Founder’s Note: Seeing and hearing diverse and compassionate Gen Z storytellers

By SRL Founder, Leah Clapman

July 2020

What’s a word that describes being all fired up with ideas and yet exhausted mentally and spiritually? Pre-pandemic, I would have given myself a pep talk: “The work is too important. Shake it off and focus!” But over the past few months, conversations with the incredible SRL team, students, Academy Fellows, local PBS stations and teachers have shown me the many variations of exhaustion, trauma and grief.

In order for us all to be successful next school year, our community needs to share these feelings and make space for them, listen and respond with empathy, creativity and encouragement. As we learned during our virtual Student Academy, teenagers are deeply struggling right now and will not be able to do their best work until they feel seen and respected. In our new hybrid virtual world, the SRL team is rethinking everything we do and how we do it. My goal is to strengthen our program and nurture the diverse and compassionate media makers the world needs now. It’s going to be incredibly difficult; thank goodness you are here.

“What is our next step?”

Each week brings new lessons that we will use to be successful next school year. June 12th’s  PBS NewsHour broadcast, for example, was in many ways my SRL dream come true. First, teen voices offered thoughts on racial justice and policing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Then after an interview with Gen Z activists, the traditional Shields and Brooks political analysis (in which they listen and respond to the youth voices before them!) and finally, an artist on the power of the camera to shape and shift public perceptions.

Elevating Gen Z perspectives to the same visibility as older experts is critical in this moment when many Americans keep referencing the next generation as the hope and the change.

A lot of times, you hear people say, oh, all lives matter, when they try to counter the Black Lives Matter movement. So, my question for the people who say this: When will there be equal opportunity in America for all races? asked Corie McCowin, the SRL Gwen Ifill Fellow at NET/Nebraska PBS. These are the questions of our time: What is our next step? asks Yeonseo Seok of San Diego.

We will be the generation that really revolutionizes this world and transforms the world for the better. But, at the same time, on the flip side, it is kind of a lot to say that the future of this entire world and this nation is resting on Gen Z’s shoulders when we have barely even made it out of childhood yet, said 16-year-old Thandiwe Abdullah. We also need to make sure “that older generations are doing their part in making sure that our future is bright as well.

Columnists David Brooks and Mark Shields took notice. I stand in awe of their intensity, of their passion, of their sense of urgency and their sense of justice, said Shields. This was a full-circle moment for me, who as a desk assistant in the 1990s used to walk Mark from the green room to the studio, looking forward to the huge bag of M&Ms he carried to celebrate the end of a long week.

Photographer Mark Clennon closed the program calling the democratization of cameras and mobilization of young people using social media a game-changer. Black Americans “can now educate our peers and educate ourselves as a community. And that is unique. That is the number one differentiator between now and the original civil rights movement, is our ability to tell our stories.

Schools Re-open: 5 Ws and a big H

Student journalism with an emphasis on accuracy, fairness and inclusion is also a game-changer. Student journalists shine light on under-told stories, many of them in communities that have lost or are losing their local news sources, so-called news deserts. As schools roll out their reopening plans, student reporters will play a critical role in raising awareness of the local decision making and the consequences of revised budget priorities, police in schools, schedules, instruction, lunch, recess, extracurriculars, buses and so much more.

Here are some examples: in a moment when many communities are questioning the role of police, student reporters look at security in their schools, what is the budget, what are the stated and real outcomes for all students? Student journalists add a key perspective, often missing, to reopening plans. The CDC recommends students attend their local schools to limit time spent on buses and trains. What will this do to cities where students sometimes travel over an hour to attend a school that best matches their interests and strengths? How will districts reconcile the digital divide and address the fact that 28 percent of students at high-poverty high schools were “virtual dropouts” and did not participate in online learning this spring, compared to 11 percent of students at low poverty schools?

A week after my favorite Friday broadcast, the viewer mail included letters from 6th-grade students in Manhattan. Nora wrote, I really enjoyed that you made a video interviewing people close to my age because I felt like I could really make a change if they could too.” 

This is why we do the work, why we learn to listen better, create paths for self-expression and for empathy, and why we rely on each other more than ever, even though we’re apart.