Listen Up! Helps Kids be Heard in Mass Media — an interview with Austin Haeberle

The mission at Listen Up! is to help youth be heard in the mass media, contributing to a culture of free speech and social responsibility. Listen Up! is a national Youth Media Network that helps youth producers and their adult mentors exchange work, share ideas and learn from one another.What do youth fear? How do they build security in their lives? Check out their Peabody Award-winning short documentaries by youth filmmakers worldwide — Beyond Borders: Personal Stories from a Small Planet. http://listenup.org/beyondborders In this interview with Austin Haeberle, Creative Director at Listen Up!, tells us how his work with Listen Up! affects his own life.

CP: Could you please give me an overview of how your organization works and a sample of a typical day for you?

AH: At the Listen Up! Youth Media Network, we provide technical, organizational and financial support to over 100 organizations that help young people tell important stories through media production. Our mission is to help young video producers and their allies connect to resources, support, and projects to achieve an authentic youth voice in the mass media. While most days seem humdrum in meetings & sending emails, it can be pretty exciting stuff.

I’m producing a worldwide project with 14 youth production teams in nine countries, showing how they interact with the environment and what youth are doing to solve environmental problems.  We’ve had a little luck in the past with similar projects, landing broadcast homes on PBS, the Independent Film Channel and Current TV.  Our last project, “Beyond Borders:  Personal Stories from a Small Planet,” even netted us a George Foster Peabody Award which many consider the highest honor in American Television.  

So, while most days I’m behind a computer screen, helping groups make connections, other days find me working with groups in different parts of the United States or other countries.

CP: Some of the kids’ films I saw dealt with some pretty heavy topics. Do you have counselors on staff that help the kids work through their issues while filming?
AH: You don’t ask easy questions, do you?  Youth filmmaking has a history of dealing with really heavy topics:  suicide, war, homelessness, sexuality, abuse, AIDS & HIV, environmental destruction, etc.  For many youth filmmakers, their films are attempts to work their way through issues that have dogged them from very early ages.  They’re also reaching out and touching other young people who may be experiencing the same types of issues. 

AH: In order for youth to be able to honestly reflect on their own experiences and communicate those experiences in a manner that others will understand, empathize and learn, it takes great mentorship that balances youth development skills and filmmaking talents.  So, while many youth media organizations don’t have counselors for traumatic issues on hand by default, youth media experts are adept at finding resources on the fly — getting help when they need it.  It’s one of the great skills that come with filmmaking — you are very quick at accessing resources that you don’t immediately have at your fingertips. 

CP: Please give me an anecdote of a student whose life has been significantly affected in a positive way through Listen Up!

AH: Meet Mohamed Sidibay, a 15 year-old soccer player going to high school in an affluent New Jersey suburban town. Listen Up! has had a lot of influence on him, but we’re only a part of caring network of individuals worldwide who have made the security and health Mohamed their business.  

He was born to a good family in Sierra Leone, but like so many tragedies there, he was swept into an unthinkable situation.  By the time he was 5 years old his parents and family were killed and he was forcibly recruited into a rebel army to carry weapons and kill.  We met him when he was 10, demobilized only two years prior, and learning computer skills with the iEarn center in Freetown.  Mohamed and his team made a film with us about his life — a film that has been broadcast on TV here in the States, on CNN International and in film festivals worldwide, earning awards along the way.

Mohamed joined us in New York last June to receive the George Foster Peabody Award.  Long story short, he never went back and now has beautiful host family in New Jersey and is doing what he has always wanted to do:  play soccer & go to school.

CP: Please give me an anecdote about a student who changed you and your way of thinking through film.

AH: Youth filmmakers often give me perspectives that I haven’t been able to articulate or they sometimes outright challenge assumptions that I’ve made about what it means to grow up in times of enormous complexity and change.  Usually, youth don’t mince or filter their words, or as they say, they like “keepin’ it real.”   Salim Muslim’s piece “Losing My Way,” which is featured in the Kids First! film selection, keeps it real by dealing directly with Salim’s own bi-polar disorder, his struggle between the “positive and the negative.”  He fits the part of a disenfranchised black youth growing up in Brooklyn, or does he?  Through movement and sound and word, he helps me grasp the enormity of his disorder and what it means to grow up in troubling times.

CP: What advice would you give producers/educators who want to work with kids in film?

AH: Stick with it and be patient.  If you don’t have a high tolerance for “things not going as planned,” youth filmmaking is probably not for you.  There’s usually an element of drama involved in youth filmmaking, and that drama is not always on screen.   With a lot of patience and good spirit, youth will rise to the occasion and meet the high standard of work that you should demand from them.  It will take longer than you planned, but the impact will be on the faces in the audience as well as the kids behind the camera.
 

CP: Are your daughters involved in this program directly? If so, in what facet?

AH: Don’t get me started with my daughters Anna and Bella who are now nine and six.  Anna and her friend Lily are in pre-production on some sort of docu-drama and have already began to shoot.  At times they ask for input, but most of the time, mum’s the word.  I’m sure I’ll make a fine driver between shoots.  While too young to be a part of Listen Up!, they’re only a few years behind in age and maturity.   

CP: Is there anything you would like to add?

AH: The Listen Up! Youth Media Network is only a small part of a movement that values the ideas, experiences and voices of youth.  The work of organizations like Kids First! and the many venues across our country and around the world that feature youth-made films helps bring our work full circle.  This is valuable work, not just for us, but youth filmmakers and their organizations who are constantly looking to reach new audiences to broaden what it means to be young and live on this planet.

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