How to Talk About Solutions Journalism

Last month, the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network published a list of local newsrooms and other media outlets that have integrated the practice of solutions-oriented reporting into their coverage. The post was a turning point of sorts; when SJN was founded in 2013, the term “solutions journalism” wasn’t exactly common parlance, says co-founder and CEO David Bornstein. In Bornstein’s view, it’s not enough to simply lay out the facts of a problem: Society will only move forward if we’re exposed to what is working in communities — and work together to elevate those solutions.

Bornstein launched SJN to spread the practice of approaching news stories through the lens of problem-solving. Besides an ever-growing database of published solutions stories, the organization trains journalists and provides a place for them to connect. NationSwell spoke with Bornstein, who’s been covering social innovation for two decades and co-authors The New York Times’s “Fixes” column, on what solutions journalism is and why it matters.

NationSwell: Since you founded SJN in 2013, how has the organization evolved, and how has the field of solutions journalism evolved in general?

Bornstein: There’s been so much change. I would say our original mission was to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism, which we define as rigorous reporting that looks at solutions to social problems. It’s fairly legitimized now that there are more and more news organizations regularly integrating solutions journalism into what they do — and not just as an add-on, but integrated into their core work. There’s certainly still a long way to go. But there’s much more adoption than there was even two or three years ago. And much more acceptance that journalism has to help people understand the nature of problems, and what their options are to try to respond to those problems.

NationSwell: Negative news still dominates most headlines. Why do you think that is, and what impact does that negativity have on audiences?

Bornstein: Most news is reacting to something that is problematic, and it still seems to be job one in journalism to identify problems and where society is falling short, whether through scandal, malfeasance,  corruption or negligence. As we used to say, the problems scream and the solutions whisper.

If there is a shooting or a fire or an explosion, these kinds of flash-point events demand coverage. Even if a politician says something inflammatory, it demands coverage. A solutions story is often something that is quietly working in the background to improve high school graduation rates, or to reduce the levels of addiction in a county — things like that. These are not always things that are clamoring for attention. They’re not screaming the way the problems do. It takes more of an intentional effort to discover these stories and more research, usually. They don’t land on your desk; they don’t appear on the police scanner. That’s why you need to build in the editorial habit to look for [solutions] stories, because if you don’t, you will continuously miss them.

NationSwell: How do you keep solutions stories from veering into the territory of advocacy? For example, you can say that in the U.S., gun violence is a problem. Most solutions stories would probably highlight organizations that are working to reduce gun violence (editor’s note: NationSwell has published several). But the reaction we see from some gun-rights supporters is to accuse us of trying to suppress the second amendment. How do you balance those two things?

Bornstein: I would say the main thing is to report on lots of different ways communities are reducing violence, [whether] by making it harder for certain types of people to get guns, or by policing approaches that use epidemiological tactics to try to anticipate where and when gun violence is going to occur, and head it off at the pass. The point is not to advocate for any one approach, but to look at all the options, and to associate options with the evidence.

Journalists should not be in the business of picking winners, but we should be in the business of furnishing as many options as possible, so people can deliberate with all the information they need. Every community should be aware of the full range of options that are available to solve the problems that are most pressing.

“If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.”

NationSwell: How can solutions-oriented reporting engage and impact people in a way that traditional reporting does not?

Bornstein: News avoidance is on the rise, because it’s very difficult to turn on the TV or look at your screen and see 50 stories that are all really stressful and depressing about the economy, about climate change, about the rise of polarization, or about populism or bigotry or violence. People will eventually stop engaging, which is what researchers are finding.

The simplest thing journalists can do is to tell the whole story. When you’re covering society, do you only cover the pathology? Or do you also look at responses and efforts to solve problems, which are quite abundant in most areas? We’ve rarely come across issues that you can’t report through a solutions lens. And when you do that, people might say, “Oh, wow, we have a really big problem with gun violence in our country. And look, there’s also about 300 different things that communities are trying to do to reduce gun violence.” You could get fatalistic and say, “Well, none of that seems to make a difference to Congress.” Or you can say, “But boy, there are a lot of communities that actually are safer today than they were five years ago, so let’s look at what happened there.” So you can give people information that enables them to engage and have a sense of control, efficacy, and curiosity.

