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Chicago's Chasnoff wins leader honor
by Micki Leventhal

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Salome Chasnoff, founder and executive director of Beyondmedia Education, has been named a Leader for the 21st Century by Women's eNews in the category of "Seven Who Invent a Better Future."

Chasnoff, who received the Ida B. Wells Bravery in Journalism award, will join her fellow awardees at a gala celebration in New York May 6.

In addition to the activism on behalf of women and girls for which Chasnoff won the award, she and her organization provide media education and advocacy for LGBT youth.

"I am really thrilled to receive this journalism award," said Chasnoff. "It has been a battle for us as we have been in a nether space. Funders who support journalism saw us as the arts. Funders who support arts saw us as journalists. Nobody really understood or valued what we did. The value of story telling and first voice is beginning to be understood; McCormick Foundation [ the philanthropic arm of the Chicago Tribune ] is now one of our major funders."

Chasnoff's journey into media activism began when she was a PhD student in performance studies at Northwestern University. As part of her dissertation project she worked with a group of pregnant teens and produced the documentary "Looking at Teen Motherhood: The Fantastic Moms Video." Through the honest telling of their own stories, the project assisted the young women in changing both their self images and status within their communities. For Chasnoff, the experience helped crystallize the importance and validity of what she named "first voice, the first-person accounts of lived events and experience."

The marginalization of women's voices, particularly in the news media became apparent to Chasnoff in 1995 when traveled to Beijing to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. The documentary she produced about the conference led to the first iteration of Beyondmedia, which was originally established as a commercial venture to distribute the documentary.

In 2000, Beyondmedia incorporated as a not-for-profit educational organization. Today, Chasnoff leads the organization and staff in providing education and services in four program areas. Girls! Action! Media!, Women and Prison, and Q'd in Media provide their cohorts with media arts skills and technology to tell their own, authentic stories, be they young women, current or former female prisoners or LGBT youth . Teach Beyondmedia works with Chicago Public School teachers to integrate media arts into existing curricula.

"A critical piece in our work is that we take young people through the whole process from media literacy through production and distribution," explained Chasnoff. "At the very beginning we expose them to different media and the messages that inform the media. They learn to employ agency and critical discrimination. Many of the groups have specific identity issues—queer youth or girls with disability issues—we look at representations in mainstream and alternative media and assist them to decide how they want to address those representations through their own work."

"Salome has always been thoughtful about how to bring people in who are often on the outside," said Mary F. Morten, 2010 recipient of Equality Illinois' Freedom Award. "Whether it's the disability community, LGBT youth or women who have been incarcerated, her work has always been about inclusion and access. Under her leadership at Beyondmedia, the group really addresses how they think outside of the more traditional uses of media to reach communities that are underrepresented and often marginalized in the mainstream."

Q'd in Media works with LGBT youth to create media products that assist them in organizing and educating communities, both gay and straight. In collaboration with Broadway Youth Center of the Howard Brown Health Center and About Face Theater, Beyondmedia produced HIV: Hey It's Viral, a sex-positive video addressing HIV/AIDS prevention and activism from a youth perspective. Chasnoff said that the DVD has been approved by the Chicago Public Schools and will be in every Chicago high school by the fall. The team is currently conducting teacher training with CPS physical education/health education teachers. A team from Children's Memorial Hospital is evaluating HIV: Hey, It's Viral and once it's approved, the DVD will be distributed nationally.

"Our goal [ with the work around HIV/AIDS ] became to change the conversation around sex education in Chicago, to move it from being fear based to being direct, compassionate, honest open and medically accurate without all the fear and moralizing," said Chasnoff, who is developing several new projects around LGBTQ sexual health targeted toward assisting queer youth in forming and maintaining better relationships, including an anti-bearbacking campaign.

"But we don't limit sexuality to sexual behavior—it's a much wider topic for us," said Chasnoff. "Our sexuality evolves from the very first moment of life. We talk about self-perception, self-expression, relationships and what we expect for ourselves from those relationships. Queer youth have no [ positive ] images, as straight you do, with which to build behavior for their early romantic ideations."

Young filmmakers with Q'd in Media have also produced Can LGBT + School = Safe?, a video that explores the problems experienced by queer youth in school settings and offers solutions including how to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at school. A third video in the Q'd series is A Fish ( almost ) Eaten by a Shark, which tells the story of a young Latina woman trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at Schurz high school and confronting her principal's homophobia.

Chasnoff encourages queer youth to get in touch with Beyondmedia through the Web site. "We work with interns every semester," she said. "Become active. Start a GSA at your school. Beyondmedia will provide support and partner with organizations."

This fall, Beyondmedia celebrates its 10th year of collaborating with underserved and underrepresented communities to tell their stories and organize for social justice through the creation and distribution of media arts. Find out more at .

Women's eNews is an alternative new source covering issues of particular concern to women and providing women's perspectives on public policy. Find out more at .

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