Following the Path

Column By Quajay Donnell

    Eleven years ago I started to write a youth oriented column within The Waterbury Observer. I was a young and eager kid, who was committed to creating a forum for young people to be heard. I wrote in my first published work in the Observer, “Those youth who are setting the pace may never be heard like I am. The probable leaders shouldn’t be ignored by leaders of today … I will also show the positive teens, urban and suburban, who do right for themselves and others…”

    I was just 16 years old and a junior at Kennedy High School. I stumbled into the Observer’s office one day while the staff was painting and setting up their new office at the time on Baldwin Street. The new headquarters was a few blocks away from my house and I thought it would be cool to write for a newspaper. Once they moved in a couple of days later, I spent every free moment hanging out and learning what I could – and I learned a lot. I wrote dozens of youth columns and eventually took over production at the Observer during my senior year of high school. I worked with the paper for nearly five years. It was my first real job and the start of my professional career.

    After spending so much time at the Observer, you would have thought that the most logical thing would have been to continue to pursue a career in journalism. However, I decided to do something a little different. I decided to work with youth.

    After close to six years after leaving the paper I return in a different capacity, working in partnership with the Observer and John Murray, to create a youth section within in the Observer. I am starting a program, Media in Motion, which will work with youth 14-18 years old in a journalism based environment and will manage the youth section. The program will allow me to merge my passion for journalism, graphic design and youth development work. The Observer has been kind enough to provide space within the paper monthly, acting as an incubator of sorts – while the program looks to establish itself as a nonprofit and ultimately producing it’s own independent youth magazine on-line and in print. The Observer has also provided the program with a temporary home in its downtown office.

    I’ve spent the past year in Washington, DC and I return to Connecticut, mainly to be closer to my children. I have two young children and the past year has been rough on our relationship. Being a positive and involved dad is really important to me. Over the past few months, while I was between Connecticut and DC, John and I have had several conversations regarding my future and how to make things work for me in Connecticut. John for the last 11 years has been a mentor of sorts and when I get to a crossroad in life I often seek John out for advice. I’ve come to the conclusion that this program is the logical next step as a professional. It will provide me with the stability and flexibility that I desire for being an involved dad, and will give me the opportunity to work closely with youth in Waterbury.

    We envision the section including news articles, investigative stories, opinion pieces, personal essays, poetry, art and photography. The section will provide youth with a voice for their community and generation, as well as providing insight for many others on what’s going on with youth within the city, through a format that is recognized and credible – print media.

    The section and program comes from the belief that, first of all teens need a public forum for sharing their experiences, exploring the issues that affect their lives and identifying their common concerns.Teens who rarely read a newspaper are more likely to read a section with stories that accurately reflect their experience.

    The program isn’t solely intended for those interested in journalism, but also for those interested in being heard. The trade will provide them with skills that will transcend and be applied to many other careers. Many of the skills that I’ve learned working at the Observer I’ve applied in every aspect of my youth development work. So, in addition to working on stories to be featured in the youth section, participants will take part in workshops, activities and field trips that are geared to help them develop personally and professionally. The program and section will be youth driven, and provide participants with life skills, management and leadership opportunities. Youth will be involved in every aspect of the section, including deciding the section’s name, dictating the editorial content and appearance of the section.

    The concept to work with youth in a journalism-based environment is not a new concept. There are programs around the country providing youth with this opportunity. This isn’t a new concept in Waterbury either. Nine years ago the Observer partnered with Waterbury Youth Services to provide a similar program, only taking place during the summer months. It was my first management job, as I co-managed the program with John during the first summer and then went on to become one of the instructors during the three summers that followed. Students wrote incredible stories over the four summers of the program. On one cover was a photograph of a teen pointing a gun wearing a ski mask. It was a shocking cover photo, and the story went on to tell how easy it was for a teen to obtain a gun. The youth used their own contacts – contacts many older journalists would never have access to. The stories were raw and real, and many of the teens were not interested in journalism at all – they just wanted to be heard.

    We recognize that there is an opportunity for youth year round to be the voice for their generation and communities. John and I will use the lessons learned from this expeience to build the foundation of this section, and empower youth through print media.

    I started to work with youth six years ago with Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP) a literacy based program working with youth in neighborhoods throughout Connecticut. I worked in various capacities for LEAP, from coordinating the start-up of their community computer center in Waterbury to running programming in one of their neighborhoods in New Haven. I later returned for a summer handling details of the summer program, including their athletics and overnight program I spent three and a half years working with LEAP.

    I spent a year working with the Yale School of Medicine as a Program Facilitator implementing a social development program in middle schools, and a healthy relationship program in juvenile detention center in New Haven. While doing this work during the day, and weekends I ran an after-school program in Milford for middle school students.
I’ve spent the last year in Washington, DC with a residential educational conference working closely with middle school and high school students. I was responsible for overseeing logistics as both a team member and a supervisor for a series of conferences built around leadership development.

    My work over the last six years has allowed me to work with youth from varying economic, educational and cultural backgrounds, in addition to gaining useful insight and hands on experience in program design, implementation, evaluation and oversight. My passion for youth work comes from the belief that all youth can be developed, given the right tools, guidance and opportunity. The path that I’ve traveled leads me to this point, and my youth experience will help in my work to build, develop and lead this program and youth section.

    In order to make our section a reality, we are looking for positive youth, enthusiastic and motivated. I am currently reaching out to local high schools, and have since sent informational packages out to teachers. This is just one avenue that we are going down. We are also reaching out to the readers of the Observer. If you are a teen that interested in being a part of our program or know a teen that may be interested, please contact me.

    An interest to pursue a career in journalism and experience is not necessary. However, maturity, dedication and curiosity are all requirements. I am looking for 8-10 passionate youth, who are creative and want to be heard. As we get things moving along, we will meet once or twice a week in the Observer office to work on stories, take part in workshops and get this section going. I am looking for teens that want to really take ownership, and help in creating something great for Waterbury. Involvement in the program is on a voluntary basis, and if you become involved I ask that you stay committed to the program for at least six months.

    As I mentioned we are also working to make Media in Motion a nonprofit, so I am seeking individuals who would be interested in helping with the project, and directing our efforts in the right direction. Volunteers interested in mentoring opportunities and leading workshops can also contact me.

    This is an exciting time for me and an incredible opportunity for the youth in Waterbury. As things come together in the New Year, keep your eyes peeled for the youth section to be featured within the Observer in the coming months.