We wrote a step-by-step guide to how we made this project happen, and how you can do something like it, too! Get background on participatory action research, peacemaking circles, and grassroots fundraising, and get nuts and bolts resources like audio interview training guides, curriculum we used in youth workshops, and suggestions for how to get audio and video gear on a low budget. We are big believers in trying out new tactics as part of a larger struggle, and not being afraid to make mistakes. Here, we try to share what we've learned in case it's useful to others for the future. 

BACKGROUND: Our umbrella organization

Chain Reaction is an offshoot of an organization called Project NIA that works to end juvenile incarceration by supporting community-based alternatives to the criminal legal system. Founded in 2009, NIA combines education and advocacy with direct work in our neighborhood in Chicago supporting community accountability and helping youth stay out of the criminal legal system. Project NIA is not a non-profit; we are fiscally sponsored by the Rogers Park Community Council, which allows us to maintain political flexibility and an experimental approach that combines policy advocacy, political education, direct service, and media production. See the fruits of our media, artistic, ‘zine, and curriculum development efforts here.

BACKGROUND: Our volunteer-run model

Chain Reaction was the brainchild of Project NIA founder and director Mariame Kaba—hear her talk about the goals and ideas behind the project and the name in our interactive FAQs. Mariame is NIA’s only paid staff person, so volunteer coordinator Lewis Wallace took over organizing the project in September, 2011. We reached out to our network of volunteers and allies immediately with a clear, bullet-pointed list of roles we needed volunteers to play, including video and audio recording, editing, interviewing, transcribing, website/blog management, and organizing workshops with youth. Project NIA’s strong citywide connections to volunteers who attend our trainings and free events meant that the response was generous. Within a month, we convened an orientation for about 20 volunteers with a range of skills, and the project has been entirely volunteer-run since.

BACKGROUND: Participatory Action Research (PAR)

Chain Reaction is guided by the framework of Participatory Action Research. PAR is not a set of rules and processes; rather, PAR is a framework for collecting information that is centered around the experiences of the people most directly affected by the issue being researched. Chain Reaction uses a PAR framework because it recognizes young people as experts in their lived experience who are capable of leading and creating research that is valuable to them.

Using the guidelines of PAR, Chain Reaction attempts to address the inherent power imbalances of doing research, especially research with youth. Chain Reaction gives people the space for their voices to be heard and valued. The process in which we collect and disseminate this information should not re-create the cycle of silencing that the youth are experiencing in their daily lives. In short: the process matters to us as much as the story ‘product’; At the Broadway Youth Center and at Circles & Ciphers, this meant that we took the time to collaboratively craft an editorial direction before the tape ever rolled. After we recorded audio at the Broadway Youth Center, we listened, reflected, and critiqued before we moved on to the next recording. Chain Reaction youth editors worked with producer Sarah Lu to curate recordings and collaboratively edit audio pieces for radio broadcast.

BACKGROUND: Personal narratives and peer-to-peer models

Chain Reaction prioritizes collecting and disseminating personal narratives rather than statistics because we think they are more powerful and inspiring. Our goal is to spark discussions around alternatives to calling the police when things go wrong. While statistics can back up our point that youth of color are disproportionately being arrested and locked up, personal, individual stories allow listeners to think about the series of events that led to a young person having an encounter with the police and the negative reaction that was sparked by that encounter. We can then use the stories to think about where adult allies could have intervened, or what we would like to have happened differently.

We also felt it was powerful for youth to tell their own stories and to interview each other. In addition to being better able to build rapport with each other, youth leaders were also able to develop valuable skills through the training and interviews. Youth leaders also make editorial decisions about what pieces we make available to the public, and plan how we should use the pieces.

BACKGROUND: Community partnerships and coalition work

Because Chain Reaction was started with very few material resources, we depended on our community partnerships for everything from physical spaces to work in to strong relationships with youth. In 2011-2012, two NIA volunteers were running a group three days a week in Rogers Park called Circles and Ciphers, a young men’s hip-hop and poetry circle and a vibrant, creative community. Other NIA volunteers had connections to equipment we could borrow through their work at Free Spirit Media and Vocalo.org; and still others worked in schools and organizations that were potential partners. The key to establishing successful partnerships was not the specifics of our project, but the pre-existing relationships that leaders in our project had developed with volunteers and staff at the organizations we sought to partner with.

