Grooming young storytellers for the Imperial Valley

By Jon Funabiki

Ten high school students fled the Imperial Valley’s desert heat to spend a week in the cooling fog at San Francisco State University for a crash course in storytelling and video production. They capped the experience with an emotional graduation ceremony that their families and friends—600 miles away—could watch live through the magic of the Internet.

“I knew it was going to be a good experience,” said Yulissa Ochoa, 17, during the graduation ceremony, which was held in a Journalism Department computer lab. “But I never imagined it to be this cherished in my heart. I really learned a lot. I will forever cherish this week.”

With that, Yulissa and her fellow students became the pioneering graduates of a unique Renaissance Journalism initiative to transform young people into storytellers for the community.  We call it the Imperial Valley Youth Voices Project.

Yulissa came from Central Union High School in El Centro near Southern California’s border with Mexico, where the vast majority of students are of Latino backgrounds. Besides Central Union, her other summer classmates came from nearby Brawley Union High School and Imperial High School. Temperatures in the region can easily hit 105 degrees during this time of year.

With support from the Vesper Society of San Francisco, Renaissance Journalism has been piloting the project at the three schools. Faculty members from San Francisco State’s Journalism Department and reporters from local news media outlets have been giving workshops at the schools.

The summer program, which was held June 19-26, was designed to provide a small group of students with intensive training in video storytelling. The program was organized by project coordinator Eva Martinez, and the classes were taught by veteran faculty members Jesse Garnier and Scot Tucker. To make the experience real, Yulissa and her classmates were sent out on assignments, such as interviewing San Francisco Supervisor David Campos and covering an Oakland A’s baseball game. The students bunked in campus dorms and dined in the cafeteria. A typical day started at 9 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m. By the end of the week, each of the eight girls and two boys had completed an original video story about their experiences.

We don’t expect each of the 10 students to want to become journalists. But we do hope that they will feel more empowered to tell their own stories, in their own voices, about their lives and their communities. With this intensive experience under their belts, we also hope that they will return to their respective schools and help to teach other students the power of storytelling. Next summer, we hope to host a second group of students.

“I learned a lot about storytelling,” said Isabella Buford, 17, also of Central Union. “Before I thought journalism was just like you go and tell what happened. I am now a better speaker, and I know how to interview and to ask a question. I definitely think I can help other people do video, learn how to do research and how to properly ask a question.”

The June 25 graduation ceremony was streamed via YouTube. Within a week, it had been viewed 124 times. You can add to those numbers by clicking here. The video stories produced by the students can be viewed by clicking here. As the program progresses during the regular school term, you can expect more students to start posting their stories about life in the Imperial Valley.