Why Youth History Projects?
We don't learn history like this in school. . . . It can excite the minds of young people like me. We ought to make sure that lots of kids learn about it.Why would you want to do a history project with your kids? So many young people today consider history boring and irrelevant. Why fight it? There are at least two compelling reasons. First, when young people learn the stories of this history on their terms--instead of being force-fed a list of dates--it sparks their imaginations and they quickly see the connection to their own lives. Second, while we talk a lot about contemporary racial issues, we will never be able to truly understand the present until we have looked honestly at our past.
James Saunders, Africans in America Youth Advisor
WGBH worked with a diverse group of teen advisors for over a year as we produced the Africans in America series and developed the outreach plan. We conducted a pilot radio project with another group of young people in Fall 1997. And we launched eight Africans in America youth initiative sites at a national planning meeting in the spring of 1998, with youth taking the lead in interpreting local history. We have seen young people excited and inspired by their work, eager to share their ideas, and quick to make contemporary connections to the history.
Young People Want to Know More
While all Americans need to know the history relayed in this series, WGBH wanted to make sure the series reached youth in particular. By bringing the series and its stories to young people, many of whom receive only the most superficial information in school about the African American experience in early America, we hoped to help them learn the history and understand the roots of our current problems as well.
In order to learn more about this audience, in 1996 we commissioned MEE Productions Inc. to conduct focus groups with African American youth in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Following are key findings from those focus groups, which resonate with the diverse group of young people participating in the project.
1. Lack of knowledge of African American history. A significant majority of focus group participants exhibited a lack of knowledge of African American history. Many did not know or were not sure of the significance of the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation.
2. Strong desire to know the history. Many youth lamented the inadequate or nonexistent African American history that they had received in school. Others were embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge. The majority felt that it was important for all young people to know their history because it lets them know "who they were, where they were at, and how they got there."
3. Preference for accomplishments instead of horrors. To youth, the images of slavery generally offered are cruel, ugly, and hateful. Participants were adamant that they also wanted to learn about the accomplishments of African Americans during this period as well as stories of slaves overcoming and thriving or actively resisting, despite the horrors of slavery.
So How Do You Start?
This guide is not a blueprint for a specific project, but a compilation of ideas and information to help spark your imagination. Only you know what will work in your organization. On the next two pages, you will find some of the series themes that have resonated with young people. "Leadership and resistance to slavery" is the theme young people have found the most compelling. It not only adds dimension to historic characters, it offers hope and inspiration for the present.
We have also included descriptions of our established youth initiative sites and a list of project ideas to help you design your own project. These ideas are just a few of the myriad possible projects you can create. You will need to investigate local resources and potential partners to develop a project that works for your community and your group of young people.
The case study of the Boston radio pilot will show you the stages that the Africans in America Outreach team went through to ground participating youth in their local history and give them opportunities to express their ideas. Other sections focus on how to do oral history, use the Web to do research, and work with your local public television station.
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