Because people really do want to build a better world. It’s a very strong human impulse to have control over your life and over your community, and, in a way, be able to shape things with your aspirations. If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.

NationSwell: As local newsrooms shrink, are you worried about the sustainability of solutions journalism?

Bornstein: No, I’m actually worried if local newsrooms don’t start providing their communities with news they really value and are willing to pay for, those local newsrooms may go out of business. I think the number one thing news organizations have to do today to become more economically viable is to change the product, you know?

In survey after survey, when people are asked, “How does the news land on you?” they say, “It makes me feel depressed, it makes me feel powerless, and I don’t know if I can trust it.” Which are the top three reasons that the Reuters Institute has said people are avoiding the news. So basically you have a product called news that in its normal consumption makes people feel depressed and powerless. And then the news organizations’ response is to say, “And gosh, you won’t even pay for it.”

But if the product, over time, gives people information that helps them to be more powerful and creative as citizens, they will buy it. Just like people pay a ton of money to go to college, and a ton of money sometimes to go to conferences. People pay for knowledge when that knowledge is really useful to them. Question is: Why won’t people pay for the news? They’re not considering it useful knowledge at some level where they would pay for it.

NationSwell: A lot of people, as you alluded to, don’t trust the media because they think it’s biased. Why do you think that sentiment persists, and how does solutions journalism fit into that bigger picture?

Bornstein: Well, there are a lot of biases in media, and the bias we always look at is political bias, whether it’s a liberal or conservative newsroom. But the main bias in journalism is the bias that says a problem is newsworthy, and a response to a problem is not.

When we go around the country and speak to reporters in small towns, we say, “What do you think of the national news about your community? Is it accurate?” And they’ll say, “It’s usually pretty accurate, but it’s also not really fully true.” Especially if you go to the South, people say, “The national news always makes us look like a bunch of dumb yokels. You come to Alabama to cover us when Alabama can be made fun of.” And so you can look through newspapers for the last 20 years to see how many stories about things happening in Alabama in the national press look at the creativity, the agency, and the problem-solving acumen of the people in that state. And you will probably come up pretty empty-handed.

NationSwell: We’re obviously living through a time of profound division and partisanship. Do you think solutions journalism has the potential to bring people together for a common cause?

Bornstein: First of all, people have to learn how to talk to each other. We commissioned an article last year called “Complicating the Narratives,” which really looked at how journalists, or anybody, can listen and interview differently in order to develop a deeper understanding of people with whom they disagree. Those are skills that many people lack, including many journalists who end up, through the course of normal interviewing and reporting, pushing people into their corners.

But the lens of solutions journalism is an interesting one. If you look at a problem — like a school’s low graduation rate, or how to care for children who’ve experienced trauma — and you lay out 10 different responses to that problem, you’ll find that most of the time, the ideas and models put forward are not that ideologically divisive. If something is working people are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

It’s really the national-level frames on federal policy that are extraordinarily divisive, and we keep the focus on them all the time. When we shift the focus to local problem-solving, it’s amazing how much more trust and agreement and common ground people can find. By focusing on local-level problem-solving and the solutions that really do make a difference in people’s lives, journalism will rebuild trust. And it will reduce polarization: as a matter of fact, I know that to be true. I’ve seen it.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To support the Solutions Journalism Network’s mission with a donation, click here.

The Power of Corporations Doing Good

Dalila Wilson-Scott’s parents met during the Vietnam War; her dad was in the Air Force and her mom was a local Vietnamese woman who didn’t have much more than an elementary education. “When I think of the broader work of inclusion and opportunity, that’s my parents’ own story,” says Wilson-Scott. “A focus on economic opportunity and diverse perspectives is just something I grew up with.”

Today, Wilson-Scott brings the passion for equality and diversity from her upbringing to her roles as the senior vice president of community investment for Comcast NBCUniversal and the president of the Comcast Foundation.

In the third installment of our series 10 Leaders on Business for Good, NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman chats with Wilson-Scott about her social-impact work and the changing nature of corporate civic engagement.

Is there a moment in your career where your background allowed you to understand the merits of equity and inclusion in a way that others couldn’t?

