The Critical Media Project allowed Los Angeles youth to “critically create” during the pandemic

The virtual “I Too Am” Critical Makers Lab engaged L.A. students in discussions about social identity, belonging and more.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across Los Angeles adapted to online learning and got creative in finding new ways to engage with students in the virtual classroom. This was no different for the Critical Media Project (CMP) at USC, which transformed its curriculum and mentorship into the Critical Makers Lab — a virtual program to teach teens about the power of representation and identity.

A virtual showcase celebrating the Critical Makers Lab and highlighting student work from the program will happen on Zoom on Sunday, June 13 from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Since the fall 2020 semester, the program allowed L.A. middle school and high school students to craft individualized poems, collages, videos and other media projects that reflect their stories.

“It’s personal, because it focuses on who they are and allows them to imagine different futures for themselves,” said Alison Trope, a clinical professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who is also the founder and director of the Critical Media Project.

Originally established in 2013, the CMP at USC has created opportunities for middle and high school students in L.A, to enhance their critical thinking and empathy. Trope and DJ Johnson, an associate professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the organization’s associate director, wanted to continue the CMP’s impact during the pandemic. Trope said this led the CMP to plan a new program to help facilitate online mentorship in a series of workshops called The “I Too Am” Critical Makers Lab. This free virtual program funded by USC Arts in Action was open to local schools and afterschool programs, reaching approximately 185 middle and high school students.

According to Trope, the CMP works to immerse students in media analysis and help them understand how identities are represented in the media. She also said that the project aims to help students, “think about how they can be critical creators of media themselves.”

The Critical Makers Lab consisted of six thematic modules, accompanied by personal projects that students completed. Trope said that each of these projects allowed students to explore media but also allowed them to develop their storytelling skills.

“They’re not only learning how to critically analyze but critically create,” she said.

These modules included crafting a social identity collage and poem, making a creative map of their community, a community interview project and other media projects that focus on topics such as visibility, stereotypes and advocacy.

“You see all the different ways in which they creatively articulate who they are through place and through mapping, and that kind of array of work is really rewarding to see,” Trope said.

One of the schools that participated in these hands-on workshops was the Ambassador School of Global Leadership in Koreatown. According to Enrique Legaspi, the assistant principal of the ASGL, the program promoted self-expression during a critical period of students’ lives.

He also enjoyed seeing students construct their own personal maps because it allowed each of them to showcase their unique perspectives of their communities.

“It gave them a chance to to think about how places resonate with their identity and even shaped them but also gave them a space to reflect on who they are and who they may want to be,” Legaspi said. “The feedback we’ve been hearing is it’s allowing for a vulnerability that they appreciate.”

Stefanie Demetriades is a project manager for the CMP and helped develop the curriculum for the Critical Makers Lab alongside USC professors before it was shared by USC student mentors. She explained that the modules were meant to inspire youth to critically think about how representation in media impacts the way they view themselves and others while also allowing them to “challenge the status quo by making media of [their] own.”

Throughout the Critical Makers Lab, Demetriades admired the social awareness of the middle school and high school students involved.

“I’m always astounded at the sophistication of how kids are already thinking about these topics in ways that I don’t think previous generations did,” she said.

But Demetriades also shared that none of the workshops would have been possible without the guidance of the USC student mentors who “bring so much enthusiasm and personality and personal perspective to all of these projects.”

One of these virtual student mentors was Meher Qazilbash, a graduated senior at USC studying communications, who worked for the Critical Media Project at the Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles.

“There’s always much to learn from someone else’s experience or their interests,” Qazilbash said about her time working with the students. “It doesn’t matter that they are younger than me or anything. They are very knowledgeable people.”

Qazilbash also said it was interesting to hear about her students’ various backgrounds during workshops because it allowed the group to have meaningful conversations regarding identity, community and belonging.

“These sort of things that we think of as insignificant are a huge part of what makes our lives special and meaningful,” Qazilbash said.

The CMP has also held past events like the “I Too Am” Media Festival, which showcased media created by local L.A. youth, and provided a space for community reflection and discussion. This is where Thai Buckman, the mentor coordinator at the Clubhouse @ EXPO Center and the Program Coordinator at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center in South L.A., first learned about the CMP.

Buckman said she instantly admired all of the student projects that were screened during the festival and the topics addressed in workshops, many of which were led by Trope.

“Everything about [the festival] was just a community...” Buckman said. “And so I was determined to beat the traffic so that I had an opportunity to meet [Trope].”

After the event, Buckman and Trope had a chance to meet and exchange contacts before later coordinating on plans to implement the Critical Makers Lab identity modules into Buckman’s community learning centers.

“In two different organizations, [Trope] was willing to work together with me and the youth to bring her wonderful project to talk to them,” Buckman said.

Since then, the CMP has brought a new curriculum to the youth at the Clubhouse @ EXPO Center and the Best Buy Teen Tech Center. Buckman said that most of her work at these afterschool programs is “very technology-driven” and revolves around digital literacy.

Since beginning the identity modules, Buckman explained that Trope has opened up a new, “exploration of self” for youth while also integrating the use of technology and multimedia projects.

“It was exploring a deeper sense of who they were, who they are, like more of an internal viewpoint, but yet at the same time keeping community and society in the step as well,” Buckman said.

Jenny Ha is a rising senior at USC and mentors students between 11 and 18 years old alongside Buckman at the Clubhouse @ EXPO Center as part of the Critical Makers Lab.

“It really highlights the key facets of identity, which are gender, social class, age, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion and disability,” Ha said.

While reflecting upon her time in the program, Ha said she enjoyed hearing about how students have spent their time during the pandemic and felt the most valuable aspect of the program was introducing students to new digital platforms and different ways to be creative.

The CMP also showcases youth projects from the Critical Makers Lab on the organization’s website. Buckman said she loves the design because it allows them to build a “tangible” portfolio and gain a deeper knowledge of their own personal identities.

“I think it can give them a stronger sense of self, a clearer sense of self,” Buckman said. “And as they continue to evolve, I think that’s a really powerful and important tool for them at their age.”

Update on June 14 at 8:02 p.m.: This article has been updated to include information about USC Arts in Action. The title principal was also changed to assistant principal.