A Public Letter to Youth Media
For five years, I had the proud honor of co-creating The Alliance Youth Media Network; this is my good-bye letter.
Inspired by the letters I’ve been writing to my father, I wrote a public letter to The Alliance Members, Fellows—Cellou Diallo, Montero Morton, Aden Suchak, Kafi-Ayanna Allah, Kapi’olani Lee, and Triana Patel—, Myah Overstreet, and Wendy Levy. I am sharing this letter on my blog because the art—the entirety of all of the relations cultivated and tended over five years—I have co-create alongside The Alliance Youth Media Network is truly extraordinary. It came to an end at the end of 2020.
Included in this presentation are excerpts from final projects by the Fellows.
Dear Members, Fellows, Myah, and Wendy:
I am writing this letter at 4am PT on Tuesday, January 5, 2021, and the moon, half full, hangs low in the sky. I am in what is known as San Francisco, CA, which was stolen from Indigenous people (what we currently know as Ohlone and Raymaytush) and named by Spanish Catholic colonizers and is now governed by the United States of America after a war with Mexico. The new year is already upon us, and with it comes a possibility to look back and forward simultaneously.
For the past five years, I have had the honor to tend to and care for The Alliance Youth Media Network. Looking back, I see a multi-racial, multi-gender, intergenerational, youth-centered, cross-geographic, issue-oriented, emergent, and decentralized autonomous collective that co-creates small, accessible, healing, liberatory, inquiry-initiated, art-and-story-based virtual and physical gatherings. And when I look into its future, I see a myriad directions and possibilities for its continued existence and promulgation springing from our members’ dreams and desires. It is overwhelmingly beautiful.
image description: excerpt from “How can we be good ancestors and build intergenerational power?” an illustrated conversation co-produced by Cellou Diallo and Kapi’olani Lee; edited and illustrated by Kapi’olani Lee. The panel includes three portraits of and quotes from Binesikwe Means, Cellou Diallo, and Jason Wyman
2020 began with six Youth Media Fellows joining me in a year-long virtual fellowship program centered on listening, connecting, and co-creating as a means of liberatory storytelling, art-making, and healing. Our first collective task together was to listen to and connect with our Members about who / how you be right now and what might be possible during a Virtual Summit unfolding over May to July 2020. COVID-19 was only a news report about infections in Wuhan, China and overwhelmed hospitals in Italy.
Our focus on the here and now helped us chart a course of emergent response as COVID-19 spread across the United States. We held weekly gatherings from March to June where Members shared stories of what was happening locally and brainstormed strategies for how to respond. Our Fellows began producing Roundtables on Being Good Ancestors, Rebuilding Systems, Redefining Normal, and Making Access Tangible for our 2nd Annual Youth Media Virtual Summit and engaging our Members to join us in conversation and inquiry. We collectively pulled together books, articles, videos, resource guides to expand our thinking and discover even more connection and possibility. We were demonstrating our resilience.
image description: a photograph from Minneapolis, MN, taken by Cellou Diallo in June 2020, which is included in Cellou’s final photo essay, Everything’s Boring. There is a Black man in an orange hoodie with a face mask in the lower right corner. Dominating the left side of the picture is a bus stop with “George Floyd!” spray painted on it in black.
Then, on Monday, May 25, 2020, George Floyd was suffocated by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin with Officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane aiding and abetting. The next day, Fellows Cellou Diallo (Minneapolis, MN) and Kapi’olani Lee (Portland, OR) held their already scheduled Roundtable, which asked, How do we be good ancestors and build intergenerational power? Binesikwe Means (Minneapolis, MN), Yonci Jameson (Minneapolis, MN), Bill Cottman (Minneapolis, MN), James George Pakootas (Spokane, WA), Jewel Felder-James (Philadelphia, PA), Elias Flores III (San Antonio, TX), Guillermina Zabala (San Antonio, TX), and Jalena Keane-Lee (NY / CA) joined them in answering that question. As we opened our time together, we gave space to grieve for George Floyd and Minneapolis.
By the end of the week, uprisings for Black lives demanding the defunding and abolition of police and reinvestment into life-affirming services for Black people sparked across the United States. These uprisings were met with violent police repression, and our Members and Fellows were on the frontlines defending their communities. I turned inward, rather than outward, and asked our Fellows, what else do you need in this moment? How might our Members support you here and now?
Two additional questions emerged in that moment. How do we abolish police in media and arts institutions? And how can we sustain stronger, more resilient direct action tactics that lead towards long-term material change? Our Youth Media Network came together to support Fellows Kafi-Ayannah Allah and Aden Suchak in collectively answering them. These two additional Roundtables proved crucial in our Fellows and Members meeting their and their communities’ emergent needs. It was a powerful moment of intergenerational, cross-geographic, multi-racial liberatory solidarity.
