'Boyle Heights Beat': Local Teens Report For Their LA Community

10/19/2011 01:22 pm ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

In the Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, a group of high school students write and produce a newspaper looking at their own community -- its successes, its struggles and its history.

Launched in the summer of 2011, Boyle Heights Beat aims to inform, educate and give a voice to the 90,000 residents of this barrio. While adults edit and manage the 20-page bilingual quarterly -- and the related English-language www.boyleheightsbeat.com and Spanish-language www.pulsodeboyleheights.com -- the stories are written by the teen journalists.

The quarterly depicts a side of the community beyond its too common image of crime and poverty. It's true that Boyle Heights is ranked 50th out of 272 Los Angeles neighborhoods in violent crime, with 26.2 crimes per 10,000 people a year. But it's also a first stop for newcomers to the United States, welcoming Jewish, Japanese and Russian immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century. Nowadays it is predominantly populated by working class Latinos.

"We hold very high journalism standards, but our students don't shy away," said Michelle Levander, the co-editor and publisher of Boyle Heights Beat. "They give life to the richness of their own neighborhood through this project. I think what we're doing embodies a new model to represent the Latino community."

Selected from a group of 70 aspiring writers through a competitive application process, the first group of teen journalists came from four local high schools: Boyle Heights Technology Academy, Mendez Learning Center, Puente Learning Center and Theodore Roosevelt High. They are working at the paper for a six-month internship.

Boyle Heights Beat came about through a collaboration between Spanish-language daily La Opinión and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, backed by funding from the private foundation California Endowment.

Full disclosure: Gabriel Lerner, senior news editor at HuffPost Latino Voices, was among those adults who helped create Boyle Heights Beat -- in his case, by building the website. At the time, he was a news editor at La Opinión. In the coming weeks, HuffPost Latino Voices will republish a selection of articles from the paper.

In the upcoming second issue, Yazmin Nuñez, a 15-year-old junior at Theodore Roosevelt High, writes about the history of remarkable local buildings. "At first when you walk down the streets of Boyle Heights you see our buildings, but you don't know anything about them," she said. "Through my story, the more I researched, the more I learned that those buildings are historical monuments. Learning that makes you appreciate Boyle Heights."

Rosa Solache, a 16-year-old sophomore at the same high school, has written a story on Homegirl Café, a Mexican restaurant where former female gang members find employment and hope. Homegirl Café is part of Homeboy Industries, a program founded by Father Greg Boyle to keep Boyle Heights' youth out of gangs and help redirect former gang members.

"I explore how this business helps girls stay away from drugs and gangs, by offering them a second chance after they get out of jail," said Solache. "Most [of these] girls are single mothers whose husbands or boyfriends are in jail. I interviewed a woman, 21, who went to jail for weapon possession after police went into her house and found drugs and guns, but her baby's dad took all the blame and she then got out. He's doing 25 years. She went to Father Boyle, and he gave her a chance."

"Now, she has a job at Homegirl Café," Solache said.

According to Solache, working at the newspaper has helped improve her communication and writing skills. "I felt great when the first issue came out and hearing people say, 'Oh, you're a reporter for the paper.' They have a good image about you, and it motivates me. My parents are proud, and they tell the neighbors," she said. "I am now writing for my school newspaper too. This is something I enjoy and want to see where it takes me."

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

The idea to start this newspaper emerged in conversations between Levander and Pedro Rojas, executive editor of La Opinión at the time. Boyle Heights is a neighborhood that needs a local news outlet "because 90,000 is a lot of people to not have their own media," said Levander, who is also the founding director of USC Annenberg's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

She and Rojas brought together a group of academic, media and other volunteers. Launching the project took months of planning and work beginning last year. Anabell Romero, a graduate of USC Annenberg serving as program coordinator for Boyle Heights Beat, was tasked with conducting all the outreach.

Romero said she's heartened by observing the teenage reporters. "We are learning fresh ideas on journalism through the minds of these high school students. They have been an inspiration to me because they value the importance of being informed and also informing their community of the issues that impact them," she said.

Mary Lou Fulton, media program manager with the California Endowment, also attributes the success of the paper to its partners. "La Opinión supports us with the costs of printing and distribution; USC with translations, transportation, training and mentoring of the young journalists. The primary investment is of time and commitment, a lot of personal support and enthusiasm," Fulton said.

WORDS AND PICTURES

Some of the young journalists have a multiple roles at Boyle Heights Beat. Jonathan Olivares, a 16-year-old senior at Theodore Roosevelt High, is both a reporter and a photographer. His latest article concerns street vendors.

"I found that street vendors play a big role as part of the local informal economy. Most of them are undocumented and face many challenges," Olivares said. He also noted, "The thing is that the police doesn't even care, it doesn't mess with them. Most of the complaints come from community members who don't want them on the streets."

The core of the Boyle Heights Beat project is the print edition, currently distributed to 22,000 homes, because "the immediate community we're serving primarily relies on the paper distribution as their source for news. The website will definitely reach other demographics," Levander said.

Luis Sierra Campos, youth media coordinator for the website, is teaching the young reporters the art of expanding written stories with multimedia tools.

"We're slowly moving into multimedia because we know the primary goal of the newspaper is to tell stories about their community," he said. But adding audio, video and photography will help the students learn the wider range of skills used in journalism today.

The adults running Boyle Heights Beat hope the teenagers' interest in journalism isn't sated by their six months at the paper. One of the goals, said Romero, is for the students to continue to contribute stories and to train new reporters after their internship is over.