I wouldn’t say there was one defining moment, but I remember being in a meeting once and a woman said, “I’ve never met anyone who grew up poor.” I was like, “Well, I guess technically if you looked at income data, you could argue I fit into that demographic.” I mean, how do you know if you grew up with somebody who was poor or not? Her perception was that no one in that meeting could have grown up poor; otherwise, how would we have ended up in the same place? It helps to realize that people have a tendency to form those kinds of assumptions.

What are some things that set Comcast NBCUniversal apart in the way they address corporate citizenship and social impact?

As a recent example, I’d say how we came together so quickly after some pretty astronomical hurricanes in a short amount of time. During Harvey and Irma, we really showed up, from opening our Wi-Fi network so that emergency workers and everyone else — whether they were a Comcast customer or not — could be as connected as possible. We leveraged our presence through our TV stations around the country to help drive donations to the American Red Cross. We even launched new technology on our X1 platform, where people could say into their voice remotes “Hurricane Harvey” or “Irma” and make an immediate donation toward relief and recovery.

What do you think are the ingredients to success for corporate social responsibility programs?

Authenticity is so important. Wherever a company chooses to focus its efforts, it’s got to feel true to its brand. Imagine if we at Comcast — a technology and media company — were to suddenly say, “Oh, now we’re going to tackle health issues.” That’s probably not a space where we can have as much impact as companies that are thinking about global health every day. Sure, we could maybe have an effect from a delivery standpoint — for example, how technology can make delivery of resources better — but that would come off as inauthentic and probably not sustainable. And those two things are key.

How are CSR efforts different than they’ve been in the past?

It was more common in the past for social-enterprises to be criticized as not being the best for business, and I think that’s definitely changed. At minimum, companies need to have a purpose and define it in a way that every customer and employee can get behind. Before, it was enough to say, “We’re going to make the best product in the world, and we’re going to make a lot of money from it.” That’s not acceptable anymore to message it in that way. The standards are higher, and more companies are aspiring to deliver their product or service in a way that is purpose-driven but still profitable and focused on delivering results for both communities and company stakeholders.

What drives you? What’s your North Star?

For sure, my children. But I’ve also been fortunate to find my voice and use it to challenge assumptions and the status quo. If I’m going to do that and take that kind of risk, I want it to be for the greater good. There are so many people I’ve met — and I’ve been one of those people in the past — who don’t have the ability to have their voice represented at so many different tables. While I’m not at every single table, I know that I’m more fortunate than a lot of people. The amount of inequity in society frustrates me, especially how it’s just an assumed state for most people. All of us should be able to find our ability to impact that, and I’ve been fortunate to make that my life’s work.

Dalila Wilson-Scott is a NationSwell Council member.

Putting the Power of Positivity Into Focus

It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”

Cinematographer and editor Codi Barbini on the Greek set of My Intention Was Not to Leave.

Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.”
Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.

Powered by Ad Dollars, Nonprofits Get a Boost

The work of charities relies on government grants, foundations and a limited pool of individual dollars. At EcoMedia, his in-house organization at CBS, NationSwell Council member Paul Polizzotto tapped into an alternate stream: corporate advertising budgets. With EcoMedia, CBS redirects some $80 million in profits to nonprofit programs, helping 30 million Americans affected by the most urgent social issues of our time: the environment, health and education, and better lives for veterans. NationSwell met with Polizzotto at CBS’s headquarters in New York City to talk about a better way for business and charities to work together for social change.

What first attracted you to social entrepreneurship?
I wonder if there was some sociological survey conducted, if it would show the growth in social entrepreneurship comes from people raised by hippies. My parents were products of the ’60s, raising kids in the ’70s. I grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. My parents were entrepreneurs themselves, with a swim school open half the year. My parents were incredibly compassionate and generous people. Over time, we took in people who had run away: Eventually, we had 22 people living in our apartment. And we didn’t have any means. Essentially, I kind of turned my parents’ way of life into a business model.

