How do young people use their cellphones to “speak back to political structures that were previously out of reach?” Casey Burkholder’s work with youth and cellphilming reveals how “young people are engaging in politics constantly, on and offline.”
A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with a colleague who was complaining about his niece. “She never looks up from her phone,” he said. “When I was her age, I knew things about the world. I could fix things. I talked to people. I made eye contact with adults. I listened to adults when they spoke. Kids today don’t do anything. They just take selfies and make videos and text.”
I paused a moment and then said, “When I was her age, adults were lamenting that kids wore too much black, played with gender in disruptive ways, sulked too much, were generally depressed and didn’t work hard or appreciate what they were given.”
He laughed, and said, “Maybe…” in a condescending way.
I continued, “Look, young people are engaging in politics constantly, on and offline. If anything, researchers are acknowledging the vast stores of knowledge and ways of being in the world that youth communicate. In my own work, young people use their cellphones to speak back to political structures that were previously out of reach. I promise you, the kids are alright.”
“Yeah, but what are they actually DOING?” he responded.
I let this comment sit a moment, sighed, and changed the subject.
This interaction stuck with me for the weeks that followed. What is it, I wondered, about young people that previous generations find so threatening or impenetrable? Maybe it’s just that their ways of seeing, engaging with, speaking back and responding to the world is unfamiliar. And all that unfamiliarity is distressing.
Academics like danah boyd,1 David Buckingham and Rebecca Willett,2 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang3 have been writing about young people and the ways they engage and resist politically for some time now. Buckingham and Willett, for example, suggest that young people constantly make political decisions in their daily lives, from the things that they eat and the music they listen to, to the things that they wear. danah boyd explored the ways that young people create agentic communities and networks online. Tuck and Yang argue that the ways that young people resist can both uphold and confront inequities in society. Within this work on young people’s activism, political engagement, and media-making practices, I see opportunities to work with young people’s ways of knowing and documenting the world in order to speak back to these prescriptive and homogenizing discourses about youth. An example of these prescriptive and homogenizing discourses? Kids don’t do anything. Kids are always on their phones. Kids don’t. Kids just. And so on.
In my research, teaching, and activist practices, I work with cellphilming as a research methodology – where participants create short cellphone videos responding to particular prompts or community concerns in order to share (in my work, primarily) young people’s ways of knowing. In my doctoral research undertaken at McGill, I worked with my former junior high school students from 2008-2010 – ethnic minority young people who were living, studying, and working in Hong Kong. We created cellphilms about their sense of identity, belonging, and civic engagement practices in 2015, directly following Hong Kong’s youth-led Umbrella Revolution.4 For example, Katrina and Ann’s cellphilm, “Who Am I in Hong Kong?” makes visual the ways that they identify as Filipina-Hong Kongers, who were born and have grown up in the city, and who also experience feelings of otherness in the larger community. Sabi and Yuna’s “Ethnic Minorities in Hong Kong” depict the ways in which ethnic minorities interact with Chinese people in public spaces, and the ways these interactions influence their sense of belonging as Nepali-Hong Kongers. Through these youth-produced cellphilms, I learned to see the ways that formalized, segregated schooling structures made students feel isolated in the larger community, but also that school served as a space where these ethnic minority young people created agentic communities that resisted feelings of isolation. We have shared these cellphilms through YouTube, on a group-controlled channel called We Are Hong Kong Too. Our Google+ description reads, “This is a sharing space for a cellphone video-making project exploring space, self, belonging and civic engagement with ethnic minority young people in Hong Kong. We hope to foster dialogue and encourage reflection about what it means to live, work, study, and grow in Hong Kong.”
Even three years after we had originally produced and uploaded the videos, new audiences are continuing to engage with the ideas and the cellphilms. This online space is an important example of civic engagement – demonstrating one way that young people can get together to speak back to the things that are written and said about them in their community. The We Are HK Too project continues on YouTube, through Facebook and other social media spaces, and its lessons have continued to inspire my own research practices.
Right now, I’m working on a project with young people in Wolastoqiyik territory – Fredericton, New Brunswick – called Think/Film/Screen/Change. This project is multidisciplinary, and looks to understand more about gender, identity, youth civic engagement and do-it-yourself (DIY) media-making in the context of Atlantic Canada. I’m working with young people aged 12-17. We’re going to make cellphilms to address community issues that matter to young people across the gender spectrum, committed to creating safer spaces for queer, trans, and gender non-binary young people.
The main focus of the Think/Film/Screen/Change project is to research with young people in Atlantic Canada by refocusing their everyday media-making practices – those selfies and videos and texts my colleague was so worked up about – to address youth-identified pressing social issues in this territory, including gender-based violence, poverty, water and food security, among other issues. These are the issues that these young people are talking about and these are some ways that they are engaging with activism and political engagement in their on and offline lives already.
