Macio, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, sits in front of a computer wearing a red Nike hat and large headphones. His attire, accent and relaxed mannerisms fit that of a stereotypical young Black kid from the south, a stereotype which describes second-class citizenry at the intersection of youth, Blackness, and urban life. From this conventional standpoint, Macio (and young Black men like him) is troubled and most certainly doomed for failure. But an hour-long conversation with Macio proves otherwise. He schools me on his intentions on changing the established view of males like him in the US. “They think young Black men are dangerous, you know, criminals,” he tells me via a Skype interview. “But we’re here to change that.” Jeffrey, an 18-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi, chimes in via telephone conference, “We’re not all bad. Look at Tupac, he was a smart cat!”
Both Macio and Jeffrey are part of a nationwide project called the Community Producers Program, a media literacy initiative spearheaded by the Beyond the Bricks Project in New York City. The program aims to engage young Black males from around the country to interrogate and respond to broad media (mis)representations of Black males. In partnerships with Media Make Change (full disclosure: my organization), the Beyond the Bricks Project created a four-month comprehensive media literacy curriculum that invites young Black males ages 16-19 from Harlem, Jackson, and Atlanta to use digital and social media to create their own stories about life and community.
The program also encourages fellowship and physical literacy, both critical aspects for youth maturation that are generally de-emphasized in formal public education. The young boys from each city have the opportunity to experience what it feels like to learn within higher ed institutions. Georgia, Mississippi, and New York’s programs are currently housed at Georgia State University, Jackson State University, and Teachers College, Columbia University, respectively.
While talking with Macio and Jeffrey (who addresses me as “ma’am” the entire interview), I immediately got a sense that we, as educators, policy makers, and activists, wrongly accept a shortsighted view about the experiences of young Black males. Ouida Washington, co-producer of the Beyond the Bricks Project and co-author of the Community Producers Program agrees. Washington, along with her business partner and co-producer, Derek Koen, believe that for too long conversations about Black males have been framed from a deficit standpoint. That is, when we talk about Black males, we discuss their experiences in terms of what they can’t do, haven’t done, or will probably never achieve.
While on a nationwide tour to promote their film Beyond the Bricks, Washington and Koen realized that mainstream conversations about young Black males lacked nuance and excluded the voices of Black boys. The producers recognized a need to continue the work in the community beyond the film. “What we were seeing out of these town halls is a need to engage boys more directly. There are a lot of media literacy programs out there, but Black boys were not a part of the conversations,” says Washington. As a result of these townhall conversations, and subsequent dialogues between leaders in the field of Black male education and media literacy, the producers of the Beyond the Bricks project created The Community Producers Program.
The program itself is an initial strategy on the part of media and community organizations to address larger educational and socio-cultural epidemics facing young Black boys in the U.S.
According to the 2010 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males from the Schott Foundation, the graduation rates of Black males in Georgia, Mississippi, and New York all fall below 50% (this stat refers to a 4-year track graduation rate). With a 43% Black male graduation rate, the state of Georgia falls slightly below the national average of 47%. The graduation rate for Black males in Mississippi stands at 46%, also moderately lower than the national average. In contrast, the graduation rate of Black males in the state of New York is starkly lower than the previous two at 25%, well below the national average. These stats, coupled with an alarming statistic that Black males are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white males, are causes for concern when it comes to the state of Black males in the U.S.
Yet these statistics only describe one type of story related to the experiences of Black males in the U.S. Unfortunately, however, this single story is one that is told repeatedly in the mainstream without regard to the socio-political, institutional, and cultural factors that also significantly impact outcomes.
Jeffrey, for instance, recently graduated from a private school in Jackson, Mississippi. His experience destabilizes the single story of a fatherless Black kid from the hood: “I look up to my parents,” he tells me. “I don’t really look up to any celebrities. I look up to my father because he’s been with me since I was born. I appreciate that. I love that.”
In contrast, Macio tells of a different experience growing up, a story that describes role models outside of the home: “My dad left the house when I was ten-years-old. When he left everything went downhill. Black kids run to other places for love. Usually we run to music and the streets. I look up to a lot of rappers like Tupac. I also read a lot. I like Andrew Young.”
When it comes to Black male experiences, there are no single stories. Both Macio and Jeffrey can attest through their own experiences that Black males occupy many different spaces throughout their communities.“You gotta understand young Black men,” says Macio. “We go through things but we’re not all the same. That’s what I’m trying to tell with my [digital] story. I want to create a timeline from when I was younger up to now, and how the things in between crafted me into being who I am today.”
A digital video project that the Atlanta cohort has been working on since the spring follows the Trayvon Martin case. Macio tells me that he and his peers at Georgia State are creating a digital story based on the Trayvon Martin rally that they recently attended. Though Macio is inspired by Martin’s story, the tragedy comes as no surprise to him.
“I’m so desensitized. Murders happen everyday in my neighborhood. It’s wrong. But it ain’t nothing I’m going to dwell on. I have to keep it moving to try and change things.”
It’s through media literacy that the producers of Beyond the Bricks hope to inspire this change. Washington, in particular, believes that media representation correlates with the everyday struggles young Black males face. “Stereotypes are imprisoning these kids, sometimes literally. If we look at the violence happening in Chicago and then the Trayvon Martin case as well, it comes down how people are viewing our young men and how that can be detrimental to them. There are a lot of consequences to an image,” she says.
Koen agrees, and emphasizes that in order for things to change the entire nation has to step up.
“This work of civic engagement is not only for a few people. Everyone in this country has a responsibility to do the work. It bothers me that people don’t take responsibility for our children and the environments that children live in.”
For the producers and collaborators of the Community Producers Program, it comes down to a passion for wanting to make communities stronger. For the young men involved in the program, it’s simply about telling their stories and moving forward in their lives despite obstacles. Jeffrey tells me that after he graduates from the program he plans on continuing with school and playing basketball. Macio isn’t exactly sure what he wants to do, but in true form he assures me, “I just want to make my way in life.
For more information on how you can support the Community Producers Program, along with The Fellows Institute, an initiative that will extend the Community Producers Program into the summer, please visit The Beyond the Bricks Project.
Tara L. Conley is the founder of Media Make Change. She’s currently a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. Tara writes about media literacy and Internet technologies. You can follow her on Twitter at @taralconley