These Two Bay Area Orgs Are Investing in the ‘Unparalleled Power of Youth Voice’
More than 20 years ago, two unrelated storefronts opened up in the Bay Area. Neither had the primary goal of selling anything, although one did have a collection of unusual pirate gear on display. Instead, they were offering local youth in the area an opportunity to be heard and seen.
Since their inception, 826 Valencia and YR Media collectively have helped hundreds of thousands of youth learn how to professionally create and share stories that have been read, seen, and heard by tens of millions of people across the country. Their alumni have become journalists, writers, teachers, podcasters, and record producers at some of the largest and most recognized media and entertainment institutions in the world.
The success in the context of communities in which they sprung is impressive and offer universal principles that other organizations and communities could benefit from.
The youth served by these organizations are often the kind of voices that go unheard. They are disproportionately minorities and from families with lower incomes. They live in the shadow of Silicon Valley, which has created ubiquitous tools that facilitate content creation and sharing but also bullying, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues.
826 Valencia was the brainchild of writer Dave Eggers and teacher Ninive Calegari. They had done writing workshops before with under-resourced youth and opened their first storefront with whimsy and intention. While they offer one-on-one tutoring and other services, the focus is on expository writing. They believe that “writing is agency” and is a tool for telling your story and processing the experiences of voices too often marginalized or unheard.
It is revealing that among the metrics the organization tracks is the percentage of students in the program who feel “pride.” In 2021, that number was 92%. What began in the Mission District of San Francisco has now expanded its footprint and mission to nine other cities across the country.
YR Media (formerly Youth Radio) preceded 826 Valencia by several years and was created by Ellin O’Leary in response to the overcriminalization of young people of color in the Bay Area and a need to counter the negative prevailing media narratives of those communities at the time.
The organization moved to downtown Oakland in 2007 and while their roots are in radio, they have expanded to support content creators in a variety of media. While the media may have evolved, their vision has remained consistent: “To place power in the hands of young content creators, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, and ensure their diverse voices lead the way in shaping the future of our world.”
Below are four principles that cut across both organizations, gleaned from an interview with Eggers as part of my podcast, Attribution, and a recent conversation with Kyra Kyles, CEO of YR Media.
The Power of Voice and Choice
While both of these organizations provide the tools and mentors to facilitate content creation and the platform for distribution, the editorial control rests solely with the youth themselves.
To borrow a phrase from Eggers, both organizations show youth “the unparalleled power of their own voice” and then create systems and processes to own that power.
As Eggers says to his young writers, “We’re gonna make sure that nothing goes to press until you approve every word, every comma, every period, and you’re gonna get it right. It’s gonna be on the page, just the way you want it.”
In both organizations, it is the youth who choose what they want to write about, report on, or produce. This is done both out of deference to their lived experience and a desire for them to have a positive, even joyful, relationship to what they create.
Says Kyles: “We are also allowing them to unlock their voices. We’re allowing them to highlight issues and policies that are important to them. Anything from arts and culture to social justice. Just really looking at it from their lens and not just saying to them, ‘Hey guys, here’s something we think is interesting that you may want to report about or that you may want to produce content about.’ But really asking them, what are you interested in? What’s speaking to you?”
Eggers echoes that sentiment, referring to the “unparalleled power of their own voice.”
So if you visit their respective websites you would find a diverse array of content that reflects both the quirky nature of youth (“Seven Songs to Kick off Your Summer,” “Pack Your Candy Just in Case”) and the unfortunate weight that too many children like those served by these programs have to bear (“When Life Hits Like a Whip,” “Survivors of a Broken System”).
Care Precedes Content
In her memoir, Acceptance, Emi Nietfeld described her reservations in drafting her college application essay to reflect her difficult childhood as “not wanting to prostitute my suffering for a shot at joy.” Yet, as a society, that is what we often expect of or extract from those who have endured hardship, whether on their college essays, other school-writing projects, or whatever content they post on social media.
The opposite is true at these organizations. Given the challenging circumstances many of these children have experienced, concern for their mental health is paramount.
While making sense of our life stories or writing about our experiences can be an important and empowering experience of sense making, it can also be re-traumatizing.