The Think/Film/Screen/Change project seeks to understand a couple of key questions: 1) How might cellphilming deliver complex understandings of social issues and centre community experiences from participants’ perspectives? 2) How might these young people engage the public in community issues that matter to them through participatory exhibiting (e.g. organizing cellphilm screenings in community centres) and archiving practices (e.g. sharing and saving the cellphilms in online spaces, like social media sites)? Through the creation of cellphilms and an archive of these visual texts, the project will include the participants in media production and dissemination over time.
With the creation of cellphilms and sharing these texts in a participatory digital archive on YouTube, the research aims to create spaces for youth to “screen truth to power,”5 in response to traditional media that tends to exclude, other, or commercialize youth perspectives. The study is also innovative in that it aims to develop a participatory approach to the archiving of research participants’ cellphilms through YouTube, where each participant will have the password to a shared public channel. This practice will advance the development of participatory archiving practices in visual research, and deepen an understanding of what sustained and ongoing informed consent means in research. In particular, the study aims to highlight the rights of participants themselves to have control over their visual productions. Through the nuanced example of the participatory archive of cellphilms that will be co-managed by participants on YouTube, the project will provide a critical understanding of gendered and dissenting acts of citizenship through the example of youth media production as participatory political engagement. The results of the research will reach audiences both within and beyond the academy, and in so doing influence methods and practice with implications for youth-led policy-making.
The Think/Film/Screen/Change research aims to provide a critical understanding of gendered acts of civic engagement in Atlantic Canada through the example of youth media production as participatory political engagement,6 aided by the creation of a participatory archive of cellphilms on YouTube and girl-led public screening events. Speaking to the field of civic engagement, the study aims to provide a complex example of the ways in which young people’s civic engagement is affected by their intersectional realities. I envision the youth-produced cellphilms as an opportunity to speak back to structural inequalities and homogeneous discourses that seek to smother youth civic engagement. At the same time, as Tuck and Yang have argued, the findings from the study may also illuminate the ways in which young people assert themselves as civic actors, including ways that uphold structural inequalities and dominant discourses.
Each of these civic acts – even those that uphold structural inequalities and dominant discourses – in the process of the Think/Film/Screen/Change research will be examples of youth political engagement. It is political to get together to talk about pressing issues for youth in this territory. It is political to identify challenges and potential solutions to these issues by and for youth. It is political to create short cellphilm texts to share with other community members. It is political to organize community screenings. It is political to think about what should happen to these cellphilms over time, and to identify future audiences to share the cellphilms with. In each step of the research process, young people will be enacting civic engagement.
I would also argue that in their existing media making practices – those selfies and videos and texts and the things they like and they share (their own set of citation practices) – young people are being and enacting political engagement. To echo what Carol Hanisch7 said so powerfully in 1969, “the personal is political.” The personal remains political in 2018.
And so, I am writing this piece to speak not only to my colleague, but to others who work, live and interact with young people, and also to those who engage with youth only peripherally. When young people are homogenized through statements like, “Kids today don’t do anything. They just take selfies and make videos and text,” we deny them their intersectional, heterogeneous lived experiences. We refuse to acknowledge their ways of seeing, documenting, representing, and speaking back to the world. We suggest that our ways are inherently more valuable and appropriate. But I think, in making these assertions, we are making a big mistake and missing so much of what young people are thinking, saying, responding to and doing. All of this leads me to one sincere conclusion: the kids are alright.
Watch the cellphilms
Cellphilms from the Hong Kong project can be viewed on You Tube: “We Are Hong Kong Too.”
Photo: Courtesy “We Are Hong Kong Too”
First published in Education Canada, December 2018
1 danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The social lives of networked teens (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).
2 David Buckingham and Rebecca Willet, Digital Generations: Children, young people, and the new media (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013).
3 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Youth Resistance Research and Theories of Change (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014).
4 The youth-led Umbrella Revolution occurred between September and December 2014, when citizens of Hong Kong occupied key commercial districts to protest the lack of democratic freedoms in relation to the 2017 Chief Executive Election. The movement’s name emerged from protestors’ use of umbrellas to block police-deployed tear gas. It is important to note that conversations about Hong Kong, democracy, and political autonomy from Mainland China continue to be expressed in the public realm, both online and offline, four years following the beginning of the Occupy Central movement – which blossomed into the Umbrella Revolution.
5 Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, Screening Truth to Power: A reader on documentary activism (Montreal, QC: Cinema Politica, 2014).
6 Henry Jenkins, S. Shresthova, et al., By Any Media Necessary: The new youth activism (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2016).
7 Carol Hanisch, “The Personal is Political,” in Radical Feminism: A documentary reader,edited by Barbara A. Crow (New York: New York University Press, 2000).