Bree Mathis is quick to tell you that her favorite thing about WMCAT’s Teen Arts + Tech Program is creating in our space alongside her peers and teaching artists. “Being around people who just want to make cool things brings a sense of joy to my day.” So when the pandemic forced a move to online learning and engagement, students like Bree had to wrestle with what space meant to them.

WMCAT’s GRow 1000 cohort (left to right: Eric, Israel, Bree, Rossi, Arianna) poses in front of their completed website.

This summer, Bree and four fellow teen artists got to apply their lived experience as they took a deep dive into curating the digital spaces with which they had become so familiar. WMCAT partnered with The City of Grand Rapids’ GRow 1000 initiative to offer a paid summer employment experience focused on media literacy.

Students conduct interviews about social media use at Fulton Street Farmers Market.

The group was challenged to improve the digital landscape for themselves and their community, creating safe online spaces for teens to connect in a healthy way. After learning the building blocks of media literacy, teens conducted video interviews to gauge public use and perceptions of online media.

The information they gathered confirmed what teens had experienced in their own digital spaces: social media is addictive, time-consuming, and a source of anxiety for many. They set out to create an online space where human connection was the priority.

Working as a team, teens curated a website showcasing their mission, approach, and community interviews, along with a mock-up for an app that redefines social media engagement.

So – after 18 months of exploring digital spaces – what is Bree most looking forward to about being back in WMCAT’s physical space this fall? “Being behind the camera and making stuff with people my age. I think it’s so cool to say at the end of it all, ‘this is our art and I helped create this’.”

The group’s mockup of a social media app that prioritizes safety and connection.