Preparing the Next Generation of Journalists with Voices of Youth

Grant Recipient

Issue Media Group, the parent company of Rapid Growth Media

Awarded Amount

$30,000 over two years


In 2022, the Steelcase Foundation provided a two-year $30,000 grant to Issue Media Group to Support Rapid Growth’s Voices of Youth journalism program, which provides training to high-school aged youth to create and public solutions journalism pieces on issues impacting their lives. Youth attend workshops to learn specific journalism skills, receive mentoring and editing support from professional writers, and have their pieces published in Rapid Growth GR.

Hear from Lindsay Patton, program lead for the Voices of Youth Initiative, and youth participants Evan Arnold, Luke Fann, and Mazonnah Holiday, as they share their insights into the work.

Lindsay Patton, program lead, Voices of Youth Initiative

Brief overview of Rapid Growth and the stories it covers.

Rapid Growth, as part of the Issue Media Group family of publications, is a news organization that leverages the power of solutions-based, narrative storytelling in partnership with community-based leadership to uplift the individuals, organizations, and communities working to make Grand Rapids better. Rapid Growth does so by showcasing vital community voices, diverse thinkers, and unique opportunities for all individuals within the region.

When I was a young journalist in 2010, Rapid Growth offered me an opportunity to expand my reporting skills and writing samples. Through assigned stories, I set up interviews, built positive relationships with community leaders, and improved my craft overall.

It is exciting for me to return to Rapid Growth, now as a seasoned journalist, to give teenagers the opportunity I once had, so that they can build the professional confidence needed to transition from high school to college or career with ease.

Please provide an overview of Voices of Youth project and how it came to be.

Voices of Youth, a program by Rapid Growth and other publications from Issue Media Group, empowers young individuals to actively participate in and cultivate a profound comprehension of media. It urges them to transcend their social media experiences and embrace the realms of local news, journalism, and storytelling, thereby fostering a robust sense of community engagement. Youth receive mentorship with professional journalists, workshops to understand media, and opportunities to author stories and create news pieces as part of their portfolio.

I’ve known Rapid Growth Publisher Tommy Allen for more than a decade via reporting on Grand Rapids news and events. He knew I had a background in mentoring youth, in addition to my journalism background. Having seen consistently strong work from me over the years, Tommy recommended I lead Voices of Youth’s Rapid Growth chapter.

Having taught journalism basics previously as an adjunct professor, I adapted my materials to connect with a high school audience. Meanwhile, Tommy provided unwavering support for my skills and passion for the project.

What are the primary goals?

Through their stories and creative endeavors, our Voices of Youth students demonstrate to the community the importance of their perspectives and concerns. In a rapidly evolving society, teens are facing challenges I didn’t have to navigate when I was their age during the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

Voices of Youth helps equip them with media literacy skills, empowering them to make informed choices when crafting their stories for publication.

My personal goal is to provide youth with opportunities that pay fairly, set them apart, and help build their confidence. As a career writer, I understand how good writing is often undervalued, and I want students to know Rapid Growth values their contributions. When they find out paid writing opportunities exist, they learn not to settle, which contributes to their future career success. For me professionally, it is incredibly rewarding to align myself with an opportunity that mirrors my worldview.

I also appreciate that the program’s youth are partnered with mentors who are professional journalists with strong understandings of media and education. With these mentors, students receive support as they research, interview, and draft a story about an issue they are connected with. These stories ultimately become part of the youth’s portfolio, but also enter the public sphere as a youth perspective on a local topic.

How and why does this work uplift youth voice?

We model our workshops to support both learning and constructive conversations. As project lead, it is important to balance instruction and active listening throughout our time together. If students don’t feel heard, they’re not as likely to speak up, which is why we prioritize meaningful conversation.

When we explore generation and location-based issues during workshops, it is an opportunity for students to connect their real-world experiences to article topics. Additionally, creating a safe space where students can be vulnerable and feel supported helps connect students in new and meaningful ways.

During our latest cohort, two students admitted they did not get along in class. We decided not to shy away from difficult conversations and allowed the students to explore their rocky relationship. What they learned was they were experiencing personal challenges in their own lives, which affected how they engaged with their peers. The students left the workshop with an improved relationship and better understanding of one another.

Please describe the work that you’ve engaged in so far and your hopes for the work through the remainder of the grant period.

We are wrapping up our winter journalism workshop and heading into the article-writing phase and then we will return again in fall 2024. I have enjoyed working with students on the development of their voices, sharpening their reporting skills, and celebrating once their article is published.

In addition to our workshop work with students, we have an opportunity for re-engagement with students from previous cohorts. We are welcoming back three students who saw success with their Voices of Youth experience and want to pursue more writing opportunities. Myself and the program mentors are excited to witness the growth between their first and second article.

