Matthew Johnson

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow Since 2001
This description of Matthew Johnson's work was prepared when Matthew Johnson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .

Introduction

Matthew Johnson enables young people to balance the media's portrayal of low-income, minority communities through a structured year-round program that trains economically and ethnically diverse youth to develop and produce more complete, representative, and ethical programs.

The New Idea

Responding to media's role in shaping perceptions of the world, the lack of opportunities for poor urban youth, and the journalistic imbalance affecting popular culture, Matthew Johnson created a forum for young people to express their voice and develop marketable skills that will provide opportunities to take part in the news and communications industry. Matthew contends that disadvantaged teens need an outlet for expression and a way to portray positive images of their communities. He established the framework for a national media and information bureau, staffed and run by young people to foster diversity through mass communications. Participants attend weekly classes and produce original programs and publications. Matthew changes these stereotypes by not only empowering teens with the means to positively represent their diversity, but also by rewarding their commitment to academics, responsibility, and ethical behavior.

The Problem

Over the past two decades, news media has progressively become one of the most influential and powerful forces in the United States, providing a constant stream of information via television, print, radio, and Internet. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average young person watches tens of thousands of hours of television even before reaching middle-school age. Studies directly link violent images and sexual situations in the media with rising rates of crime among urban youths and increased teen pregnancy in the U.S. Hundreds of youth organizations and after-school programs have emerged to combat the issues plaguing young people, but the vast majority does not deal directly with negative influences like the media. These programs are focused on youth development in general, rather than training the next generation of media savvy individuals who will achieve a balanced representation of economic and ethnic diversity. The workforce within the U.S. media industry does not accurately represent the country's diverse population. In 1998, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation reported that only 11.5 percent of newsroom employees, 20 percent of staffing in television, and 17 percent in radio were minorities. If U.S. daily newspapers want to make newsrooms as racially and ethnically diverse as the nation's population, nearly half of all new hires over the next twenty-five years will have to be people of color.

The Strategy

Matthew first developed the foundation on which he would eventually launch Strive Media Institute in 1991 as Teen Forum, a teen talk show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, featuring eight economically and ethnically diverse teenagers sharing opinions and ideas critical to their age group. As producer of the show, Matthew realized that these teens needed to learn media skills to directly effect the program's success and have a tangible, applicable skill set from which to draw beyond the project. Partnering with Marquette University professors and other media experts, Matthew started classes with a new curriculum developed specifically for diverse and underserved teens. Strive Media Institute continued to evolve beyond the Emmy Award-winning talk show. Matthew created a radio show, the national magazine GUMBO, a computer consulting business, and an advertising unit, which generates income for all new initiatives. He now recruits participants from all local schools, who qualify for scholarships to launch their college careers. Strive includes an intricate application process and requires a two-to-four year commitment from all students and their parents, guaranteeing specific codes of ethics and conduct. Internships and placements with major media companies have given these teens the opportunity to use their skills, form marketable partnerships, and gain experience that does not discriminate against their age, race, or economic status. Matthew's network benefits from a talent pool, forming a strong feeder mechanism to combat the lack of diversity in the media industry and respond to the changing target market and the constant need for fresh, new ideas. Several hundred young people have taken part in Matthew's Strive Media Institute since 1995. Over 80 percent come from ethnic minority families and over 50 percent are from low-income households. So far, almost all have gone to college and most remain on course to graduate. Eighty percent study communications and aspire to gain employment in the media after college. Teen Forum now reaches more than forty thousand viewers every week and GUMBO has a circulation of about twenty thousand. Core writers and producers are hired from Strive Media Institute's student participants, who also conduct workshops and recruit other young people to take part in Matthew's program.

The Person

Growing up in a low-income family in Milwaukee, Matthew benefited from strong family values. His parents' hard work, support, and positive outlook paved the way for all eight children to break the economic barrier and attend college.He enrolled in Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School across town in order to obtain a better education and gain the skills for a career in engineering. He gained a full athletics scholarship to Suomi College, later transferring to Northern Michigan University. After graduating with an industrial engineering degree, Matthew returned to Milwaukee to be near his family and begin taking action toward his goal of financial freedom.Matthew's ambition to succeed kept him working two or more jobs for several years. He was a top salesman for two national corporations, learning strong marketing and business skills to utilize his analytic abilities. He maintained side projects–real estate, party planning, record stores, and theater productions–to keep earn extra money and maintain his creative interests. Soon, however, he realized that his side projects should be helping the community and planned to bring traditionally African-American Broadway musicals to Milwaukee, renewing the community's former diversity of theater arts. While still working as a field sales representative, literally working out of his car for weeks at a time, he became aware of the large number of young people loitering in the streets with nothing to do. He used his background and success in the theater arts to pitch, launch, and produce a television talk show for teens. His vision of an outlet for street kids to intelligently express themselves, coupled with his business skills and growing knowledge of mass communication, began to shape what is now Strive Media Institute.