April 21st, 2011

Spotlight: Meghan McDermott, Executive Director of Global Action Project (G.A.P.)

Meghan McDermott and Rayhan Islam accepting an award from Michelle Obama

For The LAMP’s April Spotlight interview, we sat down with Meghan McDermott, the Executive Director of Global Action Project (G.A.P.). She is an expert on youth media and social justice, and has seen a lot of change both in technology and the young people who use it. Read on to learn more about G.A.P., her thoughts on the development and production of youth media and much more.

What is Global Action Project, and how did you come to be Executive Director?
G.A.P. is a youth-media arts organization with a social justice mission. We’re just about to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We were originally formed as a project of Global Kids, and over time established our own roots. I joined the organization as Executive Director eight years ago, having been on the board for a year. I just really loved the work.

Media have changed a lot since G.A.P. got started twenty years ago. How has that impacted the organization and work?
That is a huge question. The short answer is yes, media obviously has changed, but more than that, approaches to youth development have changed. And youth media as a field has actually emerged–ten years ago it was just a ragtag of collective initiatives. There’s much more clarity. On our end at G.A.P., we’ve seen a rise in people who are doing organizing work and are incorporating media into their activism, so that’s a shift. But probably the most talked about and least understood shift is the role of social networking. We just don’t know what it means yet. For those of us who do see media as a collaboration process, social networking is still about individual, raw, unmediated monologue, and we’re trying to figure that out. It’s so fluid and new. The Internet as a form of public access is less than twenty years old, so I think we’re still trying to understand what that has done for our lives.

What do you think makes media production such a uniquely powerful tool for youth empowerment and education?
Not everyone is going to agree with me on this, but for me it is the fact that it’s really well-suited for collaborative work. And you could say, “Well, what about theater ensemble or sports?” But there’s something about building a story together, and doing it with the media arts craft and tools that makes it different. I think theater ensemble is actually very similar, but the power of theater is that it’s live, and the power of media is that it goes on and on to reach vast audiences over time…it is the production means of our time. It’s a currency. It’s about developing a language and an ability to communicate. Media production with a purpose that is creatively engaged can be really amazing for opening people up to their own potential, and I do think media are unique because of the craft and audience and analysis. Ideally, it’s about pushing a person’s sense of potential beyond themselves, and not as an individual.

What would you say are some of the biggest differences between students twenty years ago and your students today?
Twenty years ago when G.A.P. was founded — and this is especially true because of how we started as a leadership organization — young people were really excited to gain access to these tools, just as they are today. And I don’t think the desire to communicate was any different. What may be different now is an immediacy, an urgency to their efforts; twenty years ago they had to sit down in front of a giant SHVS or 3/4 inch deck to edit and now it’s non-linear. Then, the cultural context was about addressing diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism…the context now is that there is more talk about young people as artists who are shifting both the aesthetics and demographics of the country, or being “social agents of change.” In some ways now, the youth development field may be more polarized with a focus on either social justice/change work on the one hand and strict academic achievement on the other, as if we have moved from a discourse of multiculturalism to workforce or 21st century literacy, for example. But fundamentally, what has not changed, is a real desire from young people to be respected and acknowledged by adults and peers for what they have to say, and for them to witness their own power and potential.

How have your students become more involved in their communities as a result of working with G.A.P.?
We haven’t done any real alumni tracking, except anecdotally. The thing I struggle with in answering this question is whether it means they get involved in their community now or community in general by moving on, going to college, becoming a teacher or whatever it is they want to do. So there are individual achievements over time to take into account. We have tried to make the direct connection to community much more concrete and real, where young people are making media to address a campaign or as part of a community movement. For example, we recently partnered with a great organization in the Bronx called Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice to help their young organizers produce a video in support of their restorative justice campaign. Restorative justice is an innovative youth-centered approach to addressing conflict in schools that is a direct response to zero tolerance policies. The focus is on being very peer-to-peer as opposed to punitive. Now YMPJ is using the video, called Breaking the Pipeline, as a central part of their campaign. You can find out more about the design of our partnership here, because we were featured in the Citizen Active series exploring Next Generation leadership strategies. So, in that sense we are working to make our links and impacts to community concrete, measurable and real. But young people are engaged in so many ways–whether it’s by screening their work, sitting on panels, going to conferences or bringing their sisters, brothers, cousins, parents to our programs and events—we have to work across tiers of impact.

G.A.P. recently received an award from Michelle Obama. What was that like?
That was really wonderful. Last year, we were one of fifteen organizations across the country to receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award, which is a gold star from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. What was exciting was that one of our students, Rayhan Islam, came with me, and he got to meet Michelle Obama and other people from around the country, and he learned about other the programs being honored at the White House that day. When you’ve worked so hard for so long, it is really gratifying to get noticed at that level.

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