In January 2013 I established the Engage Media Lab (EML), 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 along with Prof. Peter Lucas extending 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.
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.
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