Youth Narrating Our World Launches in Chicago via The OpEd Project

Guest blog post by Michele Weldon, leader of Youth Narrating Our World, facilitator of Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship, and public seminar leader.

Principal Allen, Michele Weldon, Zeba Khan, Katie Orenstein, and Deborah Douglas

Principal Alan Mather, Michele Weldon, Zeba Khan, Katie Orenstein, and Deborah Douglas

More black super heroes. Fresh, good food available in all neighborhoods. Encouragement for young women in math and science.

These were just a few of the answers from hundreds of students at four Chicago public high schools when asked about critical issues important to them that are missing from mainstream media.

During the four  keynote presentations of Youth Narrating Our World over two days last month, a team of journalist leaders from The OpEd Project engaged more than 700 students in a lively, interactive discussion on ways to establish credibility and participate in the larger public media conversation.

At Lindblom Math & Science Academy, a young woman stood in the back of the filled auditorium and spoke loud enough to be heard over the rows of more than 350 students.

“Safe passages are not safe,” she said. “My brother was shot in front of school yesterday.”

Lindblom principal Alan Mather stood near the student and offered support.

During the interactive talks, The OpEd Project founder Katie Orenstein explained to students in anecdotes, graphics and statistics that only a narrow section of society contribute to the media, while so many more underrepresented voices from women, persons of color, youth and others are absent from media outlets.

“What is the cost of these missing voices?” Orenstein asked.

Sometimes erupting in applause and always eager to participate, the students engaged in a dissection and discussion of the notion of “evidence-based” arguments that are “timely and of public value.” Students eagerly talked about ideas and issues that are critical to their families, schools and communities that are not reported in the media.

A team of journalist leaders including Orenstein, Deborah Douglas, Zeba Khan and me, worked with students in smaller groups to identify their personal expertise in order to establish credibility on specific issues.

Over two days, we led one and a half hour lively presentations at each of the high schools, including Walter Payton College Prep, Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep and Lindblom.

For the first time through The OpEd Project, the three-part curriculum of Youth Narrating Our World will be offered to high school students. This is the same polished core curriculum offered over the past three years as Public Voices Fellowships to faculty at universities including Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Emory and Fordham.

Students were solicited to enter an essay contest of 300 words submitted to school administrators on issues critical to their lives. On the basis of those essays, 20 students (five from each high school) were chosen for Youth Narrating Our World that starts with the first convening October 12 and ends with a third convening January 18.

In order to be chosen, students needed to commit to attending all three convenings and also writing at least two op/eds for publication, in addition to any other form of thought leadership on any platform during the period of high-level mentoring.

I will lead the program with Douglas; together we have a collective half-century of experience as journalists. We both also have decades of experience teaching journalism at the graduate and undergraduate levels at The Medill School at Northwestern University.

Douglas said she is pleased to be a part of this important mentoring program. She explained, “If I can see a goal in my head, tell myself the story of how I can get there, chances are I can achieve that goal. That’s the way it’s always worked for me.” She added, “Telling your story helps to articulate a vision of great things that can happen and important change that needs to happen — when you first learn to speak up.”


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