By Frank LoMonte
As an inquisitive tween growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, Shine Cho regularly defied the family rule of silence at the dinner table.
“I always asked questions. I really wanted to know about current events. I wanted to know about politics. I wanted to know who Hillary Clinton was when I was, like, eight years old.”
The daughter of Korean immigrants found an outlet for her curiosity in a self-published blog, “Yolitical” (for “young and political”) that built a bit of a following – until adults learned they were reading the work of a 13-year-old. Then they’d leave snarky comments: “How can I trust a kid to give me the news?” “Why should I trust your opinion?” “What is credible about you?” And worse.
Shine didn’t have any adult mentors to help her navigate the adversity, but seven years later, she’s doing her best to make sure other young women feel well-supported when they venture into online journalism. As a member of the inaugural class in the Active Voice fellowship project, Shine is training teen girls from a lower-income high school on the south side of San Diego to create media to make their voices heard.
Shine’s fellowship project – a five-week boot-camp training program for 27 teen girls to spend afternoons and weekends learning journalistic skills and ethics – was on display Thursday at Florida International University in Miami as part of the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center’s annual conference on women in media.
A sophomore at the University of California-San Diego, Shine designed and carried out the program with coaching from Active Voice project coordinator Stephanie Leibert, a New York lawyer-turned-teacher, and with volunteers she recruited from the ranks of Southern California media luminaries, including NBC-TV news producer Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The Active Voice is a project of the Student Press Law Center, launched in August 2016 when five college undergraduates were brought together in Chicago to be trained as “First Amendment first responders” supporting high-schoolers in their hometowns. The program was conceived as a response to the growing national recognition that female students absorb the brunt of school censorship – a reality that Active Voice fellow Sophie Gordon has seen in the faces of dozens of young women who’ve flocked to her “listening sessions” at journalism conferences across the country.
Recently in Seattle, an Iowa high-schooler stepped up to the mike to share her experience with being silenced in school: “This girl explained how her school didn’t have any ‘school crossing’ signs outside of it. And because of that signage, kids had gotten hit by cars. It was enough that she wanted to write an article about why there was a lack of it. So she interviewed the mayor. He basically said, ‘well, you guys are high-school students, I don’t know that that’s really necessary at this point.’ She made sure to include that, the mayor got his say. She wrote a very fair story.
“And the school board decided to pull it, because the mayor was running for reelection, and to read that story might hurt his reelection.”
Sophie, a journalism student (and future lawyer) at Ball State University was able to inform the writer that Iowa has a statute making her school’s censorship decision illegal. That was just the start. Then the rest of the crowd chipped in, too. Here’s a blog that might publish your work. Here’s how to get the local media to cover your story.
“It was really great to see these girls helping each other and trying to find ways to fight censorship and to know they weren’t alone. … To be able to come into a room with 100-plus girls and hear these people talking about their stories was just very empowering, and I was really happy to see so many girls walk away with new ideas and new tools and the confidence to start fighting censorship in their own schools.”
The Kopenhaver conference showcased the work of each fellowship recipient, the conclusion of nearly nine months’ work on projects tailored to the needs of each student’s community.
Howard University’s Darlene Aderoju debuted a slideshow created for teachers to inform students about the role of the First Amendment in the struggle for civil rights, and a phone-activated Kahoot! quiz about the protections of the District of Columbia’s student bill of rights.
Nashwa Bawab from the University of Texas-Austin showed off the work of students at an all-girls’ high school in Austin who created 16 podcast episodes profiling the classmates and teachers who inspired them.
And Sindhu Ravuri, a sophomore at the University of California-Berkeley, previewed the website she’s building to house interviews with prominent women in tech fields, meant to uplift young women who’ve been told they’re “not smart enough” to pursue science as a career.
Even more than building up a network of better-trained journalists, the fellows hope they’ve left behind more confident young women who’ll feel well-supported whenever the moment comes to stand up to an intimidating authority figure.
As Darlene told the FIU audience: “When I heard about this program, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It definitely stands with what I believe in. I really want students to know they have a voice, because for so long in my life, I didn’t know I had a voice.”