How did that happen?
I grew up surfing every day in the very polluted Santa Monica Bay, and we were sick all the time; the bay’s gotten a lot better, but back then, it was pretty bad. I noticed that the contract cleaning industry was washing pollutants and detergents right into the storm-drain system, which goes into the bay. I said, “Whoa, I am surfing in that!” And besides, it’s illegal. It’s a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. At 25, I set out to come up with a way to work on the issue and protect the environment. My zero-discharge business grew, and, essentially, we legalized and legitimized an industry and set a new standard: Either get legal or get out.

After that, how did EcoMedia get its start?
Around the same time, I started to learn about a lot of nonprofits doing remarkable work on environmental regulations. I knew there were a lot of great projects that needed a little bit of gap financing to get off the shelf. I created EcoMedia originally as a nonprofit, in the late 1990s, to fill those gaps by winning grants. But what I found was that we were winning money, and other deserving nonprofits weren’t. It was a zero-sum game. I was competing against nonprofits I thought were doing very important work. I looked for ways to keep doing what I was doing and accidentally stumbled on the advertising world. I thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a way to create an ad model to fund nonprofits, a way to create this entirely new revenue stream coming from ad spends.” I got involved with CBS in a joint venture, and in 2010, we were acquired. We’ve since become the fastest-growing division at CBS.

Where do you see yourself in the media landscape?
I have a very different view, because I’m not from media, advertising or technology. But all of what I’m doing now is squarely in that space. I remember having a conversation with CBS, and they said they thought their ability to improve communities came from content. I said, “I don’t think so: I think it’s your distribution.” I think content’s largely overrated. Look at health: Never before in history has more information been available to more people about what’s good and bad for you. Yet we’re not as healthy as we were 30 years ago, as it relates to health conditions like obesity and diabetes. You think you’re doing your job as a media company by getting the word out, but we’re not seeing the desired impact.

What’s an example of a campaign you thought was particularly effective?
A dear friend of mine, who has since passed, created a surf school to help kids with disabilities and military-service men and women suffering from PTSD, called the Jimmy Miller Foundation. To see how the sport of surfing, which gave so much to me, is being used as therapy is pretty remarkable. We do quite a lot to fund their work. Others that matter to me are putting solar panels on Miami City Hall, the first big city hall in the United States to be powered by them, and in my own hometown of Los Angeles, in the port, there’s a marine terminal controlling all the ships coming in and out of the port that we made energy-neutral. And we send kids with subsidized breakfasts and lunches home on a Friday afternoon with backpacks full of meals for the weekend. There are so many projects, it’s innumerable.

In a Divided America, What’s the First Step in Erasing Prevalent Stereotypes?

In a recent experiment, elementary-school age girls and boys were told a story featuring a “really, really smart” gender-neutral protagonist. Then, they were handed four pictures — two men and two women — and asked to pick out the character from the story. By age 6, girls were significantly less likely to pick the pictures of their own gender, the study concluded. NationSwell Council member Amanda Mortimer is trying change the narrative. As the director of production at The Representation Project, she’s pointing out the stereotypes in our culture and teaching young people to overcome them.
Has there been a time when you’ve been affected by [stereotype] images from pop culture?
I grew up in the 1980s playing with Barbie dolls and watching Disney movies—experiences that taught me the ideal woman must have unnaturally long legs, a tiny waist and large breasts. It might not have been possible, but that was the ideal. As a teenager, when I leveled out at 5’3”, I had to reconcile cultural notions of beauty with realistic ones and, at the same time, learn to celebrate and embrace all of the other skills and traits that make girls great.
What inspired you to change the narrative?
In addition to limiting the gender narratives I absorbed as a kid, I was also part of the generation of girls who was told they could be anything and do anything they wanted. Together, these two narratives create a lot of tension: You can be President of the United States, but you should look like a swimsuit model. I didn’t realize how much these stories were hurting me and other women until I saw the documentary Miss Representation by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It wasn’t that the documentary revealed compromising images of women I had never seen before, but it connected the dots for me in a powerful way between the limited ways girls and women are pictured and the limited ways women are represented in positions of power and influence.
Last November, our country bared its divisions by race, class and geography. Do you think there is still time to repair our ideas of one another?
The short answer is yes. Years before working in news and documentaries, I worked on political campaigns. Elections always teach us something, and this past presidential election gave us all a lot to think about. The truth is, we are experiencing one of the most extreme periods of economic and social inequality in our nation’s history; people are experiencing vastly different circumstances and opportunities in America today. Sometimes, the fear of economic insecurity can be manipulated and turned into a fear of others. But I believe we are all a lot more similar than we are different and that we actually all want the same things for our children and our parents. In order to move forward, we’re going to have to focus on our common humanity more and on our differences less. That said, I’m not sweeping centuries of structural racism and inequality under the rug. We still have major work to do to acknowledge, reconcile and make reparations for our history of racism and oppression in America.
In your mind, what’s been the most successful way The Representation Project has done that?
Our work is all about awakening minds and raising consciousness about stereotypes that are so pervasive in our lives we sometimes don’t even recognize them. Once you are aware, you can be educated about the costs and consequences of these messages, and then you can start to change attitudes, behavior and, ultimately, culture. We believe that media is both the message and the messenger, so we do a lot of work through media, especially film. We’re working on a third documentary now that will expand the conversation about how our values shape our culture, with a deeper look at how inequality is experienced in America in terms of race, class and gender.
How do you train the next generation of children not to be swayed by what they’re seeing?
Last summer [The Representation Project] held our first annual Global Youth Leadership Summit and brought together an incredible group of youth from all walks of life. The program of experts and celebrities taught these kids how to recognize limiting stereotypes in their media, explained why they are damaging and then taught them how to have conversations about those limiting narratives in their own communities.
Homepage photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The Newspaper That Tells Tales of Homelessness, How to Help the Poor Build Credit and More


