The Media is the Message 

Ken Ikeda has his own solution for the chronically underperforming students at Oakland's McClymonds High School: Give them a camera.

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They are also motivated to teach. One of the first projects to come out of Youth Sounds was a documentary intended to contradict the negative image of their school in the larger community. In a short film called Life Behind the Walls, the students interviewed kids and teachers about life at McClymonds. "Even though much of what we heard was predictable," says the film's narrator, "some of it was surprising: [We heard about] happiness and pride, as well as lack of materials and poor teaching. The truth is somewhere in between, and the reality of McClymonds is far beneath the surface."

"That's the thing," says Ikeda. "There's a real commitment to West Oakland here, because these kids are so used to being maligned. The people who show up here have intense pride; it's interesting to see. This is a small, collective school."

Jacobi is a senior who is also working on a documentary about his community. Upbeat, polite, and baby-faced, with tight braids crisscrossing his head, he is the kind of student that Ikeda could only hope for. Jacobi is one of four student managers, a paid position. He is motivated, reliable, and steadily learning and improving. When he first walked into Youth Sounds loft, Ikeda says, Jacobi wouldn't speak at all. "I had to sit across from him, lean in, and say, 'You need to talk to me.'"

Jacobi asks a visiting reporter, "You know what the cover for your story on Mack should have on it? Me." After bouncing from foster home to foster home for most of his life, Jacobi currently lives with his nineteen-year-old brother. "As long as I graduate and go to college," he says, "I'll be happy. I never thought I was going to graduate, but things are looking up. I'm in here every day."

The Youth Sounds program is in its infancy, and many of its features are still a dream. Though the first broadcast of the radio station is due any day, the recording studio has yet to be built; there are currently fifty students waiting to tackle projects. One student wants to make a two-hour movie, another wants to host a teen-oriented radio talk show. A student named Kevin wants to make a documentary about his friend who was killed on the McClymonds campus in August of 2000. He was leaning against a wall on his bike when he was shot in the back of his head. He had just graduated.

"Kevin's an interesting case," says Ikeda. "He's kind of an adult kid. He's got a child and a partner." Slim, with gold teeth, Kevin usually wears a knit hat. He looks hardened, and speaks with deep Oakland slang, each sentence ending with "You know what I'm sayin'?" He says he is very motivated to make his movie. "I'm tired of seeing pictures of my [dead] friends on a T-shirt," he says. He seems to know all the ins and outs of the neighborhood, all the players; everyone waves at him when they go by. "If it weren't for God," he says, "I'd be going down the wrong road. I done did things. I'm not saying that I was the best person. I done did things that you wouldn't think other people would do."

Although he's only been in the program for three weeks, Kevin has brought his grades up. He walks around with a red folder of clippings about his friend, and has completed a storyboard for his documentary, which will mix interviews with dramatic reenactments. He definitely seems ready to work. "I think that my message is that youngsters gotta wake up. Too many youngsters is droppin' over something that don't really mean nothing. The world ain't doing nothing but spinning, time is just tickin', so you gotta get your mind right. Get it into focus. Because you are here one day and then gone the next. That's the name of my movie. I want people to know that a young boy's life was taken, and for something that could've been avoided.

"He wasn't in a gang. I mean, he sold drugs, but he made it. He stuck through school and graduated. How many drug dealers do you know that was selling drugs and actually came to school and did the work and graduated? You can't knock him for that. Nobody deserves to die." The emotion is stuck in his throat.

"We need to wake up. We got some smart kids in this school, but it's just that we don't get any recognition of the things that we do that's good. They only target us for things that's bad. I think people need to stop putting us down, give us a little more of a lift, try and help us. Make us feel like something instead of just putting us down. How you expect some kids to come to school, when you talking bad on the school, tellin' them how low the test scores is? Why come to school? They telling me that the school can't do nothing for me."

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