We have to actively FIGHT to defund AND abolish the police and carceral states that exist in our country if we want to look back one day and affirm that we WERE truly allies and accomplices in this fight, not just adrenaline-seeking onlookers.
excerpt from Imagining Pathways: From Allies to Accomplices by Aden Suchak
All of our activities in 2020 have centered on making them as accessible as possible for those who are engaged AND designing our engagement strategy to specifically include rural, disconnected, displaced, and disabled youth and adults. We were able to do this because of three main reasons. First, we took stock of who was present and who was missing and built bridges so we could include who was missing. Second, we kept everything small. Third, we interrogated how we could make everything more accessible within the means we had available to us. If something wasn’t working (e.g. video was not accessible), we changed our methodology (e.g. creating a text message-based response system). We met everyone where they were.
The final event of our 2nd Annual Virtual Summit was #WeHaveQuestions, a partnership between Breaktide Productions, Outside the Lens, YouthUnmuted, and the Orange County Public Library. Each organization engaged youth and young adults in asking a question of their peers. We shared those questions with our Members, who shared it with their communities. All responses were collected and published by the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough, NC. Through it, a rural library became an archive for a small, global, youth-centered conversation asking questions like, what is sacred and how do you defend it? And what is "choice" and how would we be living our lives if we had changed anything in the past?
From August to December 2020, our time was spent two ways: in one-on-one conversations and gathering as Fellows. I spoke individually with over 40 Members (youth media artists, youth media practitioners, and executive directors) about their experiences with our Youth Media Network and the dreams, desires, and possibilities of 2021 and beyond. And our Fellows gathered to create and share art and media projects that would reflect personal and collective insights revealed through their 2020 Fellowship. Both were spaces of deep intimacy, listening, reflection, and care.
video description: “7 Seeds” by Kafi-Ayanna Allah. The song being sung is an Appalachian variation of a traditional Scottish ballad.
I, too, embarked on my own journey this fall and winter. I dove into looking at the history of Youth Media Networks and discovered that the first one in recorded Alliance history sprung from our NAMAC Conference in the Twin Cities, MN, in 2000. John Gwinn, who is now at Migizi Communications, was one of the original organizers of the Twin Cities Youth Media Network. John Gwinn is the reason Binesikwe Means joined us in a conversation about being good ancestors and building intergenerational power in the wake of the suffocation of George Floyd.
We are rooted in a history of decentralized, autonomous collectives springing up to meet the emergent needs of our communities.
This dive into Youth Media Network history was not my only journey this fall and winter. My father had Mantle Cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it came back virulently this November. He tried treatment after treatment, and each one failed. He made a decision to stop all treatment and begin hospice in mid-December. On December 26, 2020, my father passed away at 6pm PT. My husband and I were able to be present with him and my family via Zoom for his last hour. We, too, watched via Zoom the hearse drive him away from my parents’ home. It has forever changed my relationship to what is possible virtually. I was able to kiss him as my brother kissed him in person. It may not have been what I desired, but it was what was safest and most accessible. It seems my work this year with our Youth Media Network prepared me to be incredibly present for my father’s death.
As I peer into 2021, a new Youth Media Network formation is emerging. Our Youth Media Network is beautiful and decentralized and autonomous and collective. It is not any single person’s or organization’s. The Alliance has been the caregiver of it for the last five years. So too have all of our Fellows and Members. I have played a crucial role in tending to relations and praxis. And my role has been one of listening and connecting and co-creating. It has never been a role solely played by me. It has always included Wendy Levy and Myah Overstreet and our Youth Media Fellows (Cellou Diallo, Montero Morton, Aden Suchak, Kafi-Ayanna Allah, Kapi’olani Lee, Triana Patel, Olivia Evans, Gemikia Henderson + RYSE Youth Center) and our Members (all of you) even when those people may not be physically (or even virtually) present.
image description: a page from “Roundtable Reflections 2020” by Dina Fukunaga. Dina was an Art Speak Intern with the Asian Art Museum during the 2019-2020 School Year. Dina participated in an intergenerational video roundtable on the question, “How can we rebuild systems of infrastructure a foundation of access, inclusion, equity, and diversity?" The Video Roundtable was produced by Fellow Triana Patel.
The Youth Media Network lives in every single person and organization who desires a Youth Media Network.
