Communication course puts community improvement theory into practice

By Anne Bergman

Students in the “Designing Media and Communication Projects for Social Change” course at the USC Annenberg School of Communication got the chance to put theory into practice this spring, strategizing a plan to help a community-based nonprofit improve outcomes for urban male youth in high school and beyond.

Co-taught by Professor Alison Trope and Annenberg fellow and Ph.D. candidate Melissa Brough, the course centered on the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI), which is based in Inglewood and focused on improving “the education, health, and wellbeing of youth and communities of color.”

“The partnership with SJLI fit squarely within Annenberg’s Diversity Initiative,” said Trope noting that this initiative is one of Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III’s top priorities. Trope also emphasized that “the class, and the partnership with SJLI more specifically, also speak to many civic engagement efforts” at both the communication and journalism schools at Annenberg. “This class allowed us to bring these efforts more formally into the curriculum and hopefully can serve as a model for this kind of theory-praxis hybrid,” she said.

And, since SJLI’s mission directly aligned with the course’s theme, it was an ideal fit for Trope and Brough as they organized COMM 366, which they’d recently retooled to encompass real world scenarios. Not to mention that many COMM 366 students – some of whom are the first in their families to pursue secondary education, according to Brough -- could directly relate to challenges facing SJLI youth.

All 16 students enrolled in the course collaborated on one comprehensive presentation, sharing their research and recommendations to SJLI staff members during finals week. They spent the semester interviewing youth currently enrolled in SJLI programs, SJLI alumni and staff, holding focus groups, as well as analyzing and contextualizing data.

Throughout the semester, a senior staff member of GOOD/Corps, the social impact consulting division of GOOD Inc., served as their mentor. GOOD/Corps originally identified SJLI as a candidate for pro bono consulting work, due to SJLI’s limited resources, yet crucial community work.

SJLI, which provides personal and academic development, emphasizing leadership roles for youth in their own communities, was viewed by GOOD/Corps, as well as Trope and Brough, as key to stemming the high rates of imprisonment and low rates of academic achievement among the population it serves.

For senior Siobhan O'Malley, a dual major in communications and psychology, formulating a “media strategy campaign and working with a nonprofit taught me how to incorporate research in a way that’s human-centered,” she said. “It was a people-focused way of going about the work, rather than just being focused on hard data or algorithms.”

Designing a human-centered communication strategy instead of one solely based on the latest digital tools and technologies was exactly what Brough hoped the students would implement in their final presentation. “We wanted to teach the students how not to jump to tech as a solution to all problems,” she said. “What happens when a platform like Instagram isn’t cool anymore? It was essential that the solutions the students came up with were focused on people, so they can be sustainable solutions.”

COMM 366 students identified various outcomes from the project for SJLI, developing strategies to help strengthen its Urban Scholars alumni and donor program, foster a feeling of brotherhood and further inspire their scholars to become leaders themselves within their communities.

Some of the recommendations were decidedly low-tech – such as suggesting that SJLI hold its meetings at community centers within local parks, which are easily accessible to students who live in different neighborhoods via public transit.

While other recommendations were high-tech based, they remained applicable across platforms, such as the use of specific hashtags to help filter their messages to myriad stakeholders – parents, counselors, administrators, policy makers, donors, supporters and the students themselves. (The # symbol is a way to categorize messages across social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.)

COMM 366 students recommended that #SJLEyes be used to tag posts across the social media platforms where SJLI has a presence: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Beyond tagging posts, the COMM 366 students also designed the hashtag to be fundamental to SJLI’s curriculum, with the idea that SJLI’s students could take what they are learning inside the classroom – such as which parts of the supermarket offer healthy food --  into the outside world, and be able to share and categorize these observations and insights via social media. COMM 366 students also discussed having the SJLI students employ Instgram in the context of learning or social justice, so they could see their neighborhoods and how they live (such as mundane tasks like going to the market) with fresh eyes based on what they’re learning about race, class, etc. in the classroom. 

“We plan to implement #SJLEyes into curriculum and at each of our school sites,” said Daniel Castillo, SJLI’s Educational Equity Programs Director. “Everyone on the outside can see what we’re doing, be in on what the students are learning, across campuses. This will bring everyone to the table, much more easily than phone calls and email.”

For Castillo, the partnership with USC Annenberg faculty and students was “absolutely important,” he said. “We often work in isolation. Usually we’re working on the ground, while there are those who are working above us analyzing what’s happening. But we’re never working in partnership to come up with better practices, to evolve our work and push it further.”

The class represented a chance for a grassroots organization to partner with a higher education institution, but it also held broad applications for the COMM 366 students themselves. In the end, many of the students clarified their career and personal goals while working together to achieve something meaningful.

For Modupe Alabi, herself an alumna of a high school mentoring program, the class was relevant to her future interest in earning “a PhD that focuses on international and social change development and arts innovation,” she said.

Alabi, a junior majoring in Communication at USC Annenberg, with a minor in Communication Design from USC Roski School of Art and Design, continued: “There were many moments I sat in class grinning at the realization of how perfect this class was for pointing me in the direction I'm hoping to go towards. It also assisted with career goals because the process of human-centered design is very relevant to the type of work I want to do. Even my current internship, as a communication/design intern for a human resources/ talent management department at Turner Broadcasting, allows me to draw on themes of behavior change and development communication from the class.”

The course also provided an opportunity for students push beyond the boundaries of the USC campus, Trope said, providing “a window into the communities that surround USC. Too often, students stay within the campus walls or drive off site to internships downtown, in Hollywood or the Westside. There are fewer curricular and internship opportunities that ask students to interface directly with the surrounding community.”

Trope and Brough structured the course so students could “understand and relate to the experiences SJLI students and alums. It was important that the students did not play the role of problem solvers with all the right answers,” said Trope. “They needed to be good listeners, to hear the needs of SJLI and its constituents, and respond to them, in turn fostering their agency.”

Overall, Trope said: “We wanted to make them sensitive and aware of their privilege as it manifested in their education, but also extended into their everyday lives, including things we take for granted like our use of technology.”

COMM 366 is scheduled to be taught again next spring, with possibly an extended reach, Trope said, to include a few satellite organizations.