at Eyebeam. The goal was to examine the potential role of a participatory media and storytelling in improving indicators of personal, social, creative expression, and community engagement among participating adolescents. This pilot study undertook an unusual mixed-methods approach leveraging several assessment tools including self-report questionnaires using standardized psychological instruments including the Rosenberg Self-Esteem (RSE) Scale, The Life Effectiveness Questionnaire (LEQ), and a newly devised Youth Media Program Evaluation Tool (YM-PET) to assess media literacy skills, mentorship abilities and civic engagement by youth in their communities. The latter was based on an experimental Youth At Risk Program Evaluation Tool,originally designed as a psychologically valid method for adventure-based youth at risk programs. 

These quantitative measures were complemented by semi-structured interviews conducted with the youth (using the Friends and Family Interview protocoldeveloped by Prof. Steele), participant observations with youth, and teacher observations conducted before and after the completion of the program. Finally, I devised an innovative audio-based journaling activity engaging youth to privately capture weekly reflections on a digital audio recorder (which was unexpectedly effective; see my paper summarizing outcomes in the Appendix). The study protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at The New School in February 2012, and conducted over a 5-month period with a team of 7-8 graduate student researchers from Psychology and the School of Media Studies, whom I trained and supervised. Detailed outcomes from the study were analyzed over a 6-month period examining the nature of recruitment, retention and engagement, learning and technology use, creative outcomes and expression, interpersonal and group dynamics, civic engagement in the neighborhood, and teacher’s experiences (see a full report in Appendix).

One of the key methodological outcomes was that conducting such a thorough assessment requires a highly systematic and labor-intensive process with a great deal of dedicated resources; this is unlikely to be available for most after-school programs, however lightweight and participatory modes of assessment are better suited to such contexts. Based on lessons learned we followed up with some of these youth in a new program conducted at The New School in 2013, using a slightly simplified research protocol emphasizing qualitative peer-based and participatory approaches to self-assessment and reflection through audio-journaling, storytelling and focus-group de-briefings; we found that these peer-based tools were easier to conduct and analyze by both teachers and co-researchers, while making the overall process far more fluid and engaging for the youth involved in such participatory media programs. This was a crucial insight that has greatly shaped the nature of peer-based reflective assessment that I have since incorporated and experimented with in subsequent youth media programs developed over the years.

While such assessment tools must be carefully tailored to the pedagogical goals and expressive modalities (textual or audio/visual) used in such youth programs, they share many methodological, ethical and pragmatic concerns, which have borne out in our experiences. I have integrated these approaches in my graduate seminars on Participatory Research and Social Inquiryand training workshops that I have conducted with students and researchers at The New School and at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem (2013). I have contributed a book chapter “Making Sense of Participatory Video: Approaches for Participatory Content Analysis” in The Handbook of Participatory Video published by AltaMira Press in August 2012. Here I demonstrate how an orientation towards peer-based Participatory Action Research (PAR) should inform not only the design and conduct of such programs and their assessment, but also influence the reflective analysis of emerging outcomes facilitated through shared media-based inquiry among the youth themselves.

In January 2013 I established the Engage Media Lab (EML) with Melissa Friedling (School of Media Studies) and Peter Lucas (Milano/GPIA), an initiative to engage students in co-designing, conducting and assessing participatory media-based learning with youth and marginalized communities in New York City and abroad. The program was devised in part based on the legacy of a prior initiative, The Video Lab,established in the School of Media Studies nearly 10 years earlier. EML’s programs support creative media narratives that inspire critical inquiry into the socio-political issues of the city and seek to cultivate a new generation of critical media practitioners. The lab has trained dozens of graduate students to become media educators and hundreds of youth to gain skills in new media and civic engagement in their neighborhoods and communities through hands-on production workshops and collaborative projects. The initiative has been funded in part by two Civic Engagement grants from The New School (2013 and 2014), and supported by the School of Media Studies each year. EML aspires to become a hub at The New School and in New York City for design, research and civic action through participatory media innovations.

From 2013-2015 EML developed a partnership with the Arab American Family Support Center (AAFSC) in Brooklyn to engage newly immigrated youth, originally from Yemen, in a yearlong series of participatory media workshops. Brooklyn now has the highest concentration of New York’s Arab immigrants and has become the third largest Arab American community in the United States. Despite this increased migration, the Arab youth themselves continue to face many struggles of engaging fully in their newly found homes, neighborhoods and communities including challenges of language, identity, literacy, employment, discrimination, harassment and violence among others in their everyday lives. The participatory media program with AAFSC titled “I Need to be Heard!” was designed to train two cohorts of 25 youth (aged 13-17) in the Girls and Boys Clubs through 14-week long workshops conducted in the spring and fall terms at the Packer School in Brooklyn, jointly led by 4-5 New School graduate students and several AAFSC staff.