In Fall 2011, we reached out to Circles and Ciphers, along with five other youth organizations (the Broadway Youth Center, the Southwest Youth Collaborative, the Howard Area Community Center (HACC), BUILD Inc, and Gender JUST) that focus on youth empowerment. At the Southwest Youth Collaborative, HACC and BUILD, our partnerships consisted of one- or two-time events where our volunteers came and did a talking circle with youth, then recorded interviews with them about policing. With the Broadway Youth Center and Circles and Ciphers, our partnerships developed (over time) into a series of trainings with youth teaching them how to record the interviews themselves. The trainings were facilitated by Sarah Lu, a producer and community partnerships coordinator at Vocalo, a local youth-oriented radio station. Sarah was already a NIA volunteer when she invited us to participate in a formal partnership with Vocalo.

NUTS AND BOLTS: Youth Media Trainings

Vocalo producer Sarah Lu trained both adult volunteers and youth participants from the Broadway Youth Center and Circles and Ciphers in the basics of interviewing and audio recording. Before we turned the mics on, we did a quick crash course in media literacy and police issues with each group. Chain Reaction volunteers Jane Hereth, Sarah Brewster, Sarah Lu, and Lewis Wallace collaboratively developed two different sets of curricula for the two groups we partnered with most closely. The Broadway Youth Center (BYC) is a queer youth drop-in space connected to a health center. With the help of director Lara Brooks, we established a program there and youth applied for it with a one-question application; they received stipends for their participation. Circles and Ciphers is a community circle space for young men created in 2011 by two Project NIA volunteers, Ethan Ucker and Emmanuel Andre.

Chain Reaction volunteers split up into two teams, and in late winter and spring 2012 each team facilitated weekly circle discussions and trainings on how to use audio recording equipment and conduct interviews; Vocalo partner Sarah Lu was instrumental in the technical training (more on that later). For the most part, we planned our meetings with youth leaders to be about evenly split between political education circles (discussions in a circle in which everyone has a chance to speak) and technical training. But listening back through all of the interviews and giving detailed feedback sometimes took up whole sessions, and the circle discussion was curtailed. Because of the ways youth would come and go and the spaces would shift every week, the curriculum and plans we began with were very different from the way things actually went. In about the fifth week of both programs, we began to ask the youth attending what they thought we could do with these interviews that would be useful, meaningful, or make a difference. A solid core of people came back almost every time.

Here’s our draft curriculum of the 5-week program at the BYC, and here’s an example of how we organized just one of the sessions. At Circles and Ciphers, we came with a different news article each week that we read as a group and discussed. The articles often informed the interview process, and sometimes led to long discussions of the issues that took precedence over skill-building work on a given day. We discussed media representations of violence, the case of Trayvon Martin, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Our approach was to embrace the fun, flexibility, and chaos of working in ever-changing youth spaces. Although we may not have accomplished all of our goals in terms of political education, the youth created some amazing work and continue to direct and inform how this work will be used.

For more information on curriculum to use with youth to talk about violence and policing click here; for information on who taught us to use the peacemaking circle model in our work, click here.

NUTS AND BOLTS: Interview and Mic Skills

As for the technical training, the interviewing and audio recording trainings were hands-on, as these skills are best learned by doing. In our first session with each group, we practiced using recorders and being both interviewers and interviewees, then listened back and critiqued our practice interviews. Before we got our hands on the recorders, we quickly went over some basics. Check out Transom.org for basic guides to interviewing and mic technique, and more advanced guides to choosing equipment. 

NUTS AND BOLTS: Editing audio

After we recorded interviews and round table discussions, we needed to edit the raw audio into content we could present on Soundcloud, the Chain Reaction website, and the radio. The first level of editing is curating. At the Broadway Youth Center and Circles and Ciphers, we listened to raw audio with youth and chose together what stories we wanted to move ahead with.

Then we began crafting the audio pieces from the raw audio. At the Broadway Youth Center, it worked like this: producer Sarah Lu made rough cuts of stories, then facilitators Jane Hereth and Sarah Brewster played them for the BYC youth participants. Jane and Sarah B. brought feedback to Sarah L., who incorporated their feedback into the final edits. With Circles and Ciphers, collaborative editing worked like this: Circles and Ciphers created a summer media internship for two interns, Lookman Muhammed and AJ Alojisius. Several hours a week for five weeks, they met with Sarah Lu and Lewis Wallace to both edit raw audio from Circles and Ciphers and design ways to use the finished audio in presentations. Collaborative editing with Lookman and AJ meant one-on-one editing sessions.

NUTS AND BOLTS: Audio gear and software

One of the only things that Chain Reaction purchased up front for the project was one digital audio recorder, a Zoom H2. Sarah Lu and volunteer Jane Hereth also loaned their personal digital recorders for the project, so that multiple people could make recordings at once. The Zoom H2 is a relatively intuitive and affordable recorder for a project like this. When looking into buying a recorder, Transom.org is a great, up-to-date resource for audio gear reviews for indie producers and DIY folk.