Kyles shared this story: “When George Floyd was murdered. We asked young people if they wanted to write about the story because we wanted to make sure that they had a platform for their voices, and most of them said, no. They don’t wanna write about the story right now. They want to process it. They want to think it through. They didn’t want to be compelled, to have to watch the video over and over again because, for them, it was seeing somebody that looked like a relative of theirs being killed.”
This is an example of what Kyles describes as “trauma-informed reporting,” a concept that would seem to have relevance not just for youth media but media in general. Kyles lamented in her own career how often minority reporters would be asked to respond to issues that obviously would hit close to home with little care or compassion for the extractive and painful nature of the request.
The Craft Matters
While anyone with a smartphone can create a video or publish a story, both of these organizations place a premium on professional-level quality. Segments produced on YR Media often are syndicated on NPR stations. Beyond production quality is also intent.
As Kyles told me, “So we find that people’s minds are changed by getting this information because this is a perspective that they haven’t heard. It’s more than a beautifully produced story. It’s like what can this story do? Whose mind can it change? It’s this high quality-produced content that has been looked at by experts in the field. So it’s accepted and it’s not just somebody jumping on social media and making a statement, even though that’s extremely valid too, but it’s looked at in a different way.”
Stories from 826 Valencia go through round after round of revision and all projects end with the publication of a finished product, whether that be a book, newspaper, magazine, or podcast. As Eggers says, “You’re not just gonna write it, and I’m gonna give you a B and hand it back to you. No, we’re gonna work on it. We’re going to write another draft. We’re going to give you help with it. You’re going to have a tutor. We’re going to do five drafts, and then it’s gonna be copied and it’s going to be illustrated. We’re going to make it into a book, or we’re going to do a book of all of our stories in the class.
“You know, we’re going to write letters to the president, or we’re going to write letters to our future selves, or we’re going to do oral histories of where our parents came from and the struggles that they went through to get to this country or to this city. And these larger projects were always so profound.”
An Eye Toward Lasting Effects
Today, anyone can create and post TikTok videos in a matter of minutes or an Instagram story in, well, an instant. Too little consideration is given to the staying power or the long tail of content.
When Eggers was a student, he remembers and still has three different writing projects that teachers assigned to him. That same intent carries on with 826 Valencia today with its emphasis on publication of professional-level quality work. “You’re writing a project of getting your story down so that it’s worthy of being put in a library. Worthy, at the very least, of being lugged around for the rest of your life.”
While pride may be one motivator to consider multiple-time horizons, mental health is another.
At YR Media, each content creator is given instruction on the “digital afterlife” of anything they create and share. This recognizes that there may be both anticipated and unexpected outcomes that can occur when you tell the stories about yourself or others that should be discussed and considered before publishing. They “work through scenarios about how their stories might be received and what it will mean for potentially painful parts of their lives to be permanently searchable and ‘on the record,’” says Kyles.
Looking to the Future
The saying “out of the mouth of babes” is meant to connote a surprising wisdom that comes when we listen to what youth have to say. But perhaps their wisdom would not come as such a surprise if more investment were placed in nurturing and elevating their voices.
It is worth noting that both of these programs are nonprofit organizations with diverse funding streams that, in the case of one, allow these programs to be offered for free (826 Valencia) and, for the other, provides compensation to the young creators (YR Media).
While the impact of these programs and others like them is noteworthy, it pales in comparison to the unserved need that still exists.
Consider that 91% of teenagers have a cell phone and two-thirds are on TikTok, while only 27% of high school seniors are proficient in writing.
Companies, often located in Silicon Valley with valuations in the billions, have created incredibly powerful tools for youth to share content; but as a society, we massively underinvested in the care required to make sure what they create is healthy for them and society.
Perhaps these two long-running programs in their backyard and others like them can rebalance that ledger—one storefront at a time.
“Moving Up in Communities” is a series sharing stories of innovation and advancement in communities across the country.
Bob McKinnon is host of the award-winning PBS podcast, Attribution and author of Actions Speak Loudest: Keeping Our Promise for a Better World, the best selling children’s book, Three Little Engines and the weekly newsletter, Moving Up Mondays.
Co-published with Fast Company.