Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories
reviewed by Richard Ayers & William Ayers - October 04, 2010
Title: Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories
Author(s): Lissa Soep and Vivian Chavez
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520260872, Pages: 240, Year: 2010
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The challenging intellectual and ethical work of teaching pivots on our ability to experience ourselves as actors and participants in a complex, dynamic, and forward-charging world a world to explore and discover, to re-imagine and to shape and, simultaneously, to be wide-awake to the complex mixture of students who appear before us each day, young people who come to us filled with expectation and aspiration. In each direction we find fire and ice, pleasure and pain, surprise, ecstasy, and agony.
Our going-world: already up and running, churning and spinning and careening onward, filled with undeserved suffering and unnecessary pain on the one hand, breath-taking beauty and enduring potential on the other. And our students: each a work-in-progress, much like ourselves, with hopes and dreams, aspirations, skills, and capacities; with minds and hearts and spirits; each with embodied experiences, histories, and stories to tell of a past and a possible future; each the one and only with families, neighborhoods, cultural surrounds, and language communities all entangled and interacting. Our students are those unruly sparks of meaning-making energy, and they are making their wobbly ways as best they can into a wild world, on a voyage of discovery and surprise.
The knotty and complicated work of teaching might be summed up as a three-step challenge: Pay attention! Be astonished! Get busy! (Repeat).
Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez are two educators who uniquely illuminate that three-step challenge, and they extend our sense of the possible in school and society as they lead us on a tour through the world of Youth Radio, an 18-year-old youth development organization and independent media production company in Oakland, California. Soep is Youth Radios research director and senior producer, and Chávez is a Youth Radio alumna and San Francisco State University professor. Together they offer an invitation and a challenge: they invite us to rethink and reinvent our teaching on our own terms and in our own ways, and they challenge us to draw on a deep well of experience and wisdom as we create our classrooms anew.
When Berkeley High School student and Youth Radio reporter Brandon McFarland did a story on sagging, the teen style of letting ones pants droop to precipitous levels, his friend Gerald Ward II offered some serious insight: Its like code-switching when you speak, he said. I speak Oaklandese when I speak to other folks that are from the town [Oakland], and when Im not, I might switch into a more universal language or lexicon. Same thing with my pants. I might sag in certain areas, and in the other areas Ill pull them up so I can infiltrate the system.
Brandon is impressed, and responds: Thats my man Gerald, dropping that knowledge.
Authors Soep and Chávez are apparently impressed as well, for the phrase drop that knowledge becomes title and frame for a dazzling journey. For them, dropping that knowledge is a generative idea, vital and resonant on several levels at once: It means recognizing and unlocking the wisdom of everyday people, and it points to the power of analytical and critical thinking that folks always have the potential to engage. It offers challenges to both young people and adults. The charge to young people is to honor their own experiences and knowledge even as they investigate the life worlds of others. To adults the demand is to please drop that patronizing pose as experts and authorities as they open their eyes and ears and become the students of their students.
Drop That Knowledge provides a pathway toward creating forward-leaning learning communities in and outside of schools, places where young people are safe to be, to hear, to question, and to tell. Students who come to Youth Radios development program represent the diversity of Bay Area urban populations: majority working class, African American and Chicano/Latino.
Teaching requires dispositions of patience, curiosity, respect, wonder, awe, reverence, simplicity, and non-violence, with more than a small dose of humility. These qualities are on full display at Youth Radio. Teaching demands sustained focus, intelligent judgment, inquiry and investigation, and it calls forth an open heart and an inquiring mind since every judgment is necessarily contingent, every view partial, and each conclusion tentative.
We see here teachers thinking and acting to take the side of enlightenment and liberation, to blow on the embers of reason, truth, and beauty, to support growth and wisdom, to bring the light. At Youth Radio, teachers and students alike are willing to dive into the wreckage and swim with courage and hope toward an indistinct shore.
In this project we see good teachers offering unblinking recognition and attention, and communicating a deep regard for students lives, a respect for both their integrity and their vulnerability. They begin with a belief that each student is unique, each the one and only who will ever trod the earth, each worthy of a certain reverence. Regard extends, importantly, to the wider community the wide world that animates each individual life and an insistence that students have access to the tools with which to negotiate and then to transform all that lies before them. But they also know that love for students just as they are without any drive or advance toward a future is false love, enervating and disabling. These teachers try in good faith to do no harm, and then to support students as they reach, reinvent, and finally seize an education fit for the fullest lives they might hope for.
Teaching at its best is characterized by a spirit of respect, harmony, cooperation, inclusion, social engagement, and full participation. Projects and classrooms then become places that honor diversity while building unity, basing work on a fundamental faith in the capacity and importance of the human.