On the Streets with a Newspaper Vendor Trying to Sell His Story, CityLab

It can be uncomfortable shelling out change to a beggar living on the street, but would you be willing to pay $2 for a newspaper about homelessness and poverty? Robert Williams, a Marine Corps veteran who writes for Street Sense, a biweekly broadsheet in Washington, D.C., hopes so. For every copy he sells, he keeps 75 percent, his only source of income.

Banking on Justice, YES! Magazine

In the impoverished Mississippi Delta region, most locals can’t borrow from large banks such as Citibank, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase because small loans don’t make enough interest to be worthwhile. Instead, residents are increasingly turning to Community Development Financial Institutions, known as CDFIs, which receive federal assistance in exchange for making capital available in low-income areas.

When Teachers Take A Breath, Students Can Bloom, NPR

Educators have it rough. If keeping up with children’s energy levels for six hours isn’t enough, they also need to help students cope with difficulties outside the classroom and meet the rigors of state testing and federal standards. That can lead to a lot of stress, which is why CARE for Teachers trains educators in meditation techniques proven to reduce anxiety and burnout.

MORE: Mindfulness at Work: 7 Places Where Employees Benefit from Meditation

Why America Must Remember Its Lynching Past, The Compassionate Nonagenarian Who Knits Hats for Those on the Streets and More

The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row, The New Yorker

Bryan Stevenson, one of the foremost civil rights lawyers of our time and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, sees a link between wrongful convictions, today’s police shootings of young black men and the nation’s barbarous history of lynching. To honor the 4,000 African Americans killed in the former Confederate states, Stevenson plans to build a $20 million memorial in Montgomery, Ala., on the site of a former public housing complex.
Man, 91, in hospice care knits hats for the homeless, WXMI
For the last 15 years, Morrie Boogart, a 91-year-old in Grandville, Mich., has knit hats for the homeless. Using donated yarn, Boogart has made at least 8,000 caps to keep the homeless warm during the winter. Confined to bedrest from skin cancer and a mass on his kidney, he’s spending his last days in admirable service to others.
Yes, Queens, The Ringer
When one thinks of podcasts, the image of a bespectacled white man, like “This American Life”’s Ira Glass, probably comes to mind. The seriously irreverent, wildly popular weekly podcast “2 Dope Queens,” hosted by Jessica Williams, formerly of “The Daily Show,” and Phoebe Robinson, a standup comedian, opens the medium to a new type of host. Racism, sexism and politics, as seen from a black woman’s perspective, are all carefully discussed, and somehow hilarity ensues.
MORE: Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America

