2013 Digital Media & Learning Conference: A Look At How Media Shapes Young People's Political Participation


Perched high above the clouds on my return flight to Los Angeles on Sunday, I slipped on my headphones and began reflecting on my past three days at the 2013 Digital Media and Learning (DML) Conference in Chicago.

Attending a DML conference is a rather unique experience. I frequent academic conferences regularly, but they usually feel distinctly, well … academic.

DML is different. The annual conference, which is produced by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and supported by the MacArthur Foundation, is meant to be an inclusive gathering of both scholars and practitioners in the field. You’re as likely to run into a high school teacher or a game designer as you are a college professor, which makes for a wonderful mix of perspectives and results in rich and interesting discussions.

This year’s conference was themed “Democratic Futures,” a topic in which I personally have a lot invested as a postdoctoral researcher with the Media Activism Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, an undertaking of the MacArthur Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP).

By looking at a diverse range of young people, from DREAMers to members of the Student Liberty Movement, we’ve found that digital media can function as powerful tools in shaping young people’s political participation and the various forms it takes.

But something I’ve glossed over all too frequently in my own work is that digital media can serve and empower activists to make changes in their own communities. When it comes to digital activism, the local can be just as important as tapping into the vast networks with which scholars are often concerned — which brings us back to Chicago.

This year’s DML was, in so many ways, all about Chicago. And what a really good thing that was. The conference featured local activists who have been particularly creative and skilled at employing new media to educate and mobilize young people in their communities both at the individual and organizational level.

TJ Crawford, of Chicago Votes, an organization dedicated to registering young voters in Chicago and supporting future leaders through their grassroots leadership development program, highlighted the potential of hip hop as a means to raise political awareness and to get youth more involved. He described efforts like “Vote for the Hood,” a collaborative project among several Chicago-area rappers aimed at encouraging voter turnout in black and Latino neighborhoods:

The artists featured in the video, including GLC, Bruza, Mikkey Halsted and others, don Hoodie Vote sweatshirts in support of campaign encouraging voters to wear hoodies to the polls in honor of Trayvon Martin.

Another key voice was that of Brittany Spralls from Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to helping low-income high school students become “the next generation of civic leaders, activists and policy-makers.” Brittany, who participated in Mikva Challenge in high school, is now a Mikva staff member at the age of 25.

Brittany, who heads up Project Soapbox for Mikva, spoke about the organization’s efforts to engage youth politically through digital media at a panel that I was also a part of on youth’s civic identity expression online. She described several projects, including Represent Me Chicago, for which students created short videos targeted at one of their elected officials, and a Youth Solutions Congress, where participants voiced their concerns via a Twitter debate.

One of the most moving projects she spoke of was a social media campaign on Instagram in celebration of MLK Day that involved youth coming together around their shared identity as Chicagoans (as opposed to residents of its deeply segregated neighborhoods):                           


Perhaps chief among the organizations featured at the conference was the Black Youth Project (BYP). Founded by Professor Cathy J. Cohen from the University of Chicago, the BYP website acts as a digital hub for young black people from Chicago and beyond to engage with issues important to their communities. The BYP has been instrumental in mobilizing students in the Chicago area and supporters from around the country as explained by Cohen at Friday’s plenary panel.

At a panel on participatory politics in the digital age, Dallas Donnell, Web Coordinator at the Black Youth Project, recounted how the group helped spread Chicagoan Aisha Truss-Miller’s story of losing her 17-year-old cousin, Leonard, to gun violence, along with a plea for President Obama to “come home” to address, not only the problem of gun violence, but the structural conditions that make it such a problem for black and Latino communities.

Through the use of social media and an online petition at change.org, the BYP helped Aisha and her family’s plea become a reality. On February 15, President Obama spoke to a crowd of young people in Chicago about the growing problem of gun violence and its everyday impact on the city.

The presence of these activists helped me gain a strong sense of the issues facing young Chicagoans and the work being done in its neighborhoods. While I didn’t actually travel to these locales, I felt figuratively transported there through the words of the panelists and felt a deep commitment to place — to Chicago — at this year’s conference.

I hope this emphasis on the local is a long-term trend for DML. Most of all, this experience has helped me realize that, not only does digital media offer myriad opportunities for civic engagement and social change through national and worldwide networks, but it also creates a great set of tools for us to a make a change in our own communities. So upon my arrival back in Los Angeles, I’m left with one important question. What am I going to do to get involved — to create a democratic future — in my own neighborhood?

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Neta Kligler-Vilenchik for her efforts in helping me flesh out these ideas.