This calls forth and is sustained through a culture of respect and mutual recognition that encourages students to develop the skills to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their (and other peoples) full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. At Youth Radio everyone works to open the education door and in so doing, to close a prison door. People learn to live in dialogue, speaking with the possibility of being heard, and listening with the possibility of being changed, asking essential questions again and again, and finding ways to live within and beyond the answers we receive: Whats your story? Who are you in the world? How did you (and I) get this far? What do we know now? What do we have the right to imagine and expect? Where are we going? Who decides? Whos left out? What are the alternatives? Why? In many ways these kinds of questions are themselves the answers, for they lead us into a powerful sense that we can and will make a difference.
Soep and Chávez avoid a trap that awaits well-intentioned progressive educators everywhere: romanticizing students and young people and valorizing the authentic voices of youth, a stance that is all but inevitable when the brush with youth and youth culture is quick and breezy. That is not the case here. Rather than heroizing the young as objects of adulation (or demonizing them as objects of fear the opposite but similarly uninformed response), they delve into the conflicts and contradictions that are at the heart of this work, and of teaching more generally.
They explore the tension inherent in kids coming to trust their own views and knowledge learning to claim the right to speak unapologetically about experiences over which they hold authority while seeing that their views are but a piece of a complex world in which the experiences and knowledge of others are also vital. Thats a central feature of successfully negotiating adolescence, and they dive into stories of this contradiction with zest, humor, and wisdom.
In this regard, the story of Youth Radio reporter Anyi Howell is instructive. He was stopped by Berkeley police in a BART subway station on the way to a staff meeting. In a clear case of racial profiling, Anyi was placed in handcuffs as the police questioned him about nearby robberies. Leave me alone, he said. This is not how you approach a citizen. As Soep and Chávez observe, Even with handcuffs snapping around his wrists, Anyi had the presence of mind to pose a question about youth citizenship. Coincidentally, a television crew was at the station and caught the confrontation on tape, but he could never get the other news media group to share the tape for his complaint. Anyi Howells particular power was that he was able to produce a story about the incident, including the lack of solidarity from the TV crew, and explore the implications for power, race, and youth.
Another tension that Soep and Chávez write into (rather than run away from) is that between the explosion of new tools for media production (that might render the adult gatekeepers irrelevant), and the necessity for intergenerational relationships and rethinking the roles and responsibilities of teaching. Although young people are often described as digital natives, more adept at the use of technical tools of production than their elders, powerful journalism requires extensive training and experience with mentors who have been there before. Youth reporter Sophie Simon-Ortiz encountered a young woman at a party who was in a marriage of convenience to a Marine. Such a marriage to get benefits increased salary, the right to live in an off-base apartment for him, health benefits for her is well known among youth but often unnoticed by elder journalists. Her dilemma was how to report the story in a way that was more than sensational to examine issues of low pay and survival in a war economy. In addition, she needed to research how broad this phenomenon was, to talk to sociologists of military life, attorneys, and other military personnel. Finally, she needed to protect the identity of her source. All of this required extensive collaborative work. But this story, along with the Youth Radio series on veterans, Reflections on Return, eventually gained these youth access to more military exposés, leading to a groundbreaking series on harassment of gays in the military as well as torture and atrocity stories.
Modeling how education can develop as a collaborative project, Youth Radio is forging new directions in social justice pedagogy. The key issue in youth media and youth literacy is whether or not a program foregrounds the capacity of young people to be critical. As Soep and Chávez point out, Literacy implies a capacity to understand and critique the way the world is organized by virtue of being textualized. Reading this book, we begin to see that youth are not just the reluctant learners that our national education debate complains about, but instead can and must be the constructers of the next generation of cultural expression, and our hope for the future.
In our modern world, and tethered to our consumerist ideology and culture, we suffer a kind of metaphysical blindness, investing materialism with god-like power, assuming that the market, for example, operates outside of values and moral choice, that it is invariable and solid, like the law of gravity. In this frame, work is construed as either a necessary evil or an item of cost. The ideal situation for the worker is less and less work, or income without work; the ideal for the owner is more and bigger output, or production without workers. The consequences of this ideology are many: alienation and conflict; the myth that reducing the workload is always good; the standard of living always measured in terms of consumption, and the delusion that more material goods always make us better off; education reduced to accumulation and competition.
But Soep and Chavez illuminate a non-materialist alternative: work can be a central vitalizing aspect of life that allows human beings to develop and use their human skills, capacities, and knowledge; work is in part how we construct an identity; work enables us to locate ourselves in community and overcome narcissism in the interests of the common good. This helps us upend the common-sense frame and to consider as a goal for our teaching and learning not the production of things, or the multiplication of wants, but the production of free human beings. It is not wealth, but the attachment to wealth that dehumanizes; not enjoyment and pleasure, but the craving of and subordination to pleasure. Youth Radio embraces every day that aching sense that I am not yet.
This is a book that is rich with stories evidence and argument are mirror and window to one another here. As activist/educators and storyteller/researchers, Soep and Chávez are perfectly positioned to illuminate the power of Youth Radio as a model of teaching and learning for the 21st century. While too many academics pontificate about the potential of the new digital media, Soep and Chávez write in a quiet voice, without pose or posture. Their message is earthshaking.