The Program That Encourages Girls to Speak Out About What It’s Really Like to Be a Teenager

On a recent Saturday evening in Lower Manhattan, nearly two dozen high school girls stood next to glowing laptops, displaying projects to a milling crowd. One used the online presentation tool Prezi to click through chapters of her vampire novel-in-progress, which, she says, is a metaphor for society’s fear of African Americans. Another showed off her short film, “Stop and Smell the Roses” depicting New York City scenes about journeys: subway rides, map-reading, outdoor strolls. In voiceover narration, the filmmaker, Sharon Young, explains the uncertainty she feels about attending college in the fall: “I’m the type of person who wants to plan everything out, who wants to know what’s on the set list, if the clouds are going to be overcast, what sort of direction I’m floating in.”
Girls Write Now is largely responsible for Young’s emerging voice. Since 1998, the New York City program has paired over 5,000 underserved high school girls with established female journalists, novelists, screenwriters, bloggers and other digital media professionals. The teens (only 4 percent of whom are white) mainly come from the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to string words into poems, try their hand at reporting a story or dream up the concept for a novel. Basic English proficiency is a challenge in many New York City high schools, so Girls Write Now helps low-income young women of color improve their communication, writing and leadership skills. With a mentor, a teenager develops a portfolio of creative work and then, during her senior year, crafts a college essay. Despite outside obstacles, every single senior who participated in Girls Write Now has gone to college — often with scholarships and accolades in tow.
As the media landscape changes rapidly, the mission of fashioning young female writers takes on a particular urgency since there’s now a chance for women of color to claim a space in a world dominated for centuries by white men. In today’s digital age, young women can control their own narrative by telling it themselves online, reaching a wide audience, says Veronica Black, a pixie-cut-sporting filmmaker, museum curator and Young’s mentor. Which is why Girls Write Now offers a special digital media program that trains teens in creative uses of the latest technology. “At the end…girls are equipped to tell a story in GIFs, write a poem in HTML, and take their words to the next level,” says Maya Nussbaum, Girls Write Now’s founder. “From narrative games to audio and animation, writing isn’t just in ink anymore.”
APPLY: Girls Write Now is an NBCUniversal Foundation 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program today.
Young’s participation in the digital media program was unplanned. (Coincidentally, so was Black’s.) Initially shy, Young, a Harlem native and recent graduate of The High School for Math, Science and Engineering, one of New York City’s nine specialized magnet schools, kept her opinions to herself, needing several meetings before really opening up to Black. Together, the pair experimented using various types of digital media before Young discovered that film best aligns with her sensibility and visual way of thinking. (She’s attracted to the freedom that comes with a multi-platform definition of writing because she doesn’t have the patience to draft sentences until they’re perfect, preferring the spontaneity of capturing unplanned beauty on camera.) Suddenly, questions about classic movies, how to write a script and what Black had learned from her own video projects flowed out of the once-quiet girl. One night, as Young worked on her vlog, she glanced up from her video-editing software and realized it was two in the morning. “I think that’s when I realized making films was something I enjoyed,” she says.
Today, in an interview at Girls Write Now’s offices in midtown, Young displays confidence, especially with her mentor beside her. After three years together, they understand each other, laughing about inside jokes and grading each other’s metaphors. “[Black has] been very supportive of my ideas and helped me turn them into reality. She helped me to be vulnerable in my writing and take risks,” Young says, sharing that her mentor “open[ed] my eyes to the different uses of digital media.”
While many of Young’s high school classmates plan on getting STEM degrees, Girls Write Now has given her other options for next year in college (she plans to attend Hunter College, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) — including finding a way to bridge both science and art through technology. While scared of the future, she now understands the importance of being a female storyteller. “It’s taking ownership of your identity, your gender, your upbringing and not falling for society’s norms for you because you’re a girl. It’s breaking those walls down,” she says, possessing the mental clarity and confidence to articulate her feelings and share them with strangers. It’s something of a risk, she feels, but one she can’t resist. Now that she’s found her voice — and the perfect medium to share it — through Girls Write Now, there’s no sense hiding it.
Girls Write Now is a recipient of last year’s 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!

How Do You Get Millennials Focused on the Issues Facing Americans Today?

