“Okay, here are the rules:
Number 1 — No cell phones.
Number 2 — ENERGY!
Number 3 — There is one mic, so only one person speaks at a time.
Number 4 — Step up, step back. After you made your point, step back to give other people a chance to say something.”

This was how a community workshop — part of New York City’s Immigrant History Week — began. What made this meeting different from dozens of other events that week was who was running it: High school students were leading the gathering for other high school and college students. The meeting coordinators were part of the Immigrant and Refugee Media Project, one of several programs run by Global Action Project, or G.A.P. — a youth media and leadership organization for New York City high school students. Over the next hour and a half, they discussed how national policies on immigration affect people’s lives, the power of the media, and how to effectively work with other organizations to pool resources and use technology to spread their messages to a wider audience.

G.A.P. started in 1991 as a video-letters project with the goal of initiating exchanges between young people in different countries to help them learn about each other and discover similar issues each group faced in its communities. Susan Siegel, who had a background in art and youth education, came up with the original idea for what would become G.A.P. She met cofounder Diana Coryat in 1989. Their experiences in community media and youth-focused arts, education, and filmmaking led them to believe that media could be a transformative education and communication tool for students.

Susan facilitated the first video-letter project in Kopeyia, a rural village in Ghana. The youth chose to create a fictional film based on a schoolmate who had recently died of malaria. When the video was screened in New York City public schools, students were so moved that they made and sent a manual of home remedies from their cultures and a video-letter back to the youth. The film also sparked dialogue among the New York students about health issues they faced in their own communities. A second international video-letter was produced in 1993 in Livingston, Guatemala. Shortly afterwards, Susan and Diana began establishing New York City–based programs.

The seeds of change

The first activity at the workshop on immigration was the Mambo Mixer, an ice-breaking activity set to hip hop that introduced the students to each other and let them know that this would be a participatory event. They then screened “twisted truth,” a 12-minute film G.A.P. youth made in 2006 to address the U.S. government’s proposal to criminalize undocumented immigrants, and to highlight the role of globalization in the issue. The opening scene shows President Bush speaking from the Oval Office on the need for immigration reform. A clip from a pro-immigration rally then appears, with dialogue in English and Spanish, before the words “twisted truth” appear in white on a black screen. Students sit at a table discussing the impact of the developed world’s economic policies on so-called Third World countries. We are asked to consider what conditions would make people leave their own countries to come to America, and random New Yorkers are asked for their views on immigration. The film is rich with political cartoons, text to highlight key points, shots of misspelled graffiti, and dramatized scenes of people cleaning toilets to show the menial jobs that immigrants often have to take. The credits roll to “Dead Prez Beat” by M.I.A.

Next on the agenda: “Aliens vs. Predators,” a three-minute mock trailer that portrays the difficulties faced by undocumented immigrants trying to afford college, and the way that the U.S. military is targeting this group as potential recruits. They dangle citizenship, free college tuition, and employment opportunities to try to get these immigrants to enlist. The haunting chorus from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” plays in the background.

The students then engaged in a discussion about the videos they had just watched. One student asked, “Why do people have to kill in order to become a citizen?” while another related the story of his cousin’s experience and warned, “It’s easy to enroll, but hard to get out.” Asmaou, a 16-year-old, added, “Mainstream media only narrows your mind, since they want you to think like them.”

Next, Dan and Pilar, two G.A.P. staff members serving as facilitators for the meeting, divided the students into smaller groups in order to get them to think about ways they can collaborate in the future. The students suggested various alternative media outlets to use, offered to share equipment, and planned events. I got the feeling that I had witnessed the beginning of the slow process of change.

No sugarcoating here

G.A.P. turns the prevailing notion that youth have nothing to contribute and no opinions to share on its head by teaching students that their voices count. Dare Dukes, G.A.P.’s development director, explains that one of the organization’s core philosophies is that “people should share in their own knowledge-building as opposed to sitting and listening to an expert.”

Each project produces two films during the school year. Students come after school and on weekends to G.A.P.’s office in midtown New York. Working with the facilitators who have backgrounds in film and education, the participants decide what issue they want to take on, how they want to portray it on film, and how to write the script and storyboard the shots. They are then taught how to use the equipment and will shoot, act in, and edit the film.

The youth select issues that they deal with on a daily basis. At a script meeting I attended, the students were creating the dialogue and shots for a film on street harassment. They had come up with the idea of using a split screen to be able to show the same scene from the male and female perspectives. Shreya, a G.A.P. facilitator, asked Jessica, who would be playing the girl who gets harassed in the film, if the language was too strong. Seventeen-year-old Jessica reassured her, “I don’t want to sugarcoat any of this. I take the blows every day of my life, I can take it.”

While each project is centered on learning how to produce media, the students also acquire media literacy skills that help them deal with such issues as how minorities are represented in the media, the concentration of media ownership, and what images mean and how to use them to express their points of view. Additionally, the film is not the end result. Part of G.A.P.’s mission is to be a catalyst for change. With guidance from G.A.P.’s Community Outreach Director Binh Ly, the youths who make each film devise an outreach plan by researching organizations that might be interested in a screening, figuring out answers to potential audience questions, and developing workshops on the issues that the video addressed.

Cofounder Diana Coryat describes the impact of the work on the youth: “They were excited about having the opportunity to direct their own learning process, to get their voices heard, and take positive action in ways they hadn’t believed to be possible for young people. When the work was shown, reflected back at them were images and stories that accurately represented their lives, but were rarely articulated in other media. Their audiences, too, were affected because it gave them a fresh way to see these young people as smart, articulate, and vital members of the community.”

G.A.P.’s programs have produced videos on issues as varied and complex as teenage prostitution, workfare, the lives of refugee youth in New York City, teen pregnancy, human rights, the truths and lies of gangs, and how the educational system can push students to drop out of school. Over 1,100 students have participated in the program. And every year, more than 100,000 people see the videos at conferences and festivals, and on YouTube and cable broadcasts.

Over the years, G.A.P. students have continued to exchange video-letters with youth in other regions. After the events of Sept. 11, they engaged students in Dubai in a video project that explored misconceptions about Muslims and Americans. They have also exchanged video-letters with students in the Dominican Republic, Northern Ireland, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and refugee youth living in camps in West Africa and Croatia.

G.A.P. will be holding its free end-of-year screening in New York City this June 14 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at HBO (1100 Avenue of the Americas, 15th floor). The students will be presenting at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit from June 22-24, and leading three workshops at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta from June 27-July 1.

“Our job as media makers is to reveal the truth,” Asmaou declares. “People should know it.”

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