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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Conversations on representation can benefit, learn from self-representation

Patty Loew, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said discussion about how journalism can better represent communities of color often leaves out those who are already using media forms to self-represent.

“Mainstream media doesn’t always stop to ask how communities of color are self-representing,” she said. “Many are making space to create their own representations.”

Loew is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and affiliated with American Indian Studies.

When journalists try to address misrepresentation and misguided reporting on communities of color, this discussion is often geared toward how the professional industry, predominantly white, can do a better job of reporting, she said.

But, the Native youth she works with through the Tribal Youth Media Initiative produce their own work. Loew and the initiative coordinate with Don Stanley, Life Sciences Communication faculty associate.

“Tribal Youth Media gives youth the chance to represent themselves through digital storytelling,” Loew said. “It’s a really powerful thing to be apart of.”

The initiative brings together a team of graduate students who work with Native American teens to produce video stories about their tribes and communities during the summer. The project runs annually and involves week-long instruction on digital media production.

Ahpahnae Thomas, a junior at Mellen (Wis.) High School participated in the program several times.

“We go out and sort of have a lot of adventures in the wild around the Bad River Reservation,” he said. “Then we make short videos about things we experience.”

Participants like Ahpahnae not only shape content, but they also have the opportunity to interact with media forms they are passionate about.

“With the video production, we had to add music to it, and we created our own music,” Ahpahnae said. “That’s what I like to do. That’s my thing.”

Shania and Ahpahnae

Ahpahnae Thomas composes music while Shania Jackson films. Photo courtesy Patty Loew

Since its inception, the Tribal Youth Initiative and its participants have produced award-winning films which feature community-generated representations of Native communities.

Ahpahnae’s mother, Jean Hahn-Thomas, had the opportunity to chaperone one film festival invitation. She accompanied members of the Tribal Youth Media Initiative in 2013 to Arizona where the participated in the Human Rights Film Festival at Arizona State University, as well as other local showings.

The film featured the natural wildlife that would be affected by the construction of a proposed four and a half mile open pit iron ore mine in Northern Wisconsin, located directly over the Bad River Watershed.

The question and answer session following a showing at a local Arizona school stuck with Hahn-Thomas, in particular.

“Because in Arizona there is a lack of water, the students in the audience were interested in what they could do help to stop the mine from going up which would have polluted the water and dried up the artesian wells,” she said. “It was really good for the kids – both those in the audience and those from Wisconsin.”

The mine project was put on hold in spring of 2015.

“This project shows the kids that you can, with simple things, produce something that people will care about, and it just gives them a completely different perspective on what they can do,” Hahn-Thomas said. “And no matter what the outcome of their short video is, it’s theirs. It’s what they put into it.”

The Tribal Youth Media Initiative is just one of many organizations that are amplifying  the self-representation of communities of color.

Simpson Street Free Press on Madison’s South Side is a neighborhood-based nonprofit that trains young students, often from diverse backgrounds, in journalism. Young writers have the opportunity to write from their own experiences and interests.

Similarly, Lussier Community Education Center is working with University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students to development and launch a low-power, community FM radio station at 95.5 and online, which will in part highlight the experiences and interests of communities of color on Madison’s west side.

Among others, these organizations are participating in recent conversations on representation of race in the media – not necessarily through letters to the editor, but through the creation of their own media content. And while this does not address all of the work that must be done in media industries to better represent communities of color, it is one step that should be recognized.

“It was nice to be able to share what we learned and have other people see things from our perspective – a different view from our situation,” Thomas said. “And I know was it was really fun to do.”

Loew will appear on a panel addressing media representations of race and ethnicity during a journalism ethics conference held by University of Wisconsin-Madison. Henry Sanders of Madison 365 and will also speak on the panel, moderated by University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Lindsay Palmer. USA Today writer Alan Gomez will also join the panel.