We spoke with D.C. Vito, co-founder of The LAMP, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating youth, parents, and educators in New York City about media and how to interpret it.
Ad Council: How did The LAMP come to be?
D.C. Vito: Back in 2007, I had just been appointed Chair of the Youth Services Committee on Community Board 6 (CB6) in Brooklyn, and was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about pushing the committee into the 21st century. We tried getting a program up through CB6, but realized that the need for critical thinking about media extended far beyond youth in our community, so we decided to create a whole new organization. We approached then-City Council Member Bill de Blasio for seed funding, which we won, and The LAMP was born.
AC: How does The LAMP teach media literacy, and why would you say that’s important in today’s climate?
DCV: The LAMP has always been focused on teaching people – youth, their families and their teachers – how to think critically about media content. We believe the best way to do that is through hands-on learning, which is why participants in our programs create their own documentaries, podcasts, newspapers and other media projects, but our mission has never been to foster the next generation of little Martin Scorseses. As we like to put it, we’re trying to create little Jon Stewarts instead, by which we mean people who ask questions about how, why, by whom and for whom media are made. People see something like 3,000 media messages a day, but a lot of those messages become so normalized that we’re not aware of the subtle ways in which they’re changing our behavior. I’ve met people who say that ads don’t affect them, but whether we like it or not, ads and other media do shape how we understand concepts like what is beautiful or healthy or acceptable in society. These messages affect people – advertising, news and media are trillion-dollar industries because they work on us. Compound this with the fact that a lot of young people don’t have opportunities to interact with technology and media for anything other than entertainment – what we’re teaching them is that technology and media are toys, not tools for learning or action. It all adds up to a very large segment of society left ill-equipped to live, much less learn or work, in a media-saturated culture.
AC: What could brands and agencies do to further media literacy for young people? How can they get involved?
DCV: I think it’s important for brands and agencies to be willing to pull back the curtain on how they operate, and encourage young people to ask questions about their products and their marketing messages. This can take the form of supporting educational tools and programs like what we have at The LAMP, but in general, anything to demystify media can be helpful. They can produce behind-the-scenes videos showing the pitch process, for example, or what goes into selecting a particular image or piece of music for an ad or commercial. One thing The LAMP in particular would like is to work with agencies directly by having youth who have been through our programs come in and do critical reviews of pieces before they’re released. The idea there is for media producers to have a dialogue with media literate young people who can spot and articulate ways in which a message might be, for example, perpetuating a stereotype, or presenting information in a confusing way.
AC: What are the biggest misperceptions about the media do young people have when they start your program?
DCV: When they walk in the door, a lot of our students don’t understand that media are constructions – or if they do, they don’t yet comprehend the complexities of what that means in terms of how messages are produced and disseminated. So part of our job is to teach them that all media, whether we’re talking about a commercial, film, news article or even a status update, are created with a purpose and perspective. If our students are going to be truly media literate, they have to learn that there’s a whole industry and infrastructure behind the media they see and engage with every day, but the implications of that are incredibly broad and deep, so we break it down. One exercise we do with elementary school students in our news literacy workshops is to have someone – another staff member the kids have never met, or maybe even me – interrupt the class dressed up in some random costume, ask a bunch of nonsense questions or tell a silly story, and leave suddenly. Then the facilitator asks all the kids to write down what happened, but of course when everyone reads out what they wrote, no two responses are the same. It’s a small exercise, but introduces them in a hands-on way to the concepts of subjectivity and bias in media.
AC: Do you have advice for cause marketers trying to reach young people, especially those developing campaigns for social good?
DCV: Making an issue personal is really important. We did a program last summer called “The Chocolate Project” that focused on how chocolate is portrayed in media – how it’s marketed, how it’s used in popular culture – and where the message comes from, as well as the other side of the story than what we’re usually told about chocolate. In that, they learned about cocoa farming, and how most cocoa farms are run from cheap or even slave labor by women and children, who, of course, are the target audiences for chocolate advertising in the developed world. Teens generally don’t think much about what goes into producing their food or their clothes, and it was powerful for them when they made the connection that their candy bar is the result of someone else’s very hard, very underpaid work. And they had feelings about why something fun for them has to be so bad for someone else. I’m not saying those kids will never touch a Snickers bar ever again, but they clearly finished the program with an elevated level of consciousness about their place and their impact in the world. Their empathy was triggered, and that’s a big part of any social good campaign, but especially for youth. They have to understand on a very specific emotional level both why something is an issue, and that they are in fact part of the issue in some way.
D.C. Vito co-founded The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project) in 2007. Since that time, The LAMP has brought media literacy training to over 2,500 youth, parents and educators, transporting equipment and facilitators directly to communities in need of its services. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE) and is a current Fellow at the Coro New York Leadership Center.