Newark, NJ – A few months ago, 14--year-old Iyahna and 13-year-old Rayvon got an opportunity that changed how they look at their communities, their families and themselves. They were among a group of kids, ages 13-16, who spent two days a week at Newark, N.J.’s Nonfiction Radio studios to create a pilot for a global multi-media internet radio program produced by and for kids who face some of society’s toughest challenges.
“I felt pretty happy because I’d never done anything like that; it was like -- a good experience,” Iyahna said. “It taught me to be myself and not follow people, to follow my own path.”
“I got to meet new people and learned a lot. But the thing I really remember is just how nice everyone was. No one was arguing, everybody was just helping each other,” Rayvon said. “I saw that if you put your mind to it you can do anything and give back to the community.”
Nonfiction Radio is the brainchild of Ray Swag, who started it as a basement recording studio to give hip-hop artists and producers an opportunity to create music. In less than five years, the internet radio station has evolved into a multi-purpose audio and video production enterprise, broadcasting more than 20 live programs, streaming daily with an online audience of more than 100 thousand listeners.
The kids producing the pilot are involved in New Jersey Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., which provides safe, community-based alternatives for youth who face incarceration or other out-of-home placements or who -- based on their zip codes, exposure to trauma and other factors -- are at risk for becoming involved with youth justice, social services, behavioral health or other public systems. YAP’s paid neighborhood-based Advocates provide intensive mentoring and empower youth and their families by helping them develop blueprints for their lives with toolkits to help them identify and realize their strengths, access resources, firm their foundation and give back to their communities. YAP’s Program Coordinator, Curtis Moore, made the Nonfiction Radio pilot project opportunity available for the youth enrolled in his office’s diversion program, their siblings and kids in some of the organization’s programs for at-risk kids.
One of Iyahna’s cousins was previously enrolled in YAP, with Moore as his Advocate. “I’m taking care of six grandkids. Having Mr. Moore in our lives has lifted so much off my shoulders. He was consistent and he stayed on my grandson. Even though our official time with YAP is over, I’m grateful that Mr. Moore still helps my grandson and the other kids, too,” said Patricia Nesblitt, Iyahna’s grandmother.
Rayvon lives in Irvington, NJ with his mother and 16-year-old sister, Naomi, who also participated in the pilot. In addition to being Rayvon’s Advocate, “Brother Moore,” as he calls him, is Rayvon’s uncle – his mother’s older brother.
“I had them when I was young,” said Yvonn Moore, who works full time and is studying for a nursing degree. “I don’t want them in the system,” she said. “I want my kids to go to college. Rayvon is not out of hand. But after he got into a scuffle with some boys on a rival Pop Warner team, I was concerned for him.”
Before joining YAP as an Advocate and program coordinator, Moore had a radio program on Nonfiction called Conversations with Curtis. Like Moore’s book, “I AM A Survivor,” the program explored and gave voice to people in his life and some he knew in his earlier years -- a time that included gang involvement, drug sales and incarceration. Swag and Moore often swapped ideas about launching a multimedia platform to let neighborhood kids create programming that lets them share their personal stories, dreams and aspirations, while also developing engineering, graphic design and production skills. They made a few attempts to get funding for the project but were unable to interest any investors.
Almost a year after Moore joined YAP, he told his supervisor, Robyn Dawson, about the idea.
“This endeavor seemed like the perfect opportunity for our youth to express themselves in an authentic way,” she said.
Dawson and Moore took the idea to New Jersey YAP Vice President Fred Fogg. “Let’s go beyond giving the kids a voice for themselves. Let’s let them have their own radio show,” they said.
Moore said Fogg’s reply was simple and encouraging. “He said, ‘Do what you do.’”
With his bosses’ blessing, Moore approached Swag about doing a pilot.
“I liked the idea,” Swag said. “I thought if I’m able to get this pilot, I can expand this thing. The only thing we’ll need after that is a budget.”
On pilot production day, Swag opened the doors of Nonfiction to the YAP youth, some of their family members, their Advocates and a few other program guests. With help from Moore, Swag gave the young people a basic tutorial on all aspects of radio and video production.
The kids produced an entire program, including a video open. It gave everyone a chance to work on an aspect of the project that appealed to their individual gifts and talents.
“Some are interested in social media or graphic design or performing or engineering. They all got to participate,” Moore said. “Not only did they produce a video portions, some of the kids created the music for the open and others served as show hosts, interviewing guests and asking some tough questions.”
“You’d think they had weeks to prepare,” Swag added.
The next steps for YAP and Swag are to present the pilot before funders and explore potential grant options.
“What we ended up with is way more than the youth having a voice. This is really the youth having a voice on steroids,” Moore said. “The longer-term plan is to create a sustainable radio program -- Voices of YAP – a platform to let the world see the beauty and genius of these youth and for them to see it themselves.”