Our group interviewed every current SJI student and staff member as well as a number of alumni to create a holistic review of the Summer Journalism Institute (SJI) experience. We created a database of over 40 interviews about SJI for further use, wrote an editorial, and created a yearbook page for the final journal.
Teenagers are forced to jump headfirst into the ruthless adult world in order to gain credible experience. By the end of high school we’re expected to have an idea of what career we want to pursue and, immediately after college, expected to find an actual job. Teenagers are treated like children yet simultaneously held to the same standards as adults. Our voices as younger people are often neglected — going in one ear and out the other. Without opportunities to share our work with the world, we begin to lose hope and our dreams seem unattainable. The Summer Journalism Institute (SJI) works to combat this by granting Boston youth a platform to express their ideas and exposing us to the limitless world of writing, giving teens an outlet to create freely, explore and embrace their identities, and, most importantly, be themselves.
Have you heard of a teen journalist? SJI strives to offer Boston teens a space to share their experiences and opinions through writing. It grants them the opportunity to discover their voices and encourages self-expression. The first three weeks we focused on mini-prompts, personal essays, and op-eds. Personal essays allow you to understand yourself better, looking introspectively. Op-eds show you the bigger picture, seeing the reality of things in a brighter form. This program gives us a mirror through which we start to see parts of ourselves that are usually hidden and eventually look outwards at the world around us. After a week of workshops on podcasting, radio, videography, and photography, during which we were exposed to people in the field — not just journalists but all people who create, from storytellers to filmmakers — we were free to go down whichever path we decided. Each week we got the opportunity to look outwards by traveling around Boston and learn more about our environment, exploring the effects of gentrification and the lesser known history of the city. Graham Martin-Wilson, a current TiPster, reflects, “[W]e were talking to residents, we were talking to construction workers, we were talking to all kinds of people. And I really felt like that helped me to connect to Boston; this is a side of the city that I have literally never seen before and it’s crazy to be able to connect to these people that are so different, because we’re all Bostonians. We all live here, the same things affect us.” Through our community outings and reflections, we’ve been able to educate ourselves on the present, dive deeper into issues that we are passionate about, and plan for the well-being of the future.
Through the platforms that SJI provides, including its website, social media, and journal, writers are free to express their opinions. As long as the writers follow journalistic ethics, there is no limitation to what they can write, just like real journalists. Elvis Alvarado, SJI Youth Program Facilitator, says, “I do believe in amplifying youth voices, and I think that [youth] have a lot of things to say, and, oftentimes, society deems that there’ll be a prerequisite age to label something as valid.” At SJI, teens can expand and make a name for themselves regardless of age. SJI opens so many doors that would normally be closed to youth. This program is incredibly diverse and welcomes anyone who is willing to try. SJI is not about cranking out an essay just for it to pile with other students’ work in the dust. SJI is about how you express your ideas and how you develop your voice while writing. Clare Abelett, a current TiPster, says, “It’s been really cool to be like, hey, my work is gonna get actually published…at school…you’re writing a personal narrative, and then it disappears. But here I wrote a personal narrative and actually people besides my teacher are gonna get to read it, and that’s pretty cool.” SJI not only grants us the space to write in our own voices, but it also makes the writers feel respected. Despite the writers all being teenagers, the staff did not treat us as such and gave us the respect that we needed for independence. Thinking back to his time here at SJI, Kenneth Bufford, a former TiPster, says, “I cannot stress enough how important it was for us. They bought us business cards. They took us as young journalists and made us really into young professionals…I’m so, so, so, so, so incredibly thankful that’s something that they did for us, because, y’all really made me an adult.”
For most people, their writing journey begins and ends in school, which often only covers the basics of writing. SJI understands that though not everyone is born to be a journalist, everyone can learn about journalism and express their opinions and feelings through their writing. Even though some of us may not end up pursuing journalism professionally, the skills that we learned at SJI will stay with us forever and be of use elsewhere. Initially, not every student came to SJI from the pure enjoyment of writing. Some, in all honesty, came for the money. Some used to love writing yet lost their interest through the flow of time. A lot of us, however, have changed our views on writing. Abelett says, “I think that, before, I kind of associated nonfiction with school and I mostly did fiction for fun. And then at SJI, writing my personal narrative and op-ed made me feel like, oh, I can have fun with this, even if it is nonfiction, and it doesn’t have to be an assignment.” Through creative freedom and encouragement, students at SJI can learn that any kind of writing can be fun and exciting.