I Need to be Heard, EML youth program with AAFSC, April 25, 2014

The pilot program went surprisingly well in engaging the youth using digital storytelling, despite their cross-cultural challenges being part of newly immigrated and conservative families. The emerging films shown in public screenings explored topics such as gender relations, immigration, identity and struggles growing up as Arab American teens in Brooklyn. I trained my team to conduct peer-based assessment, teacher debriefings, and participant observations with youth; their reflections were regularly documented in a private blog for peer-based review. The project developed crucial capacities for curricula design and youth engagement among staff at AAFSC; several of my graduate students were subsequently hired by the organization to develop and support such programs going forward.

The partnership has helped EML refine the pedagogical approaches and assessment tools to continue developing such civic engagement initiatives. With the increasing stigmatization of immigrants in the U.S. political landscape (especially those from Middle Eastern countries), it is even more crucial to establish such programs to empower the voices of marginalized youth, both in their local neighborhoods and communities but also in the wider public sphere. These approaches were incorporated into an intensive pre-college summer filmmaking program Film, Art, Change: Making Movies to Make a Difference”, co-developed with Melissa Friedling. It has been offered at The New School since 2014, co-taught by part-time faculty in Media Studies and many EML students.

I have regularly presented my research on participatory media with youth at international conferences (see Curriculum Vitae). In June 2013, I organized and co-chaired the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (IDC 2013) at The New School in partnership with Sesame Workshop. IDC is the premiere international conference for researchers, educators and practitioners to share the latest research findings, innovative methodologies and new technologies in the areas of inclusive child-centered design, learning and interaction.The 5-day conference was a massive undertaking; it included dozens of panel sessions, workshops, keynote talks, and hands-on activities.

This initiative required over a year of planning, while coordinating the efforts of dozens of staff and student volunteers. However, the outcomes exceeded our expectations, advancing greater interest and engagement in the field among the students, researchers and practitioners who attended. It was the most successful IDC conference to date, with a record number of papers submitted and the highest attendance of any previous conference (with over 450 participants). I co-edited the IDC 2013 conference proceedings, a volume of the selected peer-reviewed papers. I was subsequently invited to serve on the board of IDC organizing committee and become an Associate Editor for the International Journal of Child Computer Interaction (IJCCI).

In 2014 I conducted a pilot study to examine the experiences, struggles, and identity constructions of Palestinian adolescents living in East Jerusalem, with approval from The New School’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The project co-developed with my graduate RA Emily Breitkopf (Psychology) and Prof. Warren Spielberg (NSSR), was supported by the New School’s Faculty Research Fund. In January 2014 we conducted an intensive field-based training program on participatory and qualitative research methods with 12-15 graduate students in Psychology at the Child Institute in Al-Quds University.

We worked closely with the local team to jointly develop and conduct a novel participatory media program and peer-based assessment research with two cohorts of Palestinian adolescents (boys and girls aged 13-17) in East Jerusalem. We used techniques including semi-structured narrative interviews, diagramming of life events, photo-voice, audio journaling, and digital storytelling using participatory video, many of which I had previously developed in my prior work the West Bank, Gaza and NYC. The research methods aimed to investigate how young Palestinians living in contested contexts construct adolescent identity and gender norms through intersecting lenses of religion, national identity, sexuality, economic and political struggles.

The outcomes from this project were co-analyzed in part with our research team in Jerusalem and allowed us to consider follow-up programs with youth in Jerusalem in the future. However, what we found most crucial in this project was the methodology for engaging young Palestinian women (trained in clinical psychology and counseling) to conduct research with younger teenaged adolescents in their own communities, while making sense of issues relating to identity, discrimination, gender constructs and sociopolitical struggles. They were able to leverage their own “subcultural capital” (unsanctioned knowledge, in this case about the peculiar struggles of living as Palestinians in East Jerusalem) to gain credibility with the youth, while serving as role models for positive change in the process. Hence, the pilot project revealed a great deal more about devising such peer-based participatory research and conducting narrative and media-based inquiry in contested settings.

I have been drawing upon these research experiences and methodologies to inform my teaching and advising at The New School, while developing capacities among my graduate students to design, conduct and assess community-based participatory media programs through the Engage Media Lab. We have since developed new partnerships with organizations including the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) and the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) to devise educational programs, innovative tools and assessment approaches engaging marginalized youth in New York City.

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