For editing software, we used a program called Reaper. An intuitive and friendly program for both PCs and Macs, a never-ending trial is free. And licenses are cheap for non-profits. You can find Reaper tutorials on the web pretty easily. Garageband and other free software will also do the trick. 

NUTS AND BOLTS: Video interviews

Due to resource and capacity issues, we used audio equipment for the youth-driven interviews, and only conducted a few interviews on video. The video interviews were conducted by NIA volunteers Debbie Southorn, Rosa Gaia Saunders, Jake Klippenstein,and André Perez, mostly on a one-time, drop-in basis at youth centers including Southwest Youth Collaborative. Volunteers also came to interview youth leaders at the Broadway Youth Center and Circles and Ciphers.

A good place to start is to ask local youth media and/or community media organizations in your area if they are interested in collaborating on the project. That would save you time and money (and possibly frustration), and help build the reach of your project. Thanks to a partnership with Free Spirit Media, a local youth media organization here in Chicago, we were able to use fancy equipment to film many of the interviews.

If working with a media organization isn’t possible, or you want to do the videos yourself, here are some suggestions. Find a cheap video recording device that gets a good picture and decent audio. Do your own research if you like, or go for the FlipHD. Even though they’re no longer being manufactured, you can still find them for relatively cheap prices on some websites. Once you’ve arranged the interview, it’s important to think through who will conduct the interview (aka the structure), and how the shot will look (also called the framing).

To edit your footage into a finished, polished piece, use whatever software you have available to you (iMovie, Windows Media Maker and Final Cut Pro are all examples). If you’ve never edited before, have no fear! There are plenty of online tutorials that can walk you through the basics, and things will probably take a long time at first. Use music to add emotion and intensity to your video, or to transition between different subjects of the interview. Always make sure that you can hear whoever is speaking over the music. (In video lingo, this is called checking your audio levels). Consider including a title at the beginning and credits (with a link to your website if you have one) at the end of your video. Export it, upload it, and share it with your friends and network!

NUTS AND BOLTS: Grassroots fundraising strategies

Because we are a volunteer-run project, our budget is small. We are lucky to have a core group of volunteers with access to audio and video equipment and editing skills. Other than the digital recorder we bought early on, our main expense in the first year of the project was stipends for youth leaders.

We got the project up and running with some funding from Project NIA, and soon started looking for new funding opportunities. Volunteers planned several house party fundraisers with cash bars and donation buckets that raised a few hundred dollars each. A local bar made us the recipient of the bar proceeds of their monthly social justice party. Chances Dances, a group that plans monthly queer dance parties, let us set up a bake sale and donation table at one of their dances. We also applied for and received their Critical Fierceness Grant, a fund that uses the money raised at their parties to support queer artists and artistic endeavors.

Our most successful fundraising strategy was an online campaign that we launched in August of 2012. We set up a campaign through the website Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform. Volunteers Debbie Southorn, Jane Hereth, and youth leaders at the BYC created a fundraising video to post on our Indiegogo campaign page, and we sent it out to friends and family. It spread like wildfire on Facebook, and we raised our initial goal of $1000 in just a few hours. We then raised the goal to $2500, and raised that and more over the next few weeks.

CONCLUSION: Workshop curriculum and website

Youth leaders at the BYC gave workshop for other youth in 2012. They used audio pieces, interactive activities, and skits to discuss what youth can do if they are stopped by the police. In 2013, Chain Reaction officially wrapped up, and this website is our documentation of what we’ve done.

But we’re not documenting for documenting’s sake: we are always looking for people who want to make use of all the resources on this site, share these stories, and facilitate listening sessions and storytelling in your own community. The Chain Reaction curriculum is designed to help you use some of the resources on this site, and we welcome your ideas.

We're also aware that since we did Chain Reaction, the national conversation about policing has changed. It has become more urgent and more visible, which we hope makes our message more urgent: that we must work to de-police our neighborhoods, to make police and prisons obsolete by changing the power structures that claim they are necessary. We know that "alternatives" have limitations: we don't believe police abuse will end until we fundamentally change our world and abolish white supremacy.

This how-to was brought to you by the 2011-2012 Chain Reaction organizing team: Debbie Southorn, Jane Hereth, Lewis Wallace, Sarah Lu, and Sarah Brewster, with the support of Mariame Kaba.

 The Chain Reaction project is now over, but you can contact Mariame at projectnia@hotmail.com.