Kasey Saeturn, a 20-year-old journalist, got the idea for her most recent reporting project while attempting to grab take-out in Oakland’s Chinatown. That summer afternoon, she and other reporters left the Youth Radio headquarters to find cheap eats. Most returned empty-handed, unable to find anything affordable in the gentrified neighborhood. The situation prompted Saeturn, a first-generation Mien-American whose family came from Laos, to think about urban renewal, wondering: Was a lack of affordable cuisine unique to the Easy Bay or did kids across the country choose between an empty stomach and an empty wallet?
To answer her question, Saeturn built a map and used Facebook and Twitter to collect responses from across the country to fill it. Last month, her story (which was produced by Youth Radio) appeared before a national audience on NPR’s website. “I wouldn’t have even found out if I liked [storytelling] if I didn’t join Youth Radio. I never saw myself as a journalist,” Saeturn, a college student with a second job at a ramen shop, says.
With kids manning the mics, Youth Radio, a public radio station, launched from Berkeley, Calif., in the 1990s. As shootings ravaged low-income neighborhoods, its founder, Ellin O’Leary, hoped to end the prevailing news narrative that all teens were violent gangbangers or victims by giving minority, low-income youths the opportunity to explain their lives for themselves. That mission continues today at bureaus in L.A., Atlanta and Washington, D.C., as Millennials — burdened with college debt and unemployment — create stories about living in a hashtag-centric world. Keeping up with the times, Youth Radio now also streams its content online and in 2009, started its Innovation Lab, a digital storytelling platform, where young people design interactive mobile apps that give a fresh take on the news in a format that’s relevant to their peers.
“There’s multiple ways to tell a story,” says Asha Richardson, a Youth Radio alum who now manages the Innovation Lab. Richardson, the station’s former tech journalist, wanted her reporting to go beyond the reels and was intrigued how technology — video, music, graphic design, coding — and new platforms that appealed to her peers enhanced reach and storytelling impact. Students in the program (80 percent come from low-income homes) receive real-world tech skills, learning not only how to use a recording device, set levels and mix their audio, but also how to design and code, says Lissa Soep, a senior producer who cooked up the Innovation Lab with Richardson.
APPLY: Youth Radio is an NBCUniversal 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program here.
Youth Radio’s apps transform the century-old two-minute radio story and make it better by allowing a reader to spend as much time with a story as she desires (the same way a listener could binge on Serial). A series of interviews about gentrification in five Oakland neighborhoods, for example, allows a visitor to turn about the city through an online map, visiting schools and playgrounds, a Disneyesque theme park, grand old hotels and new high-rise condos. Richardson’s Bucket Hustle app combines trivia questions about California’s drought with an arcade-style game of collecting falling water drops in a bucket. And another online interactive, Double Charged, lets a viewer follow three people through the juvenile justice system and watch as thousands of dollars in fees pile up throughout the process.
Youth Radio’s multi-platform approach extends young people’s voices far beyond their Twitter feeds and Tumblr accounts. So far, its stories have reached more than 28 million users and the digital tools created in its Innovation Lab have an active user base of more than 3 million people worldwide.
That ability to reach a diverse audience changed the way Saeturn thinks about her own life and how much she’s willing to share on the radio. When she sits down to brainstorm, she asks herself, “What’s going on in my life that other people can relate to?” Knowing her words will be shared justifies “putting all the thought and feeling and heart” into each story, hoping her experience helps another young person listening on the web.
More than any hackathon or a media studies class, Youth Radio allows young people to express themselves and connect with listeners. By telling stories, Saeturn feels like she’s finally found her voice. Not in the sense that it gave her thoughts and opinions she didn’t hold before, but that it gives her a platform to stand on.
“A lot of adults, they don’t really care for what children have to say. To them, it’s whatever we say goes. They forget that the youth is our next generation. They forget that we have the same thoughts and opinions as you do. We have worries as well,” Saeturn says. “That’s the biggest thing: we’ve been silent for so long, forced to believe that nobody cares.” With Youth Radio as their outlet, they’re finding people that are willing to listen. Online, they’re able to reach more of them than ever before.
Youth Radio is a recipient of last year’s 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!