Any successes or key learnings you’d like to lift up?

I’ve been impressed and touched by the ripple effect Voices of Youth has created within the Grand Rapids community. Going into the program, we knew the work was going to be a rich and robust experience for students, however, we didn’t consider the potential for impact outside of student involvement.

As I guided the students through their interviews, I had the opportunity to communicate with student sources. The Grand Rapids Civic Theater enjoyed positive coverage about its shows that offer American Sign Language interpreters, and Jessica Burke, the Civic’s director of audience experience, was introduced to Voices of Youth for the first time.

“It was really moving to be included in this piece already but that honor was certainly magnified after reading the context in which it was presented,” Burke said in an interview about the program. “I also really enjoyed getting to read an article that was candid and frank in its voice regarding a call to action for all organizations to step up and do better with access and resources.”

Through a youth’s voice, accessibility in Grand Rapids was considered by Rapid Growth readers and a local organization was lifted up for its positive role in the community.

The relationship with the Grand Rapids Civic Theater is just one example. During our fall cohort, we were pleased to connect with a student’s mother, who was incredibly supportive of the program and shared how it gave her daughter excitement and confidence. An actor, our student’s parent, invited the leadership team to watch her perform as part of Actors’ Theater Grand Rapids.

What have you learned from partnering with youth that you might share with other youth-serving organizations?

Always offer grace. Teenagers living in 2024 have to navigate a much more complicated landscape than millennial, Gen X, or Baby Boomer generations—listen to and validate those struggles.

The program is extracurricular for the students, who are often involved in sports, clubs, or other after-school activities. The students we’ve worked with have a lot on their plates with responsibilities, so we do not take it personally if they fall short with their Voices of Youth work. Instead, we acknowledge how much homework, sports, clubs, and family can affect how much they can accomplish.

Our goal is to give all students a positive journalism experience, which is why we put emphasis on coaching instead of criticizing.

How does this work impact the Steelcase Foundation’s overarching mission of cultivating communities where children can thrive?

Voices of Youth attracted me because I believe all writers must be paid for their work. The opportunity to show students they can get paid to write is transformative for both myself and the students I connect with every cohort.

In addition to the professional opportunity the cohort presents students, there is also professional support in the form of mentoring. To create an environment that is conducive to mentorship, we focus on active listening, constructive brainstorming, and gentle coaching. We remind students that they are doing challenging yet rewarding work to boost their confidence and always explain why we make the changes we do when editing their work.

When students eventually publish their work, we are intentional to celebrate with them and congratulate them for reaching their full potential as writers.

Everything we do is driven by student experience. We understand how important strong adult role models are for children and we take our roles as such seriously by leading with empathy and helping students realize their voices matter. After every cohort, we discuss how to improve the workshops and better support the students, implementing tweaks and changes we’ve identified.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this work?

I am drawn to Voices of Youth because I did not have an opportunity like this as a young writer. As a result, I’m incredibly motivated to engage with Kent County youth and introduce them to a program that not only offers professional development but compensates the students for their time and work.

Voices of Youth is validating to students because it reminds them they can face big challenges, be compensated fairly, and connect with supportive adults that celebrate their achievements.


Evan Arnold

Please share your name, grade, and school district.

My name is Evan Arnold. I’m currently a first-year at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), but at the time of the program I was a senior at Northview High School.

Please provide an overview of your experience participating in the Voices of Youth Project. What activities did you participate in? Tell us about the piece you created.

When I participated in the Voices of Youth, I went to every informational meeting where we discussed different aspects of media and journalism, as well as talked about potential topics we were interested in writing about. The piece I wrote was about increasing entertainment accessibility for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. I chose this topic because I am pursuing a career in American Sign Language (ASL) Interpretation and wanted to shine a light on accessibility in entertainment such as plays and performances. I was responsible for coming up with a topic, figuring out who I wanted to interview, as well as conducting the interview, and creating the article as a whole. I was able to get really helpful feedback from those who led the Voices of Youth project, which helped me polish my piece and provide clarity at times when I needed a fresh perspective. Overall, I really learned a lot about my own community, such as how the Civic Theatre makes accessibility possible for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community, and how to create an article in a journalistic way which was something I had never done before.

How did this experience help you share your voice with community? Why is it important that youth share their perspectives?

This experience allowed me to shed a light on accessibility that may not always be considered for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community in terms of performances and entertainment. I believe that it is essential that youth share their voices and perspectives with the greater community because we are the future; we must share our opinions and highlight topics that are important to us in order to spark change.

What advice might you share with organizations like Rapid Growth that create programs for youth? What do you think they should know to make sure programming is relevant and impactful?

