In Conversation With…Janelle Greco and Virginia Vitzthum, Youth Communication

June 2021

Photo of Virginia Vitzthum
Virginia Vitzthum, Youth Communication

For decades, Youth Communication has helped historically underrepresented youth write and share powerful, transformative stories. More than 2,500 teens have participated in Youth Communication’s writing programs, which include a publication for youth in foster care. These stories then form the basis of a variety of curricula used across the United States.

The Huo Family Foundation has partnered with Youth Communication for several years; it’s most recent commitment is a five-year grant of $100,000.

Virginia has spent the last 13 years editing the work of writers in foster care. “When the children initially meet with an editor, we ask them what they want to write about. We start them off with an outline, then they go to their computer in the newsroom and write. After they leave, we edit their work and part of that involves us pushing a bit into their story.” Initially, the teenagers involved were reluctant to talk about their experiences. However, with each passing year, they are becoming more readily willing and able to discuss what they have been through and how it made them feel. “We help them find the points in their story that they should be proud of, where they made good decisions. The editing process turns the kid from the victim into the hero of their story.”

Janelle is the Co-Director of Education and her role involves taking those stories and creating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula. The resources are used in schools, at after school programmes, and by non-profit organisations. Each lesson has a story at the centre and follows with discussion questions and activities. “For example, if the story is about grief, the session could involve writing about your own experience of grief, going on to discuss how to find joy after loss. We delve deeper into the themes that come up.” To ensure these sessions are delivered effectively, Youth Communication supports educators and youth workers on how best to use their materials.

When schools were shut by the pandemic, Youth Communication were able to provide an essential service in a time of extreme disengagement. “Many schools were exploring how to do SEL, so we ran a series of webinars. We have been doing this for years – helping kids find those SEL competencies – and for us it came about very organically.”

Another aspect of Youth Communication’s programme that had to move online was their intensive writing workshops, which develop teenagers’ ability to write in a way that is suitable for publication. Virginia notes that it was really important to listen to the writers and adjust the schedule accordingly. “In normal times they would turn in work every day – we changed that to every other day as that was better for them. In some ways, they were more invested as they felt they were being listened to and treated as equal.” Naturally,the pandemic has been emotive and a source of inspiration for many of the writers. “Lots of the kids have written about wearing a mask, schooling via zoom, and have reflected on their own experiences throughout.”

Both women agree that, although they were able to move everything online during Covid-19, the most effective way to teach these lessons is in person and look forward to returning to normal. “Part of the job is to help kids connect with each other. And by sharing their stories, those connections continue to develop.”