Thick & Impactful: The 2013 Digital Media & Learning Conference in Chicago

Thick & Impactful: The 2013 Digital Media & Learning Conference in Chicago

Ethan Zuckerman Thick/Thin model

by Kasandra VerBrugghen, Executive Director, Spy Hop Productions

What do Harry Potter, Moby Dick and gangsta rap have in common? The answer: They are powerful cultural vehicles through which our emerging generation engages in social justice movements in their communities. This connection between pop culture and civic engagement was a major theme in Chicago this past month during the Digital Media & Learning Conference (DML).

The conference this year focused on civic engagement, participatory politics, and the role digital media plays in empowering and facilitating young peoples’ voices in their communities - whether that happens through remixing and pop culture as described by Mark Anthony Neal during a plenary discussion or more formally through youth media organizations facilitating the skilled participation of young people in the production and distribution of their own media. Other topics tackled during the three days included news and media literacy, the collective power of youth media networks, and the commodification of badges – all very interwoven and relevant in the digital age.

As a youth media practitioner, this was my first year attending DML. I attended, along with ZeroDivide Senior Program Manager McCrae Parker, and Gen ZD cohort members Maile Martinez of Reel Grrls, Brett Hanover of Access Humboldt, and Branden Wright from the Center for Multicultural Cooperation. McCrae moderated a panel that we all sat on titled: Unique Locations for 21st Century Civic Education: Youth and Their Adult Allies in the "Third Space".

The session, attended by about 40 people, tackled some big questions:

  • What is the appropriate level of guidance and influence that adult allies should take in getting youth to leverage their social capital toward civic and social justice outcomes?
  • What are the challenges youth media organizations face in cultivating authentic voices and genuine motivation related to social justice/civic engagement?
  • What is it about the third space that lends itself better than other spaces in fostering civic engagement?
  • Why is this space so important and necessary in our communities?

These were some big questions that prompted some big discussions – not only during our session, but throughout the three days at the conference.

The conference kicked off with a talk by Ethan Zuckerman, the Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, that got us thinking about what civic knowledge and engagement looks like and how young people view their engagement. He shared MIT’s model of civic engagement, which utilizes a thick versus thin/symbolic versus impactful filter to better understand the impact of social movements.  For example, the Occupy Movement in general, although thick in terms of its reach and participation, was largely symbolic; as it didn’t result in long-term systemic change. However, Occupy Sandy was both thick and impactful.

There were other remarkable change agents at the conference such as Danah Boyd, Cathy Cohen, Astrid Silvo Biko Baker, Andrew Slack, and Henry Jenkins, who are working within the convergence of media, young people and social justice movements, tackling issues such as the exploitation of children and youth violence in Chicago, young voters, and the Dream Movement.

Over the three days, I was not only inspired by the stories of so many deeply committed individuals and organizations, but I was also left with a feeling of encouragement and pride in all the work youth media organizations do to support the engagement of young people in their communities. The Chicago Youth Voices Network recently launched a study of alumni from their member organizations with preliminary results indicating that their participation in these youth media programs increased their leadership skills, fostered self-growth, self-discovery, and curiosity about the world. It helped build their self-confidence, their understanding of the importance of teamwork, and provided them with pro-social opportunities.

But, most importantly, it gave them political agency. It gave them a voice. And, it gave them a sense that their voice is relevant and is being heard. And, in the end, this is at the root of very thick and very impactful change in all of our communities.

Kasandra VerBrugghen is the Executive Director of Spy Hop Productions, a youth media organization in Salt Lake City, Utah, dedicated to empowering young people through the digital arts. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kasandra has had 12-year stints in both Tucson, AZ and Seattle, WA. Her love for the mountains took her to Salt Lake in 2008. Kasandra has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Arizona and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington. She has more than 20 years of experience in the social sector, holding various positions from alternative educator to program director, managing director and executive director.


Spy Hop, Generation ZD, BTOP, DML Conference