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Communication course puts theory into practice for the community

USC Annenberg students devise a communication strategy to boost the efforts of an urban youth program

USC Anneneberg student Rachel Niemoller
USC Annenberg student Rachel Niemoller (Photo/Brett Van Ort)

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

Taught by Professor Alison Trope and USC Annenberg fellow and PhD candidate Melissa Brough, the course centered on the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) based in Inglewood, California that focuses on improving “the education, health and wellbeing of youth and communities of color.”

It was essential that the solutions the students came up with were focused on people, so they can be sustainable solutions.

Melissa Brough

“The partnership with SJLI fits squarely within Annenberg’s diversity initiative,” said Trope, noting that the initiative is one of 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 the school. “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 because SJLI’s mission 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. As a bonus, 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.

Sharing research and recommendations

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

SJLI, which emphasizes leadership roles for youth in their own communities, was viewed by Trope and Brough as a 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.”

Technology is not the solution to all problems

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 inspire their scholars to become leaders within their communities.

Some of the recommendations were 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, they remained applicable across platforms, such as the use of specific hashtags to help filter their messages to myriad stakeholders — parents, counselors, administrators, policymakers, donors, supporters and the students themselves.

For Modupe Alabi, 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 the USC Roski School of Art and Design, added: “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 toward. 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.”

The course also provided an opportunity for students to push beyond the boundaries of the USC campus, Trope said, providing “a window into the communities that surround USC.”

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

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

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Communication course puts theory into practice for the community

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