Park City, UT may bring thousands of the media’s elite and accomplished creators to the state each January as part of the Sundance Film Festival. But in July, Blanding—a small farming town in the southeasternmost part of the state—took center stage as the site of a new youth media initiative called Voices of the West, run by the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Spy Hop.

Media literacy is a critical element of ensuring young people are growing up with the skills they need to be engaged and active citizens. Knowledge of storytelling tools helps young people of all backgrounds tell their own stories and develop and share their own expertise. Unfortunately, rural areas and other media deserts often lack the resources or infrastructure to support robust local media and youth media programs.



Voices of the West participant filmmakers edit their work.


Voices of the West is a new pilot program designed to bring Spy Hop’s award-winning media-making programming to three rural communities across the state of Utah. Working with a team of Spy Hop’s teaching artists, the teens learn how to use filmmaking as a means of telling their personal stories and reflecting on what makes their communities unique. In Blanding this summer, participants explored a range of topics, from the impact of a recent drought on their community to a thriving taxidermy business where professional and hobby taxidermists collaborate on projects.

Set against the red rock of Canyonlands National Park and bordering Native lands, Blanding is a town of approximately 3,300, the largest in San Juan county. Sixteen teens from both the local public school and nearby tribal school participated in the week-long intensive. They developed technical skills to use industry standard audio-visual equipment; gained insights and new techniques related to the craft of media making, including shooting, interviewing, script writing and lighting; and they learned how to edit footage, mix audio, and make their own soundtracks. The week culminated in a screening of their films at the local movie theater in Blanding, where family and friends gathered to celebrate the teens’ work and engage them in conversation about the process and the topics their films explored.



Voices of the West screened participants’ films at the local Blanding theater and invited community members to attend.


The week-long summer intensive is part of a set of activities Spy Hop carries out in each of the communities over the school year, including after-school and classroom-based trainings. Its curriculum is designed to build the skills and dispositions of young people to be savvy media creators, critical media consumers, and in conversation with other youth across the state on issues and topics of mutual interest.

MacArthur’s support for Spy Hop is part of our Journalism and Media grantmaking to
encourage and train individuals and groups—particularly young people and those from historically marginalized or underresourced communities—to use new media tools, platforms, and practices to contribute to public dialogue and help shape culture and policy. Like those films exploring the fallout from a drought or collaboration at a taxidermist, these creators gain the tools to share stories that matter to them. They own the stories that impact their communities, and they can contribute to a broader dialogue, one that includes more perspectives.

Our focus on rural areas reflects the need to equitably increase access to high quality, engaging, and relevant media literacy and civics programming for youth who do not often see their lived experiences reflected in the media they consume. And the more diverse voices we share, the more likely that the true voice of all people will be heard. We believe this is a cornerstone of a strong, healthy democracy and one we will continue to support.