Catalyst Grantee Profile: Vox Teen Communications
Vox Teen Communications
Interview with Susan Landrum, Executive Director, Vox Teen Communications
VOX Teen Communications
Teens ages 13-19 in metro Atlanta (Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties)
VOX is metro Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. We connect diverse metro Atlanta teens to resources for building their confidence, increasing their capacity to meet life’s demands and ensuring their future success. VOX is creating a culture where adults and teens alike value the voices of teens in metro Atlanta, and where through VOX, teens are prepared, connected and valued.
Please describe the problem your organization is working to solve and the ways in which your organization’s approach to this work is new or unique.
The problem that VOX is committed to solving is ensuring that teens have an uncensored platform to share their stories and experiences through digital and print media. Through our intentional process of training teens in journalism, digital media and communications skills, we support their holistic development. We know that communication is just as much about listening as it is about talking, and we incorporate social emotional learning and leadership development into every aspect of our programming.
Our emphasis on being teen-led makes VOX a unique organization. We work to create a level playing field for teens and adults to collaborate, and teens play a role in every aspect of the organization. They serve on our Board of Directors, lead newsroom tours, edit their peers’ work, co-facilitate workshops, work as interns and much more. Our teen-centric culture and emphasis on regular formative evaluation ensures that teens’ voices are a part of every conversation, even when they are not physically present. The adult staff and volunteers are here to serve as “guides on the side” for the VOX teens and we often tell them “we work for you!”
What are some key accomplishments your organization has achieved.
In May 2018, we celebrated our 25th anniversary of serving teens in Atlanta! We are proud of VOX’s longevity and the way we have evolved and adapted over the past quarter century. We have a seen a lot of firsts – first email address, first dial-up Internet access, first Twitter account. We have been a part of many big events, including the 1996 Olympics and an economic downturn. Through all the ups and downs, VOX has remained a safe space for teens in Atlanta to be valued, to use their voices, and to develop skills for successful futures. We have remained nimble and responsive to the ever-changing needs of teens, but always with a focus on our mission. We know who we are as an organization and we are aware of our identity as the place where teens speak and Atlanta listens.
In recognition of this important milestone, we are in the process of a special 25th anniversary campaign. This campaign is supporting the recent build out of an audio recording studio in our downtown Atlanta newsroom as well as updates to our website to maximize our ability to reach teens with regular digital content. Funds raised are also being used for our upcoming strategic planning process and for strengthening our financial resources so we are poised for future growth. The final piece of this anniversary campaign is a needs assessment. We are evaluating the current landscape of youth development here in Atlanta as we determine how VOX and our plans for the future fit into the existing framework. We are engaging a variety of stakeholders in this process, including teens, Board members, staff, donors and community partners.
What obstacles (either expected or unexpected) has your organization faced and how have you addressed them?
An expected obstacle that we face is the reality of scarce resources. Like many nonprofits, we have a lot to do with a small but mighty team and there’s always more to do! There are always more teens who need supporting and more people who we need to engage with. Our staff work tirelessly to maximize the resources that we receive from the funding community, but cash flow is often a challenge. We opened a line of credit to help alleviate that burden, and we always work to maintain a healthy reserve account.
Unexpected obstacles that we have faced include the impact of current events on our teens. In recent years, this has included everything from school shootings to hate crimes to the continued weight of the political climate. Teens are dealing with traumatic events in the news and in their own lives. While we cannot control what is happening in the world around us, we can do everything possible to create a safe space for our teens. We use a narrative therapy approach here at VOX, and teens often choose to write about the impact of current events as a way to process what is happening. (We invite you to read Vox teens on Parkland or Vox Teens on Kavanaugh Hearings as examples). Everything we do is framed in a social-emotional lens, and we have several social workers on our adult staff. We are committed to supporting our teens as whole people living in a world that often feels confusing, threatening and volatile. This includes hosting social-emotional support groups, providing a space for teens to debrief, checking in one-on- one with teens and connecting them to community resources.
What current and future trends have you identified in your field?
In the youth development field, we are seeing more attention being paid to social-emotional learning and more organizations choosing to invest in this aspect of their programming. In addition, we are witnessing more conversations about the importance of trauma informed care, with the reality being that all people experience some form of trauma at some point in their lives. And we continue to hear more leaders and non-profits talk about how they can support youth voice and leadership in their organizations. We are wrapping up our needs assessment and we look forward to seeing what other trends emerge from that process. In thinking about the field of media, we continue to see a trend towards telling stories in multiple different formats so as many voices as possible are getting lifted up.
In the non-profit community, we are participating in more discussions around the importance of an organization’s culture, and recognizing that culture can matter just as much as the outputs. We are also exploring how we can talk about existential values from a data perspective. For example, how do you quantitatively represent why it is so important that teens feel valued in their communities? We know that the ability to communicate this data will help us convince potential funders to invest in VOX, and we want to learn how to better use data to tell the story behind our culture. In addition, VOX is committed to being a thought leader in the field of youth development and teen voice as we train other youth service providers on how to infuse more teen voice into their programming. We want to build a movement around this essential concept.
What advice do you have for others interested in contributing to positive changes in your field?
Our mantra at VOX is “teens first.” Our number one piece of advice for anyone in the youth development field is to engage teens in every aspect of the organization. Take a look at your landscape and ask where teens are or are not included. Create intentional times and spaces to hear from young people (and make sure they are teen-friendly times!) Remember that no community conversation is complete if it does not involve the voices of young people. We often say that teens are the future, but the reality is that they are a part of the present. Teens are active participants in society – they attend schools, frequent businesses and ride public transit. And yes, teens will be the leaders of the future, but they are also existing right now.
How can funders and supporters best help your organization accomplish its goals?
One of the most important ways funders can help VOX accomplish its goals is by increasing access to unrestricted funding. Many funding agencies will not allow grants to be used for overhead, but items like rent and administrative salaries are essential to a healthy and sustainable organization. Another way to help is through minimizing barriers to funding by using simple applications and reporting structures. Almost every funder has a different budget form, reporting process, etc. and this requires our staff to devote a significant amount of time and energy to dealing with red tape and bureaucracy. Simplifying the application and reporting process would allow our staff to spend more time actually serving and supporting our teens. Finally, we would be grateful for funders to consider supporting professional development opportunities. There are so many amazing trainings and conferences that our staff would benefit from greatly, but the cost is too high a barrier.
Selected Media Mentions
Georgia Trend, “Georgia Trend’s 40 Under 40: Susan Landrum”
Atlanta Pride, “2017 Atlanta Pride Guide, Vox Teen Communications”
WABE, “An Opportunity Lost:Vox ATL Teen’s Views on National School Walkout”