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On the Beat: Guatemala’s Youth Spokespersons Initiative

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To kick off ChildFund’s two-day Youth Spokespersons Workshop in Guatemala last November, the participating girls and boys and facilitators came together for dinner and ice-breakers. But there was a little more going on than met the eye.

The next morning, the 30 youth were greeted with a PowerPoint presentation that included pictures of the previous evening’s events, which provided the substance of the workshop’s first lesson: Introduction to Reporting, with their own experiences as the subject matter for the featured example.

The Youth Spokespersons Workshop is a ChildFund initiative that provides opportunity not only for youth — by equipping them with useful communications skills that they can parlay into later professional development — but also for their communities as ChildFund leads them in community-level planning.

In any community where ChildFund works, the various meetings and focus groups that we support are integral in helping determine the unique issues, priorities and programs that are tackled in those communities. Training youth to be spokespersons not only plays on young people’s typically strong interest in all things media-related, but it also opens a specific avenue for youth involvement in community action.

Young people have the potential to make huge contributions to messaging around community issues. But first they need to learn about messaging.

The workshop started them from scratch, first defining the mindset needed for those who would report on their communities. Early discussions focused on recent events in the youths’ communities and then moved deeper, to difficulties such as nutritional and educational problems.

After some discussion about the variety of media, from television and Internet to posters and megaphones, the youth experienced actual reporting by breaking into groups, choosing a subject and then presenting what they knew about it to the audience. Then came an exercise in which they dramatized various aspects of an issue that impacts them directly — the lack of adequate space for children and youth to play.

Interviewing and picture taking both proved more challenging than the young people had expected. It is difficult, when presented with a lot of information about any subject, to put together a cohesive story that hits all the appropriate notes. And anyone new to photography knows how hard it is at first to end up with usable images. The facilitator helped the youth think about how to anticipate pitfalls.

Further sessions addressed more subtle aspects of reporting, such as ethics (respecting people’s privacy), care in choosing words, strong versus weak messaging and how to get messages where they should go. One issue that arose, particular to the region in which the workshop took place, was the importance of the indigenous K’iche’ language that some people in the youths’ community speak exclusively.

The culminating activity was to get the word out about an actual event: the community planning workshop that would soon take place. Once again, the youth broke into groups. Each was tasked with creating a sign to draw people to the meeting, and then the other groups would critique their efforts.

One group’s sign read, “Your opinion is important! GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR THE COMMUNITY. An opportunity will be given to everyone who wants to give an opinion in the Community Planning Workshop on November 10 at the community hall.” The feedback: Less repetition, and use K’iche’.

When the community planning workshop came around, the youth spokespersons were on the beat. It was clear that in addition to communications skills, they had also picked up a greater self-confidence in communicating with adults. In fact, according to a report after the fact, youth spokespersons were the “eyes and ears” of the community-wide process and “helped keep their communities informed before and during the process.”

When young people have skills that they can bring to the table, adults — and other youth and children — take notice.

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