In a sunlit corner office in Peachtree Center, fifteen teens sit in a circle, brainstorming ideas for a two-day video project. “Homelessness in Downtown,” says one, who then stands to write the idea on a massive whiteboard as the rest of the group talks about how to approach the story, what they need to report on, and logistics—they have to pick locations accessible by MARTA rail. The volume builds as voices chime in. Soon, more and more hands are going up unprompted as quieter students start to feel more comfortable.
Speaking up is the point at VOX. When Rachel Alterman Wallack gathered thirteen teens and ten adult volunteers in 1993, she wanted to create a place where teen voices could be heard. Starting as a monthly newspaper, VOX Teen Communications has evolved into a multiplatform media enterprise, just like its adult counterparts. VOX is an after-school program that runs year-round, an intensive summer journalism boot camp, a website, a social media omnipresence, and yes, still the publisher of a print newspaper. VOX also developed into a youth-serving nonprofit with an extensive reach; in addition to the 100 high schoolers in the after-school program, it reaches 35,000 teens metro-wide through five issues of the paper, serves 1,000 teens through community writing and journalism workshops, and sponsors a college readiness program called Graduation Countdown.
“VOX has been one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in my life,” says Stanley Stewart, a Ronald E. McNair High School graduate who finished the program in 2012 and is now a junior at Brown University. “It was not only a place where I developed as a writer and artist, but I developed as a leader.” While in high school, Stewart served on the VOX board; the nonprofit’s bylaws uniquely mandate that teens participate in running and planning the organization. “Allowing teens to lead the way really helped boost my confidence and helped me believe in myself,” says Stewart.
“When I first started, I was really shy,” says Manuel Portillo, seventeen, a senior at North Atlanta High School who found his way to VOX last summer and has already coordinated a special issue of the newspaper focused on bullying. “I’ve been way more focused on what I want to do.”
For Kaleb Anderson, who is learning how to be a leader at B.E.S.T. Academy, VOX meant making an adjustment. “I had to open up to other opinions,” the sixteen-year-old says. “It was really hard at first. It’s not really just my opinion that matters. I’ve learned to be more of a team player.”
VOX draws public and private school students from across the metro area and from a wide range of backgrounds; some live in Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhoods, while others have been in the foster system or were homeless. At VOX their voices are heard equally. “It’s the only place where you get a set of diverse teens from around the city,” says Stewart.
Because its participants come from such varied backgrounds, the adult staff “try to meet each teen where they are,” says Jeff Romig, VOX’s executive director. All of the teens who take part in the year-round program graduate from high school and do so with a plan for after graduation, whether college, internships, or the military. “We’re trying to provide the resources that put teens on the path to success, whatever success may be for them.”