Youth Journalism International

Boston Tutoring Services is introducing a new series of blogposts about local nonprofit organizations. Our goals are to raise awareness about their work and to share how other people can get involved. If you or someone you know is part of, has worked with, or knows about a local nonprofit, please contact us and share your experiences. All submissions are welcome!

In the ninth part of our nonprofit series, Boston Tutoring Services interviews Steve Collins and Jackie Majerus from Youth Journalism International. Majerus is Executive Director of Youth Journalism International and Collins is Board President.

Boston Tutoring Services: Could you give me a brief history of the organization?
Steve and Jackie: Of course! Youth Journalism International started 20 years ago as a small student group in Connecticut that had its work published occasionally in a local daily paper. Its founders, longtime newspaper reporters Jackie Majerus and Steve Collins, discovered that they loved working with teenagers, who are lots of fun when they’re not your own.

Once we put it online, in 1996, it began to develop a following outside the local area and eventually we started getting inquiries about participating from students who lived far away.

We discovered that we could work one-on-one with students online and also develop the sort of group spirit we sought. Participants became a big worldwide family in a way we never dreamed possible. There are now hundreds of members in scores of countries – and at least as many alums all over the world.

We incorporated in 2007 and got 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in 2010.

BTS: What are the organization’s biggest goals? What is its mission?
S&J: Our goal is to give a voice to young people, ages 12 to 25. They write news stories, opinion pieces, movie reviews, and more. They take photographs and video. They draw cartoons and illustrations.  We teach them to do it all better, faster, more completely. But they do it. And they learn to do it well if they keep at it.

What surprised us along the way, though, is how YJI became something bigger and more important than a journalism education organization. We became a sort of peace factory, connecting all sorts of young people from different cultures and widely varied viewpoints, pulling them together and providing the sort of cross-cultural understanding that can’t help but create a better world. It doesn’t hurt that so many of our students are among the best and brightest anywhere. They’re future leaders on every continent, tied to each other through YJI and the work they do.

BTS: Does your organization host or launch any special events throughout the year?
S&J: Our biggest special event is the only worldwide youth journalism contest, which allows students 19 and under who write or work in English to have a shot at some serious recognition. The entry deadline is always in early February, for work done in the previous calendar year.

BTS: What are some of the most difficult challenges and setbacks your organization has faced or continues to face?
S&J: Like so many deserving little charities, we struggle to raise the money we need to do our work. We hate to pull ourselves away from working with students, which is why we do this, in order to deal with organizational necessities, especially trying to find the funds required to make all of this possible.

In addition, and this is related, we find it heartbreaking that we can’t include so many other students who want to participate. We simply don’t have the resources to cope with the flood of applicants we receive all the time.

BTS: What is the most gratifying aspect of your work?
S&J: Getting to know so many awesome, amazing young people.

BTS: What is your favorite memory since working at the organization?
S&J: There are so many! Whale watching with kids from Nebraska and Toronto… hanging out at ESPN with star-struck youngsters … attending a wedding in North Carolina of two alums who met in YJI and went on to become reporters… getting soaked by the spray at Niagara Falls… and so much more. But perhaps the best came last summer when a YJI kid from Uganda managed to get somebody to pay for him to come to the United States to speak at a hip-hop conference. When it ended in Washington, D.C., he journeyed Connecticut to spend a week with us. It was as eye-opening and wonderful for us as it was for him.

When Gilbert arrived at the New Haven train station at 7 p.m. we asked if he’d ever seen the ocean. He hadn’t. So we dashed out to the highway and stumbled onto a town nearby in time to witness a glorious sunset over the Thimble Islands. He couldn’t believe the beauty – the boats, the water, the sun slipping over the horizon.

We stood there thinking how amazing it was that this guy from Kampala, who has nothing but pluck and talent, could wind up seeing the ocean for the first time at our side halfway across the globe. The thing is, though, that he’d also stood by our side, sort of, as he showed us the streets of Kampala, a tiny hut out in the countryside, the lines of voters in Uganda and a host of other stories that we would have never seen without him.

We never forget how lucky we are to have all these terrific kids all over the world opening doors we’d never walk through without them. That thousands of others also get to see what we see is what makes it all the better.

BTS: What are some of the organization’s greatest accomplishments?
S&J: In the big picture, we’re proud that so many of our students have gone on to college, done well, and are out there in the world doing great things. They’re making a difference. We know we helped some of them get there.

But we’re also glad that YJI has been able to participate in many of the biggest news stories over the years, from the outpouring of pieces that students wrote after Columbine and 9-11 to the astonishing Hurricane Journal that Samantha Perez wrote after she lost her home outside New Orleans when Katrina rolled in. We had students in Egypt providing an inside glimpse of the hope and promise of the Arab Spring – and the troubles that have followed. We’ve had students nearby during many of the biggest news events for many years now, offering a perspective that’s difficult for any other news organization to provide, whether we’re talking about the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, the excitement of the World Cup or the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria.

We’re proud that so many students have produced work of lasting significance about issues and events that will be remembered for a long time.

BTS: How can other people get involved?
S&J: Our biggest need is to raise money. We’d be thrilled if anyone could lend a hand with fundraising. We have never charged a student to participate, a point of pride that has made it possible for many to be a part of YJI, so it’s especially important to find people who are willing to donate. We need more of them.

But there are lots of little things that would also help, from just reading the work our students do to sharing it on social media. Greater exposure serves to amplify what they have to say – and that’s a great thing.

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