Grand Rapids teens become journalists through Voices of Youth program

Teenagers in the greater Grand Rapids area are using their voices to address the issues that affect them and their peers. 

This past winter, 24 students from Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood participated in Rapid Growth’s inaugural Voices of Youth (VOY) program. The opportunity, which also has programs in southeast and southwest Michigan, teaches teenagers journalism basics and tasks them with writing an article about an issue in their community that directly impacts them.

"What drew me to launch Voices of Youth in West Michigan was the chance for students to share their insights on community issues,” says Rapid Growth's publisher and Voices of Youth art mentor Tommy Allen. "By pairing students with seasoned mentors, we created a space for honest dialogue and mutual learning. Not only did the students grow, but their contributions were strengthened by the unique perspectives they each brought to the table.”

As part of the program, students attended three workshops, where they learned about journalism basics and discussed how to use solutions journalism to create community change. For their attendance at all three workshops, the students were paid $100. Students also received $150 for their published articles.

Lisa Hofman, an English teacher at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, was instrumental during the Voices of Youth recruitment process. Hofman invited Rapid Growth into her classroom to present the program and helped facilitate transportation for eight students to participate. 

“I was immediately struck by the ways that this program honored and elevated diverse student voices,” Hofman says. “The leaders and mentors intentionally recruited from schools with diverse student populations. Students were treated immediately like professional journalists from the way the workshop was run, as well as paying them a stipend for their participation.”
Photo by Tommy Allen
A rough winter won’t stop Voices of Youth 

The response to the Voices of Youth program far exceeded Rapid Growth’s expectations of 12 students for the cohort. The project lead and mentors held information sessions for more than 30 students during the recruiting phase.  

“The idea of getting paid to participate was an initial draw for the students,” Hofman says. “However, their excitement and energy after the first session was based on the ideas generated and the opportunity to investigate and write about a topic that was important to them. The money became secondary to the opportunity for their voices and views to be heard and published.”

Thanks to Hofman’s help with recruiting, 24 students committed to the cohort, with near-perfect attendance at each workshop, which was hosted at Kent ISD. 

Far from perfect, though, was Michigan’s weather in February. 

On Feb. 16 — the day of the second Voices of Youth workshop — a snowstorm hit Grand Rapids, creating dangerous road conditions. Keeping student safety in mind, Voices of Youth leadership canceled the workshop, moving the already-tight timeline back a week. 
While the Voices of Youth team coordinated with Kent ISD on a make-up date, students had an extra week to think about their topics and flesh out three article pitches to share at the Feb. 23 workshop. 

Michigan, though, had other plans in mind. 

For two weeks in a row, harsh weather affected the Voices of Youth timeline, pushing everything back two weeks. 

"Normally, when looking through the lens of being a student, a snow day is something to celebrate," says Allen. "But for our students —  as well as the VOY instructors —  they were all bummed by the sudden appearance of two snowstorms in a row that forced the cancellation and rebooking of our workshops."

The disruption didn’t impact the students’ passion, however. After not meeting for two weeks, the students and leaders convened for the second workshop without missing a beat. 

"I admired the commitment from our students throughout the cohort particularly during the necessary snow days,” saysVoices of Youth Mentor Shanika P. Carter. “There was still interest and concern about participation and making up the time to work on their ideas."

Getting hands-on with reporting 

During the workshops, the students explored topics that affect their day-to-day lives. Education, gun violence, LGBTQ+ discrimination, racism and women’s issues were significant focus areas, however, each student had their own unique perspective. 

Vanely Bastardo“I enjoyed how I was able to hear so many different stories about things I wouldn’t have known about otherwise,” says student Vanely Bastardo. “It opened my eyes to how uninformed I was with things happening in my community.”

These perspectives were further explored during the reporting and editing process — one that takes perseverance and included new challenges for students. 

Annette Vázquez is a student who learned, firsthand, the challenges reporters face. Partnered with Bastardo, the twoAnnette Vázquez explored Grand Rapids’ increased gun violence. By tackling a more controversial topic, Vázquez and Bastardo now understand how to identify key sources, track down the necessary information and properly address sensitive subjects as reporters.

“I won't lie, writing my article was a challenge, but it was something that I enjoyed because it was a learning experience,” Vázquez says. “Learning about the process of writing an article was very interesting, as there were many steps to it. There were things that I was confused about at first but I was helped along the way by amazing mentors.”

Voices of Youth mentors Allen and Shanika P. Carter worked with students to workshop stories for content, offer feedback and edit the final draft for the Rapid Growth editorial team. For students that wanted professional guidance, virtual meetings and an optional mentoring workshop were available. 

“The timeless activity of mentoring via our Voices of Youth program provided a platform for the diverse voices of our students and mentors to converge and collaborate,” Allen says. “In the end, because of these bridges we are building, a few more voices joined the work of other journalists over time who are all hoping to cull some of our reader's time and possibly learn something about our shared world.”

Graduating as a published author 

Evan ArnoldEvan Arnold, a recent graduate of Northview High School, is going into her first year of college as a published journalist. For her piece, Arnold chose disability accessibility in Grand Rapids, a topic close to her. 

“I appreciated being able to share my voice in a way that felt professional,” Arnold says. "As a student going into the profession I wrote about, the topic is more important than ever.”

On Thursday, May 4, Rapid Growth Media published the first article from its Voices of Youth program: Increasing entertainment accessibility for the hard-of-hearing community.

For her piece, Arnold spoke with one of her peers in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, her American Sign Language teacher at Northview High School and the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

“It was really moving to be included in this piece already but that honor was certainly magnified after reading the context in which it was presented,” says Jessica Burke, director of audience experience at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. “I also really enjoyed getting to read an article that was candid and frank in its voice regarding a call to action for all organizations to step up and do better with access and resources.”

In Burke, the Voices of Youth program also found a new supporter. 

“This is such an important opportunity, because it gives students a chance to really find their voice,” Burke says. “Providing that outlet can really inspire and change the professional course of a student's trajectory, not to mention, developing social and networking skills through interviews and journalism is also an invaluable resource for tomorrow's leaders.”
Photo by Tommy Allen
Since Rapid Growth has been publishing pieces from students who participated in the Voices of Youth program, the topics ranged from healthcare and education to LGBTQ+ acceptance and gun violence

“I think solutions journalism is important, because it presents current issues to the general public in an effective way that helps to invoke positive change,” Arnold says. “This style of journalism is especially crucial when covering a local issue, and offers potential possibilities to start shifting issues in an influential manner.”

To learn more about Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here. This series is made possible via underwriting sponsorships from the Steelcase Foundation, Frey Foundation and Kent ISD
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