Students bring energy, strong voices to diversity dialogue
By Natalie Johnson
Any discussion about diversity would be incomplete without adding student voices tot the mix. Students throughout the SJMC are not only learning about the importance of diversity, but are engaged and working hard to make sure the dialogue remains interesting and meaningful.
Minnesotano Media Empowerment Project
How are Latinos portrayed in the media? How do the media impact youth and their perceptions of themselves? How can Latinos become more involved with issues regarding the media?
These are some of the questions that drove 30 University of Minnesota students to collaborate with the Department of Chicano Studies in the Minnesotano Media Empowerment Project last fall, and compelled them to study more than 1,100 stories from 20 different Minnesota newspapers over a 10-week period.
The initiative to increase the capacity of Latinos to organize, share knowledge and engage the public in issues affecting the community received funding from the Otto Bremer Foundation. One of the students participating in the study was SJMC journalism student Erica Torres.
"As a Latina and a journalism student, I am particularly aware of the lack of media coverage on Latinos," she says, "as well as the abundance of stories on Latinos that are either related to crime, immigration or cultural celebrations. I rarely, if ever, see a story in which a Latino is represented as a mainstream member of our society. It was natural for me to want to get involved in any way possible."
The newspapers came from cities of all sizes across Minnesota, from the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul to more rural areas like Worthington and Willmar. The study window included several weeks leading up to and following the November 2006 elections. The final report detailing the findings is being compiled by the Department of Chicano Studies and media scholars at the SJMC and the University of St. Thomas.
"Analysis of these media sources is our key to understanding how the media is [sic] portraying the Latino community in Minnesota," Torres explains. "It will give us an understanding as to the general tone -- negative, neutral or biased -- of coverage and will provide an understanding as to general patterns and the topics that are covered most often."
It is this type of analysis, Torres says, that encourages organizations and populations to keep track of what is being said about them and is the first step in challenging mainstream media portrayals.
In addition to the media analysis, the Minnesotano Media Empowerment Project has launched a Web site and is marketing a youth media activism curriculum that begins by asking "What is media?" and guides participants through writing letters to the editor. Media activism also is being used as a form of community empowerment and leadership.
"We have planned some ongoing community projects that focus on media education, networking, advocacy and editorial output," Torres says, explaining that it will take the entire Latino community working together to enact lasting change. "As media consumers, it is important that our community takes ownership in the coverage and portrayal of our community."
Project coordinators hope to create a structure that supports Latino communities throughout Minnesota to act on their own behalf in impacting media coverage and increasing production of, and contributions to, media sources. They also would like to see people change from being merely consumers of media to being critical participants in the process. Finally, they hope to increase awareness of the impact that the media have on both individuals' and communities' self-esteem and social agency.
"I hope people will be able to see the unfair representation of Latinos and be able to apply this knowledge and awareness to all communities of color," says Torres. "I hope people will acknowledge the fact that our society is constantly evolving, and at the forefront, evolving alongside, should be the media, one of the largest tools in the process of socializing our society."
Shine a light through a prism and the result is a spectacular array of color.
Take a student organization named PRISM, working on behalf of students of all cultures and backgrounds, and you have a strong voice in the discussion about diversity.
"The media profession today primarily reflects one light, one voice and one culture," says Aisha Eady, PRISM president for 2006-07. "Through the work of PRISM, we hope to encourage a broader representation of the whole spectrum, one that is inclusive of all the colors of the world we live in, regardless of people's racial, sexual or cultural backgrounds."
Formed in 1998, PRISM is the only multicultural, multimedium student organization of its kind in the nation. It functions within the SJMC to support diversity in the media while fostering a sense of community among students in the School. Members empower and encourage each other to succeed, and work hard to keep the discussion about diversity going, with the goal of improving students' understanding of the effects of racism and bigotry in the media as well as on the University campus.
Eady, who joined the group because she believed in its cause, learned early on why PRISM's work is vital.
"One evening I met a student of color who was interested in applying to the SJMC," says Eady. "His grade point average was above the recommended level, but he told me he was afraid to apply to the School. I couldn't understand why he would be intimidated."
Eady discovered the reason for the student's fear was his perception of the SJMC, one of the reasons she feels PRISM's work is so important.