At SJI we figure out how to incorporate personal interests into our work. Youth are still learning to adapt to life, and it’s challenging. When the pandemic hit, it caused so many people to shut out the outside world. Teens weren’t given the opportunity to fully explore and become aware of who they are. At SJI, students are encouraged to be themselves and grow in an environment where it is acceptable and encouraged to use self-expression to create something worth showing the rest of the world. Self-expression is how we embrace ourselves, whether it is our positive traits or our darkest traits. Jacob Downey, SJI Youth Leader, says “[Y]ou have all of these students coming from different parts of the city, different backgrounds, different interests, different cliques and niche interests and whatnot. But we’re all united in the fact that we are here to write, we’re here to celebrate those differences. We’re there to have a good time.”
Youth writers are not the only ones here for the excitement of writing — the staff are also here to seek journalistic inspiration. Safi Farah, SJI Youth Program Facilitator says, “[As] a writer myself, I’m constantly evolving…[G]etting in touch with writing and reading other people’s writing is always probably a pinnacle point for a lot of writers and readers, so me being able to consume other people’s content, me being able to get inspired by that content has changed my writing process.” Despite being staff for quite a while, Farah’s interest in writing has not only been stoked by seeing new writers coming in, she continues to learn through reading unfamiliar and one-of-a-kind pieces. The space that SJI creates allows its writers and staff to interact, inspire, and learn from and with each other. Writers strengthen their writing through the suggestions and comments made by the staff and staff remain impressed by young writers’ creativity.
Over these six weeks, we have all gotten to know each other. Through the genuineness of staff and students alike, we have formed an irreplaceable bond. Since the beginning of the program, Mohamed Barrie, SJI Program Director, has constantly warned us of his unique icebreakers, designed to make the participants feel awkward. We have to admit, breaking the ice was difficult at first, but through mutual understanding and openness to vulnerability, we gradually formed the foundation of a strong community. Alani Hoilett, a current TiPster, says “[The staff] gave an opportunity to us to actually bond instead of trying to direct it,” which effortlessly created a positive environment. From barely participating in group discussions to advocating on issues we have seen in our communities, from spending as much free time on our phones as possible to having lasting chats outside of work, we’ve accepted each other for our different quirks that make us our authentic selves.
At SJI, our writing allows us to see what actually matters. Shaniece Clarke, a current TiPster, says, “I think I have most importantly learned how to be myself…it’s big because I’ve always made jokes about myself as a defense mechanism…and I feel like being able to express my side [of the story] or being able to tell, and speak about, or write about all the experiences that I’ve always kept to myself is relieving…and I feel like SJI has helped me to do that, because honestly, I really wasn’t able to.” Throughout our time here, we have all undeniably been encouraged to step outside of our comfort zones, whether it be in our writing or socially. With everyone being so open to humility, we were able to create a safe space where everyone is valued and validated. Eventually our bonds formed a comfortable uncomfortableness where we push ourselves past our limits but never past our boundaries — it’s an uncomfortable push that we can pride ourselves in. Angie Lucille Medina Peña, a current TiPster, adds, “In this program I kind of started being more social. If I don’t like something, I speak up about it…I learned how to control my anger here and how to express myself in better ways.” We’ve been given a space to be who we are and to learn from each other. We’ve laughed together and worked hard together, grown through our ups and downs, and we may even miss each other :’)In order to survive our teenage years, we have to deal with academic pressures and the inscrutability of the future while simultaneously bearing the growing pains of not knowing who we are. Our minds go blank when we’re asked “Who are you?” SJI offers an escape from this internal battle — a positive and honest environment hoping for our victory. Finding a space where you can be open helps you to understand yourself more. We no longer are the sidekicks but the main characters in our own story. Seeing ourselves as the main character encourages us to put ourselves first and start listening to our wants and needs, without considering other people’s negative input. SJI and writing in general gives us an opportunity to be the bluntest version of ourselves — no filter. Through our words we can escape the chaos of the outside world and enter a safe haven that we have the power to create but we can also write our truth. Bufford concludes, “Keep putting that pen to that effing paper and write the future that you want to see.”