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What Girl Tech (and List-Making) Has Taught Me

By Jessica Collins-- I am a list maker. When other staff draw pictures of me, which often happens in non-profit social change work, they draw me with a list on my desk. I make your average lists such as to-do lists for the day and grocery lists, but I also list all of my expenses for the month, I make lists of things I learned to love with time, and I list the points I want to make in an argument just in case it should ever come up.

I once started a list once of all the items in my apartment. This was detailed, down to every single sock…you know for insurance purposes, and a list made to convince myself to get rid of more things. My hand started to hurt from all the writing so I didn’t finish this list. One big project I did make it through was listing the total number of SUVs out of the total number of cars in the Albuquerque Costco parking lot one Sunday afternoon. This was before I started doing youth program work and had Sunday afternoons free. I just wanted to determine the percentage of SUVs out of total vehicles that drive to this particular establishment of bulk products. The answer doesn’t matter. (Okay, it was something like 175 SUVS out of 300 total parked cars.) It was the satisfaction of driving down each row of cars and making the list that mattered.

This list making comes from my need for organization, completion, and sometimes from my love for strange data, as in the case of the Costco parking lot. Lists make me feel calm, together. It can be a cathartic experience. Once it is on a list, I know it will happen, and I can keep it from looping in my brain all night long and making its way into my dreams. In my mind, writing something down is half-way to completion. 

For my love of list-making and due to my desire to grow stronger in my work, I decided to create a list of important lessons I have learned in coordinating a program called Girl Tech. Girl Tech is a program of Media Literacy Project and is for young women of color who learn how to deconstruct media messages and how to write, direct, and edit their own short videos. The creation of a short video is no small feat. Through this program and filmmaking process, the participants gain leadership skills of all kinds. They devote hours of their time each week for eight or nine months straight. I work with mostly first-time filmmakers who have a lot of other things going on in their lives: school, work, family, community projects, dancing, fighting for immigration reform, making purses out of jeans, and then they are also making their own videos. In Girl Tech, we don’t just make videos about anything. The directors connect their stories to reproductive justice. This means we talk about our gender, bodies, health, safety, and family. We talk about how the media represents and misrepresents young women of color and why it is important to tell our own stories using media. This program is fun and challenging, and I wish I could have been a participant in something like this when I was sixteen.

I have learned many lessons in the years of piloting and coordinating this youth program. I have learned from others around me, from myself, and from the youth participants.  I decided to create a short list. Well, at first I created a list of 57 lessons, but was told that was too long. This list is in no particular order and includes some of the most important lessons I have learned in coordinating youth programs.

  1. Stop talking and ask questions. Young people are very used to being told what to do so ask questions…except for how was school today? You’ll just sound like an adult who doesn’t know anything about young people and feels awkward talking to youth. Share a little knowledge and ask a lot of open-ended questions so they can explore their project, stories, opinions, and creativity.
  2. Laugh all the time. Laugh at yourself when you make mistakes, laugh appropriately, of course, and laugh when things get difficult.
  3. Feed them good food at every meeting. I remember one year when I ate French fries and soda for lunch and times I didn’t eat anything all day. Many of the young people I work with don’t eat all day for a variety of reasons. We always make sure we have good food so they are fed, energized, and ready to participate. I also make sure to get their birth dates at the beginning of the program year and I ask them what a birthday treat is for them so I can bring that on their birthday week. No judging here. You may have to bring pickles and bubble gum ice cream so they can eat them together.
  4. Share stories. Share your story of why you do what you do. Share embarrassing stories from your time as an awkward young person on this planet. Have them share their stories. It is often through our sharing of stories that brings them to decide on what type of media project they will create.
  5. Push them to a place where they are still comfortable. Young people need to be supported and challenged simultaneously. They need clear expectations. They need to be held accountable to their own stated goals, and they need to be given difficult problems to solve, while also receiving support and knowing that others have their back.