Viral Voices

The role of social networking and the Internet in spurring political movements has recently become a focal point of public conversation. But long before sites like Facebook and Twitter began to gain recognition as a political tool, Cathy Cohen anticipated the Internet’s potential as a dynamic force in social change. In 2003, the University of Chicago professor began the Black Youth Project as a research project to capture the attitudes and social beliefs of African-Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. Now the online website and forum features content ranging from original hip-hop music videos and blog posts concerning census issues to education news articles and survey data.

According to Cohen, African-American youth are disproportionately affected by statistic-based debates on issues such as incarceration, affirmative action, and HIV/AIDS. But, she argues, both researchers and politicians have paid little attention to the thoughts, feelings, and values that influence the decision-making and behavior of black American youth and instead base their policies on unfounded assumptions about the demographic. Working in a legalese-saturated haze, politicians often forget to listen to a large number of their city’s residents.

“What you get is policymakers neglecting to consult young adults, and that’s what’s happened to black youth,” Cohen explains. “Many people then assume that they are uninterested and uninformed, so they don’t participate in political life. But, the real problem is that they don’t have a lot of chances to participate.” To challenge these suppositions, Cohen assembled a team of graduate and undergraduate students to help collect data about 15- to 24-year-olds throughout the Midwest. Together, they designed survey questions for white, black, and Latino youth between the ages of 15 and 24 from Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Cleveland. By focusing on themes like religion, sexual behavior, and education, the Black Youth Project team uncovered a common trend that prevailed among many of their African-American subjects: a sense of isolation from the political system.

“Many of [the people surveyed] described feeling alienated,” says Cohen, “Alienation isn’t just being shut out of politics. For many, it’s how the police respond to them, the metal detectors in their schools, and the violence in their neighborhoods.” The Black Youth Project reflects Cohen’s desire to fight against the lack of opportunities for many black youth to become politically active and give them a place to voice their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations for their surroundings that can be viewed by a person of any demographic. In addition to summaries of the project’s research findings, the Black Youth Project’s website includes blogs, a rap lyric database, and forms for artwork and video submissions, making it interactive and empowering for its contributors.

Today, the Black Youth Project has become an online gathering place for young people, artists, political activists, educators, and–Cohen hopes–other researchers and policy-makers. The high number of written and recorded submissions reflects the determination of young people to speak their mind when given a forum. Writers, musicians, and dancers alike share their thoughts on the site, representing diverse interests and subcultures. Notable contributors include bloggers like “edward,” whose comparison of Sarah Palin and Soulja Boy generated laughter and discussion for regular site visitors. His analysis exemplifies how politics and hip-hop culture intersect and impact individual attitudes.

By fostering dialogue online, the Black Youth Project promotes and amplifies the reflections, comments, and dreams of young African Americans. In a world in the midst of revolutionary political change, the images and stories coming in from across the globe attest to the organizing powers of the Internet. But those examples come from across oceans and continents. The Black Youth Project has positioned itself to bring cyber activism a little closer to home.