My advice for organizations like Rapid Growth that create programs for youth such as myself is to get involved in the schools and create a buzz that gets students excited to write. I think it’s important to reiterate that youth need to make their voice heard, and discussing relevant and impactful events will encourage students to share their thoughts and personal connections. This can spark discussion and allow students to not only learn from others, but give them the chance to make an impact.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this work?

I felt really inspired to create this piece after seeing last year’s Super Bowl Halftime performance which was beautifully interpreted by Justina Miles. Within the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community her performance allowed for an accessible performance of Rihanna’s halftime show.

Click here to read Evan’s article.

Luke Fann

Please share your name, grade, and school district.

My name is Luke Fann. I’m currently a 9th grader at City/Middle High School in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Please provide an overview of your experience participating in the Voices of Youth Project. What activities did you participate in? Tell us about the piece you created.

Participating in the Voices of Youth program helped me grow as a journalist and as a person. It allowed me to be more aware of the world, and taught me vital skills I need to be a journalist in an ever-changing world.

The program consisted of Monday night sessions where we were able to have a warm-up discussion about both a relevant topic to the world right now, and a topic aligned with the journalistic skills we were working to grow. After warming up, we would learn about different journalistic methods, such as inverted pyramid writing, or another skill pertaining to writing. But after a few sessions, this time was used to write, edit, and formulate our own story to be published through Rapid Growth Media. After our in-person sessions, our mentors would help us one-on-one with editing and final touches before publication.

The story I created was a piece about Grand Rapids Public Libraries, which is a system of public libraries servicing the Grand Rapids area with books, games, magazines, movies, and many other digital and physical items.

I chose this topic because I am a passionate reader and writer that utilizes many of the library’s resources myself. I also spend Saturdays volunteering there, so I am very connected to the library. Knowing the library from both of these perspectives, I wanted to share the library’s story – the past, present, and future – and spread awareness for this cornerstone of our community that is 100% free.

I was responsible for formulating the idea for my topic, researching it, and writing about it. This included conducting three interviews with various people connected to my topic and finding primary sources to support my research, along with other details like finding pictures, making a title, and writing a biography.

How did this experience help you share your voice with community? Why is it important that youth share their perspectives?

Through this experience,I learned how to hone my journalistic writing abilities, conduct interviews, and edit an article.

This experience wasn’t just about learning how to write an article – it was also about writing about something I am passionate about, and allowing me to share that through Rapid Growth to reach a wider audience I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

It is important for youth to share their experiences with the community because the journalism field is, for the most part, devoid of youth with their own stories to tell. Also, this allows other youth themselves to be able to better connect with the news.

What advice might you share with organizations like Rapid Growth that create programs for youth? What do you think they should know to make sure programming is relevant and impactful?

My advice for those wanting to set up their own youth programs is to figure out what youth today are interested in, but might not be accessible to all. If you have a way to empower today’s youth through a generally non-youth subject, then do it. It can create a large impact for everybody young and old. Make sure to help out, but not take over. While your skills are very useful and can create these opportunities, this is, at its core, about empowering youth to tell their story, show off their skills, and be involved in their community. You have to let them do that.

Click here to read Luke’s article.

Mazonnah Holiday

Please share your name, grade, and school district.

My name is Mazonnah Holiday. I’m currently a 10th grader in the extended learning (homeschool) program at Northview High School.

Please provide an overview of your experience participating in the Voices of Youth Project. What activities did you participate in? Tell us about the piece you created.

My experience in the voices of youth program was a learning experience. I participated in Journalism. The piece I created was about homeschooling. I chose this topic because it’s important to me and I am homeschooled. I was responsible for interviewing someone to get their views on homeschooling and their personal experience. I was also responsible for writing and adjusting the piece, as well as recording the responses from the person I interviewed. Through this experience, I learned a different writing style. I usually write poetry, and this pushed me out of my comfort zone.

How did this experience help you share your voice with community? Why is it important that youth share their perspectives?

This experience helped me share my voice with the community by sharing my personal experience with homeschooling and the pros and cons. When I was at school, it caused a lot of anxiety and made me uncomfortable. It’s important that the youth share their perspective with the community because the youth have certain views on things.

What advice might you share with organizations like Rapid Growth that create programs for youth? What do you think they should know to make sure programming is relevant and impactful?

The advice I would share with the Rapid Growth program is that it allows my voice to be heard and recognized. It’s encouraging to me as a writer knowing that my voice has an impact. I think it should cater around my age group. There should be more opportunities for youth with the same interests and passions for writing.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this work?

I’d like to include that this really inspired me to keep going as a writer and branch out even when it seems uncomfortable. This challenged me as a writer in a good way. It opened me to new opportunities, networking, as well as a new writing style. I also had very amazing instructors who were willing to help. They were very supportive all the way through. My mom also encouraged me to do this program and helped me to embrace the challenge and not shy away from it as she doesn’t believe in giving up.

Click here to read Mazonnah’s article.