Profile by Emily Bailin
Founded in 1999, Scenarios USA is a national non-profit organization that uses writing and filmmaking to engage young people in identifying the issues that shape their lives and in leading the campaigns that will change the outcomes. The program prioritizes the voices of youth from marginalized communities, elevating them in mainstream media and in shaping public discourse. Since their start 15 years ago, Scenarios has worked with 100,000 public school students and has a viewership of 20 million people for their films.
Maura Minsky, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Scenarios USA, talks about the organization and the undeniable power of young people’s voices.
In 1998, Maura Minsky was a producer at ABC News. Her friend, Kristen Joiner, was the program officer at an international NGO for women’s and reproductive rights. When Kristen returned to the states from a business trip to Senegal, she told Maura about a project she’d come across while abroad called Scenarios from the Sahel, a program developed by a coalition of West African organizations focused on using film as a tool to raise awareness amongst young people about HIV. “What set the project apart was that it met young people nose to nose, right where they were,” Maura explains. Working in news, Maura had started noticing that there were a lot of people being left out of the conversations and stories she was producing. “There were certain populations, often low-income, young people of color who were only represented when it was an extreme story that highlighted disparity.” So when Kristen approached Maura about co-founding an organization committed to providing young people with creative outlets and platforms to tell their own stories, she didn’t hesitate. “Teenagers are the experts on being teens. We wanted to give them the reins to create media to tell their stories accurately and to contribute to conversations about what they wanted their classrooms and media to look like so that they were represented.
The program runs on a two-year cycle. It begins in the classroom with an inter-disciplinary, inter-sectional curriculum based around a question such as, “What’s the REAL DEAL about Masculinity?” The curriculum results in students consolidating their learning into a narrative in response to the curriculum question. As one phase of the cycle ends (typically a semester), teachers and Scenarios staff engage students in reflective conversations about the semester in order to reframe the next cycle. “It’s an intentional way of making sure all voices are represented with a priority on young people who are traditionally not given that seat.” Scenarios works with a range of populations, young people from immigrant families, incarcerated and court-involved youth, basically “a lot of young people who don’t live at the center of the ‘norms’ of society. We cut across many demographics, many neighborhoods, many races and ethnicities, but the one aspect that is consistent throughout is class. The young people we traditionally work with are working poor. They’re the ones who participate in the program.”
There are typically between 100-150 teachers who participate each cycle. The curriculum is inquiry-based and engages students in grades 6-12 to think critically and write creatively about social justice and sexual health topics. As stated on the website, “The Scenarios REAL DEAL educational programs include Common Core State Standards-based curricula, professional development and a series of short films that help students grades 6-12 to identify and analyze the social norms – especially those at the intersection of race, class, and gender – that shape their individual identities as well as healthy decision-making.” The curriculum is most commonly used in English, Social Studies, Health, and Theater classrooms, as well as by after-school organizations and in other out-of-school contexts.
Every cycle asks a big question that participants work to deconstruct and answer by reflecting on their writing and other creative activities over the course of the curriculum. Many of the activities are similar cycle to cycle, but the lessons might get tweaked, strengthened and improved based on feedback from teachers. “It’s important for teachers to have a place where they can contribute their thoughts and ideas, it can be a very siloed profession,” Maura notes. In addition, every five years, researchers analyze students’ stories for content. Doing so helps the Scenarios team to better understand the complexities and intersections in the lives of the young people. Maura says, “if there are ways we can take trends in young peoples’ lives into consideration as part of the process and experience, they get so much more out of learning and understanding.”
Scenarios’ REAL DEAL curricula is delivered in schools because that is where young people already spend a lot of time. Maura shares that earlier this year the Population Council published a case study on Scenarios and noted that “schools are sites of socialization; they serve a spaces in which power imbalances may be perpetuated or transformed.” The organization partners with school districts and teachers volunteer to participate. They go through an intensive in-person training that helps them make their classrooms student-centered, work with students to create a safe space, as well as engage in webinars throughout the school year for continued support of the work.
Responding to teachers’ increased need for more structured resources, the Scenarios curriculum consists of lesson plans that lay out scope and sequence, centered on developing and strengthening students’ social emotional competencies: “This curriculum puts students’ lives at the center.” Inviting students to share pieces of themselves in classroom spaces “allows teachers to be vulnerable themselves and to have an almost instant connection with their students.”
The current cycle’s question is: “What’s the REAL DEAL about Place & Power?”. Each student writes a final project that answers the curriculum’s inquiry question based on the conversations and journaling they’ve been doing all semester. Students then submit their projects to Scenarios for the chance to turn their script into a film. Volunteer readers from across the country review the submissions, film writers are consulted, and the projects are coded in terms of issues addressed. Three projects are selected and made into films, the scripts of which help to inform the next curriculum question.
Making the films
The young authors of the selected stories are matched with a professional filmmaker to break down their story and consider the message of and audience for their film. They are challenged to think about how to tell a story visually and where they can challenge stereotypes in storylines. Students write and rewrite, sending the script back out to community reviewers consisting of students, storytellers, and teachers. Once on set, students co-direct the film and 12-15 of the student’s classmates are mentored on set by the professional crew. “They get professional experience but also provide important feedback on set.” For instance, on a recent film, the set designer asked students for feedback on the set dressing of a teenager’s bedroom: “They provided the adults with insights such as, teenagers’ bedrooms are not so coordinated, that strengthened the authenticity of the scene.”
Connections to media literacy
“So often what we see in the media we believe is reflecting reality, but it’s not typically the case. We find that students who go through our curriculum become better critical thinkers on how to digest media and what they see around them, which then goes on to affect how students are seeing their own lives. It helps them to make better sense of what’s happening with friends, in school, at the dinner table. It’s powerful for young people to consider, ‘If I’m in the position of creating media, what’s my role? How do I stay authentic?’ Today it’s imperative that young people become both critical consumers and producers of media.
“The work challenges me every day,” Maura says, “it’s a constant exercise in listening to, talking with, and understanding what people need, and what students are thinking about.” But she says that’s what this work is all about. There are always new challenges based on the texts that students create and the feedback they provide through reflection and discussion, which makes this work exciting for Maura and the rest of the team at Scenarios USA.
Resources and upcoming events
The case study written and published by the Population Council, looks at Scenarios’ growth over the last 15 years.