America’s Next Top Immigrant has all of the components of a reality TV show: It features a panel of judges and a group of contestants willing to humiliate themselves in an effort to win a tantalizing prize. Except, in this competition, no one wins. The contestants—all of whom are immigrants—are all eventually disqualified. This satiric video ends with a serious message: The sought-after prize—the American Dream—is largely unavailable to those who’ve come here in search of it.
A group of New York City public high school teens, many immigrants themselves, produced this award-winning video. They participated in the Global Action Project’s Urban Voices after-school program, designed to help disenfranchised youth employ media arts to make an impact on the world around them.
“Many young people who are from refugee or immigrant groups, or who are people of color, are typically outside of larger social debates and dialogues,” explains Executive Director Meghan McDermott. “And, media gives them a way to give voice to the kinds of change they want to see and be part of.”
Working with professional media artists at five sites around the city, students learn the basics of shooting, lighting, and editing videos. They also explore various media genres and analyze ways that media can deliver messages and create change. After researching issues in depth, participants identify a topic and collaborate on a project. The students have produced public service announcements, documentaries, dramatic pieces, animations, and trailers dealing with such issues as domestic violence; homelessness; school policies; and the challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
The students’ videos have been shown at major film festivals, on television, in classrooms, and by advocacy organizations. They have also gained tens of thousands of hits on YouTube. Whether or not participants pursue careers in the media, their experience in the program can change their sense of their own possibilities.
“We see young people gain a sense of agency,” McDermott says. “They’re in a place where they know that what they have to say is instrumental and of consequence.”
The Global Action Project’s Urban Voices program “makes clear how powerful a tool for civic engagement the media arts can be when put to use through the remarkable imagination of youth and guidance from a caring artist-educator.Karen Helmerson Director, Electronic Media and Film program, New York State Council on the Arts