OAKLAND -- The Peabody Award-winning Youth Radio nonprofit celebrated yet another prize on Monday -- this one presented at the White House by first lady Michelle Obama.
The downtown Oakland-based arts and journalism organization was one of 12 programs nationwide to win the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
"You are here," the first lady said to the students in the audience. "You can do anything."
As the event streamed live on a large-screen TV, Youth Radio student-interns and staff members at the Oakland offices of Youth Radio scanned the televised audience for familiar faces -- four representatives had flown to Washington to accept the prize -- and listened to Obama's words of encouragement. They applauded and laughed when Youth Radio senior producer Nishat Kurwa and Oakland High School senior Shyra Gums stepped onto the stage to accept the award and chat briefly with Obama. The recipients were told to expect no more than a handshake, said Ashleigh Kenny, Youth Radio's associate development director, but the first lady tossed aside the usual protocol and embraced them instead.
"For us to have this recognition from the White House has been a kind of testament to the young people here and their growth as young artists and young journalists," Kenny said.
Youth Radio offers a host of intensive, after-school training programs for more than 400 youths a year between the ages of 14 and 24, from news reporting and commentary to music production and video editing. After an overview of all of the areas, participants choose a focus, which they study until they graduate. Some, such as music artist and poet Eddie Zazueta, 18, and journalist Sayre Quevedo, 19, go on to hold paid internships at the organization, simultaneously producing work and passing along their knowledge to those newer to the program.
"It's definitely a great spot for interacting or networking with other artists and poets," said Zazueta, who said he became interested in music after finding a keyboard in his closet during one otherwise boring summer.
The organization has flourished despite the poor economy, Kenny said, in part because of its job-training component. In January, Youth Radio is launching a workforce development program to place its alums in jobs at media and tech companies, as well as in in-house positions.
Quevedo studied creative writing at the San Francisco School of the Arts and discovered Youth Radio when he needed help on a podcast for a high school internship. During a tour of the building, he said, "I was just blown away."
Now, Quevedo writes about juvenile justice issues and is applying to prestigious journalism programs. He also teaches students how to produce feature stories for print and radio.
It's as though the first lady had the Youth Radio model in mind when she delivered this last piece of advice: "Just understand, as young people, your job is to pass it on. ... Your job is to find the next you and hold them tight and make sure they've got the same chances that you got."