For me, my priorities are shifting. 2020 has revealed to me that while I love, value, and cherish youth media, youth media is no longer where I want my focus to be. Instead, I want my focus to turn towards abolishing white institutions, healing trauma and grief, cultivating collective dreaming, supporting direct mutual aid and action, and spending loads and loads of time with family of choice and of blood. While youth media is a way to address these topics, it is not the only way, and I desire to find comrades in other places beyond youth media that can move the communities I cherish towards more collective liberation and healing.
This means it is time for me to step aside (not away) from the Youth Media Network. It is time to embrace the true power of our multi-racial, multi-gender, intergenerational, youth-centered, cross-geographic, issue-oriented, emergent, and decentralized autonomous collective that co-creates small, accessible, healing, liberatory, inquiry-initiated, art-and-story-based virtual and physical gatherings.
But what does this actually mean for the Alliance and the Youth Media Network?
It means 2021 will be slow and small. It means we’ve collated all of the content generated in 2020 into a simple, accessible Google Doc that all Members can access. It means you can review that content, including a list of Possibilities for 2021 (and beyond), and create your own Youth Media Network offerings. It means so much is possible because absolutely everything is possible.
It also means I, personally, will not be the one shepherding the work. You will.
image description: excerpt from “How can we redefine normal?” an illustrated conversation produced by Montero Morton; edited and illustrated by Kapi’olani Lee. The panel includes three portraits of and quotes from Oakley Fugate, Francisco Camacho, and Montero Morton.
Letter writing like this is a practice reintroduced to me by my father this past August. He requested that we engage in a project that would show to others how we’ve grown and changed because he believed that being transparent about our challenges and our love could help others as they grapple with reconciling family, grief, isolation, and cancer. What I discovered as we wrote letters back and forth is there is deep, profound power in speaking directly to whom you are speaking.
So...here are some semi-public words to specific folx mentioned at the outset of this letter.
To Members - I love you. I know we don’t normally say this to our colleagues, but what I learned from Fellow Montero Morton this year is we must be bold in redefining normal. Love should be normal. In fact, fearless, radical, unconditional love is normal. It’s not always practiced.
As my comrade Kirthi Nath said to me, “Practice makes practice.” So I am practicing saying I LOVE YOU to all of you. You helped me survive this year. You filled my well when I felt empty. You shared deeply personal and vulnerable stories and emotions in all of our interactions and conversations. You make me a better human. Thank you.
To Fellows - I love you, too. I am so proud of each of you individually and us as a group collectively. We made it! We all engaged in a year-long, deep, intentional journey of personal and collective inquiry, storytelling, and art-making. You are not just a Fellow to me. You are both comrade and family. I will support you until the end of my days in this cosmos, and I promise that even when I pass from this realm to whatever is next I will hold you close. You saved me this year. Literally saved me from despair. I was able to greet my father’s death with grace because of you. I am forever indebted to the gifts you’ve given. I love you so, so, so much.
To Myah - You know, I LOVE YOU!!!!! We are The Alliance Youth Media Network because you took a big, bold jump into (re)launching The Alliance Youth Media Network with me five years ago. When you asked me this year to write you a letter of recommendation for your graduate school application to UC Berkeley’s Journalism school, I leapt for joy. Of course, I would write it. In fact, I was honored and touched that you asked me. I value all of who you be, and all of who you be is so intertwined in this Youth Media Network I see you everywhere even though you’ve not been actively a part of it for two years. Our intergenerational, multi-racial, multi-gender, youth-focused praxis is because of you. The entire Youth Media Network is indebted to you even if they do not fully know it. Continue shining bright.
To Wendy - I love you, and I cherish our friendship and collegiality. You modeled what it means to listen, consider, and respond right from the very beginning. I requested that a young person join me in co-leading the (re)launch. Initially, you questioned why. Then, you paused, reconsidered, and found space and money for a youth to join as a Co-Producer (not as a subordinate or assistant).
Thank you for inviting me to help (re)launch this Youth Media Network and for welcoming Myah. I hope that I in collaboration with Myah and our Fellows have tended to and cared for it in a manner reflective of The Alliance’s values of community, creativity, equality, accountability, and inclusion.
I now hand a piece of this Network back to you to tend and care for. My one desire is for this information and content to find a better home online. We have done magnificent things, and others need to know what we’ve already created.
To all - Please know that the Youth Media Network is powerful because of YOU. Our relations are strong and deep. This Youth Media Network is not owned by any one organization or individual. We all are co-creators. The Network lives and will continue to live because we make it so.
Thank you all for letting me help guide and steer alongside all of you for these last five years.
In love, camaraderie, artistry, and solidarity,