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Power and Powerlessness behind the Camera

HYPE provides a safe and supportive context for learning and development where young people have possibilities to voice their concerns about the community issues that matter to them most.7 Disempowering relationships with adults figure prominently in these conversations. HYPE students unanimously view the community as unwelcoming to young people in general and adults as distrusting of youth of color in particular. Person-on-the-street interviews conducted by HYPE on a summer morning confirmed this perception: “What do I thinka teenagers? Buncha hoodlums, that’s what I think.”8 No experience better demonstrated how disempowered HYPE students feel in the face of adult authority than their formal interview with the principal of the largest public high school in the Allentown School District.

The interview team—Amanda, Dahlia, Shaniqua, and Sheridan— accompanied by Disbrow and Azar, travelled the eight blocks between HYPE and the high school by car, equipped with a camera, microphone, and a list of carefully worded interview questions. As the interviewers sat in the principal’s waiting room, their anxiety was visible. When the principal—a large and gruff-looking man with a thick grey walrus mustache wearing a school jersey— stepped into the room, all the girls sat silently. Doing nothing to put them at ease, he coughed, “Well?” Urged by Disbrow, they mumbled their names without making eye contact and then filed behind him into an office crowded with school spirit paraphernalia. The girls quickly sank into their seats, leaving Disbrow to set up the camera. Amanda held the sheet of interview questions and positioned her chair next to the principal, but out of the camera frame, more reticent and nervous than she had been conducting person-on-the-street interviews earlier in the week. Disbrow asked many of the follow-up questions, hoping to provide a model for the teens to adopt. But they said very little, and the principal made no visible effort to engage them or put them at ease. Close scrutiny of nearly 60 minutes of interview footage reveals to us some of the issues of power and ethics that emerge when young media makers turn their cameras on the adults who have very specific forms of authority over their everyday social lives.

Early in the interview, when asked about the difficulties of his work, the principal reports that his greatest struggle is “getting kids involved” in extracurricular activities. He barely mentions lack of resources before turning to speak at length about the importance of nonacademic after-school activities—band, football, theater, music. This was one of the few times that Amanda veered from her interview script to ask (with evident disbelief and with her own young awareness of larger issues at stake), “Do you think the reason they’re not involved is because they choose to be or because the resources aren’t there?” The principal replies, “It’s a choice thing. These opportunities are there. It’s just a matter of kids choosing.” Amanda presses on: “Do you think they are motivated [to participate]?” “Well, that’s a deeper question. What is motivation?” It is, of course, a rhetorical question that Amanda does not challenge. After an awkward silence, the principal at last acknowledges that “it’s tough for our kids. A lot of them have commitments after school, a lot of things beyond their control,” but emphasizes that “it’s up to each individual student to make the most of the opportunities we provide.”

Despite the principal’s claim that “fun kids” are the best part of his job, the girls present during the interview experience the school as anything but fun and deeply unwelcoming. What is striking in the footage is the complete absence of any conversation about academics. “He doesn’t see these kids as potentiating into anything, as emergent adults,” explains Muhlenberg’s Carbone, who oversees student teachers placed in the district. “It’s disingenuous to talk about the kids’ participation. If I were a kid, I’d be thinking, ‘this is my responsibility?’ No, it’s the responsibility of the school to be inclusive of all young people and to create a space and activities that are responsive to students’ academic needs and interests.” This underlying injustice shaped the teens’ interview with the principal. Initially eager to conduct the interview, the teens stated after the fact it was really “a waste of time,” meaningless, and ultimately disempowering.

In the institutional context of the school, the “principal’s office” is, for inner- city students, almost always marked as a space of conflict, punishment, and— above all else—control. Azar recalls the interview experience: “The kids were quiet, they were compliant, they weren’t asking any questions that were harder than what they wrote down. They weren’t pushing at all, and so in terms of the way that urban institutions are set up to educate youth—that is what you saw. They were maintaining order.”9 One of the interviewers, Shaniqua, sat captivated by the principal’s power: “I was thinking about while he was talking [how] there are so many kids in that school and it’s just him that has the authority over them and that’s it.”10 That’s it. If, as Steven Goodman writes, “urban high schools are taking on the look and feel of prisons,” the principal looks and seems like the head security guard.11 In trying to make sense of the dynamic during the interview, Azar reflects, “What you see when young people come up against power [is that] they only have a few options, and most of the time they chose the power of disengagement, the power of not caring.”12

Reviewing and editing the interview sequence offered a second opportunity for the teens to critically engage the issues they felt the principal had dismissed and to assert some creative control in how the principal’s voice would be included in their video. Back in the editing studio, implicit and explicit struggles over what to include and exclude from this segment began to emerge. Amanda sat to review the footage with Sylvia, a HYPE college intern and former student at the high school presided over by this principal. Sylvia recalls the complexities of that task:

When I listened to [the principal] talk, I tried to be as objective as possible because we had just talked with Lora [Taub-Pervizpour] about representing someone’s voice as true as possible. However, when I heard some of his answers to questions concerning a possible relationship between HYPE and Allen High School or his alleged openness to hearing student opinion, I couldn’t help but think it was just a show because there was a camera on him. Having come out of [that high school], only a few students know that it is even possible to start a new club/program in the school and he favors AP/honors and sports teams. If you are not in those two groups, you are pretty much forgotten about. Despite these feelings, I still dragged the clips down and left them as possible ones for the final cut. I knew I probably wasn’t going to do the final cut, so I left the clips for others to decide.13

Decisions about what to include and exclude are always subjective, and in this case reveal some of the tensions between adult and youth perspectives.14

Working from clips identified by Amanda and Sylvia, a small group extracted a sound bite that triggered Azar’s concern over representing the principal in the documentary. In her role as program coordinator, she was alert to the potential backlash the young filmmakers faced if they were perceived to be portraying him in a bad or unfair light. Many of the HYPE filmmakers attend the same school as the principal and have to face him in the corridors daily. She also raised the risk of turning the principal against the program, which could potentially undermine wider community support. Azar advocated that the wider context of the clip be restored to the sequence and the teens did so without protest.

Clearly, taking away young people’s creative control over their cultural production runs counter to the goals of the youth media movement. Youth media educators share a responsibility to expand young people’s right to communicate, not to impose further limitations on that right. But Azar’s concerns reflect her awareness of our responsibility to ask the students critical questions that challenge them to think through the implications of their production choices. The teens were disillusioned by the outcome of the interview with the principal, and although they weren’t particularly concerned about a negative depiction, they accepted Azar’s concern about the bigger picture. Locating conversations about the ethics of representation at the center of our work can empower youth to make production choices that serve the larger social justice objectives at stake.

 
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