"He thought SJMC students were elitist, pompous and pretentious. While I have no doubt there are students who are just like he described, the majority of us are not," she says. "We have a responsibility as students who care about the representation of people of color in the media to begin by changing this perception of the School. If we do not, we will continue to lose talented students of color to other departments."
As a result of Eady's conversation with the student, he took the first step and attended an admissions meeting.
While contributing to the discussion about diversity is an important part of PRISM's work, the organization also exists to help members succeed. One of Eady's proudest moments this year was watching her idea of speed interviewing come to fruition.
"Students at the SJMC were missing the interviewing and résumé skills necessary to set them apart from other candidates," says Eady. "I felt we could develop some of those skills with a concept borrowed from speed dating."
Similar to speed dating, in which couples are given only minutes to introduce themselves while trying to spark a connection, the interview derby provided students a brief window of time in which to showcase their skills. In the space of just a few minutes, students had to convince prospective employers, portrayed by SJMC faculty and guests from the Twin Cities media industry, that they were the best candidate for the job.
"The event was a hit with diverse students from all concentrations and with professionals from diverse organizations and backgrounds," says Eady.
The success of events like the derby helps keep PRISM's name "on the radar," says Eady, yet the challenging issue of diversity remains.
"Our major challenges include recruiting diverse students and convincing them to maintain active leadership and membership," says Eady. "PRISM is a great way to not only keep the discussion about diversity going, but to give back to the community as well. None of us get anywhere without help from others. We need to be the ones providing it."
Last spring, Eady graduated as one of the SJMC's Star Tribune scholars and is now an intern at Newsweek magazine in New York.
Documentary--"Thinking About, Being About It"
College can be a challenge for many students, yet for some, the frustrations begin well before they set foot on a university campus as they face stereotypes that discourage them from making different choices than their peers.
SJMC student Tracy Blackmon is one such individual, whose pursuit of education met with resistance from her family and friends. She not only faced the challenges and broke through the stereotypes, but she is now helping other students of color do the same.
"I am a first-generation college student," says Blackmon, who grew up in the African-American community in Houston, Texas, where she says there were few positive role models encouraging youth to pursue their education. "I faced the comments of my family and community, with people saying 'you think you're so smart' or 'you think you're better than us' as I tried to focus on getting a good education. They don't understand that education is the key to so many things and can solve so many problems, especially in the lower socioeconomic classes. I want students of every color to get the message that they can achieve their goals, that they can better themselves."
With a video camera and a blazing passion for her work, Blackmon explored the path students of color chose concerning their education, the challenges they faced and the resources that helped them along the way. The resulting documentary delivers a message of hope and encouragement.
"Thinking About, Being About It" begins with historical perspective on the fight African- Americans and immigrants have faced to achieve equality in the educational system. It explores the stereotypes found in many communities of color or lower socioeconomic groups where those who set high educational goals for themselves may be ostracized or isolated because others perceive they think they are above them. Using the personal stories of African-American, Hmong, Asian and Latino students, the documentary explores students' challenges and triumphs as their educational journeys unfold.
"It's touching, it's funny and it's a little painful," Blackmon says in describing the film. "Students tell their own stories, so the format is unlike a traditional documentary. I wanted the stories to flow freely and become salient for students in high school, middle and elementary school. Because the stories come from students themselves, they are really heartfelt."
The documentary began as a seed planted by the diversity initiative within the College of Liberal Arts. It grew to include input from the diversity board, the SJMC and the African- American Registry. In a testament to the power of the message, plans are now in the works to market the film for use in middle school and high school classrooms to enlighten all students on the importance of higher education. There is also talk of turning the film into a children's book using cartoon characters developed by Blackmon and an art student she met during her long hours of editing in the SJMC video production lab.
Blackmon is thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive reaction she has received for the film. In a showing on the University campus this spring, the film brought tears to the eyes of students and faculty alike as students on camera talked about their experiences. It is exactly the kind of power Blackmon wanted to generate.
"There is someone out there just like me who wants a better life, but who faces the pressures of their community and begins to think that college is not possible," she says. "I want to crush that stereotype, so students are no longer afraid to step out and get the education they need to choose a different path."