“we show love in our communities to stop violence by coming together, throwing away ignorance, lifting up one another, gardening...” -- @D_FY tweet
Working with funds from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, Detroit Future gives local residents the skills, access and support to rewrite the online narrative about their city.
When people from Detroit go online, they often find negative depictions of the city -- stories about how it is in ruins, or is violent and dangerous. Or they find narratives about new arrivals, which may omit the city’s history. These depictions are a major barrier to broadband adoption and inhibit local economic development. The Detroit Future program is developing tools and strategies to address this issue.
In September, the Detroit Future Youth Network held a workshop showing young people how to engage with online narratives. According to workshop leaders Ilana Weaver of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and Jenny Lee of Allied Media Projects, the goal was to "deconstruct existing narratives about Detroit and re-construct participatory youth-led narratives that inspire transformative social justice organizing."
Through this work, Detroit Future is addressing one of Detroit’s greatest economic challenges -- the squandering of young people’s creative talents and problem-solving abilities. Businesses say they cannot find people to help build websites or boost technology use, even when they are ready to invest, but youth who develop employable knowledge-industry skills too often leave the city, according to a 2009 study.
Meanwhile, civic leaders cannot find solutions to the city’s education crisis, so instead they close neighborhood schools and triage resources towards “college-bound” students. Many students who could have been engaged in the work of solving real problems in their communities drop out of school at alarming rates and apply their creativity and problem-solving abilities within the underground economy (see Detroit Summer, “Rising Up From The Ashes: Chronicles of a Drop-Out,” 2006). Detroit Future programs offer an alternate vision for the role of youth in transforming the city, and equip participants with the skills to bring that vision to life.
Detroit Future Youth Media-based Organizing workshop, September 22, 2011
50 youth and adults from a dozen different organizations, partners in the Detroit Future Youth Network, participated in this media-based organizing workshop.
They began by deconstructing existing narratives about Detroit. The workshop broke into five small groups; each discussed one of the following media pieces, which represent a sample of prevailing online narratives about Detroit:
- "Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline,” a photo essay by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for Time Magazine;
- "Imported from Detroit,” the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem;
- "Lemonade Detroit,” a film to "sensationalize hope… Instead of sensationalizing blight“ according to the synopsis on the project's website.
- "Worst Detroit Schools to be Moved to New District,” a June 20, 2011, news segment from the local Fox affiliate on the Detroit Public Schools system;
- "Detroit's deadliest neighborhood,” a September 2, 2011, Detroit News article on the homicide rate in the 48205 ZIP code that ends with the grandmother of a murdered high school student shaking her head and saying, "Kids killing kids."
Each group analyzed these media pieces, focusing on four questions:
- What images or words stand out to you?
- Who are the main characters in this story?
- What is their vision of Detroit's future?
- How are Detroit youth portrayed in this story?
Afterwards, participants came back together as a large group and shared their answers to the last question: How are Detroit youth portrayed in this story? The full group discussed their responses and synthesized the overarching messages of the five media samples, which the facilitators then wrote on butcher paper:
- "Black youth kill black youth"
- "Black youth are 'bad' individuals, not members of families, communities, loved ones"
- "More police will keep us safe"
- "DPS students are failures"
- "Only outsiders can fix our problems"
- "Youth don’t exist here"
- "The future involves owning and driving Chryslers; most youth never will"
- "Youth are leaving Detroit"
- "Detroit needs 'talented young workers' to stay"
In response to these observations, the youth in the workshop discussed how stories like these feed into policies that impact their city:
- "More investment in prisons than schools"
- "School closures"
- "Neighborhood destruction (Detroit Works Project - if people are portrayed as individuals without social bonds, it’s easier to justify the destruction of neighborhoods)"
- "Privatization and corporate savior mentality"
From Their Story To Our Story
Making the shift from "their story" to "our story," facilitators prompted participants to brainstorm ways that they would complete the sentence, "Detroit Youth are…" Weaver live-tweeted the answers with the hashtag #detroitfuture. The response phrases ranged from “the future” to “untold,” “self-empowering” and “the breaking point.”
Then the workshop broke up into groups again, this time organized around the major focus areas of their respective organizations’ work: safety, education and the environment. They revisited the four questions from earlier in the workshop, asking, “Who are the main characters in OUR story? What is OUR vision of the future (with regards to safety, education or the environment)?” Then they developed a set of questions that a community media piece would need to ask, in order to reflect “our story.”
Finally, the three groups moved around the room to interview each other with these questions, and then reconvened to assemble a narrative from the responses. Their assignment was to synthesize responses gathered from their interviews into stories three Tweets long with an eye to how the resulting narratives could impact "our lives, our communities, city policies, practices." The resulting “three-tweet stories” via @D_FY were:
- “we show love in our communities to stop violence by coming together, throwing away ignorance, lifting up one another, gardening...”
- “the roots of youth violence are jealousy, fear, economics and a gangster mentality provoked by negative media messages.”
- “youth stop violence in our neighborhoods by creating positive spaces to get to know each other, build respect while doing community service.”
- “The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. stand up for what you believe in #neweducation #detroitfuture”
- “Get involved: turn off ur TV, let your voice be heard, learn more about your community & neighborhood #detroitfuture”
- “Everyone working together, engaging creating safe spaces, and new landscapes! #detroitfuture repping #environmentalJustice”
- “If no one gets gets educated then what happens to the future? Gain Wisdom. reach higher. #detroitfuture”
- “teach what #EnvironmentalJustice is! how are we effected? How can we get involved? lets GROW, VOLUNTEER, PICK UP TRASH#Detroitfuture”
- “#EnviromentalJustice ....... Detroiters come together, ask how we contribute? how are we responsible? #Detroitfuture”
Over the course of two hours, this group of Detroit Future Youth participants took apart existing online narratives that erased, marginalized or criminalized youth -- and built new narratives where youth are standing up, working together, stopping violence and creating new landscapes. Workshop participants learned crucial digital skills like media literacy, interviewing, narrative creation, and using social media, and they developed positive visions for Detroit's future that will make them more likely to stay and contribute to their native city.