Memphis teens need an image makeover. But in the absence of Olivia Pope, the savvy media manipulator and star of ABC's Scandal, they'll have to do the job themselves.
The city's youth have endured a prolonged public flogging since the violent September 6th attack on three people outside a Kroger store by some of their young peers and other unrelated incidents involving rowdy teens.
None of the victims' injuries were severe. But, say several youth in the Bridge Builders Change leadership program, the damage to Memphis teens' collective reputation and psyche remains.
"They make it seem like we're barbaric," said Ariel Moore, 16, a junior at Marion High School in Arkansas. "It really tears down youth."
The program's media cohort strategy to salvage their image: a YouTube video, BBChange, less than three minutes long. In the same online space where their collective character was dented, the teens want to contrast who the media say they are with who they know themselves to be.
The teens' video begins with a mash-up of Google searches, audio snippets of news reports, and scrolling Twitter feeds filtered by the words "Memphis" and "teens."
"Pack of Wild Teens in Memphis caught on video beating man. Civilized People or Animals? America or The 3rd World?" wondered @HouseCracka.
"THIS IS WHY I CARRY A GLOCK 19 EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS," tweeted @GodGunsGoodTime.
Then, as if they turned the channel, the video fills with static, and then the hashtag #ChangeChallenge appears. One by one, these students tell who they are and what their vision is for their city.
"I am a patient, confident, love-giving leader," says BrookLynn White, a 16-year-old senior at St. Benedict at Auburndale High School.
"I am a Memphian, and I am ambitious," says Akin Bruce, a 17-year-old senior at White Station High. "Ambitious, dedicated, and determined to produce success not only for myself but also for my community."
"I am someone who is not afraid to stand out against the crowd," says Thomas Wynn, 17, also a White Station senior.
"I envision a future in Memphis where youth especially are involved and given opportunities to rise to a higher standard than the one that is present," says Mary Allen, 17, a senior at St. Mary's Episcopal School.
But kids who meet three times a week are no match for four local TV stations and the fear-mongers.
As of early this week, the Bridge Builders Change video had 75 views on YouTube. One of the many YouTube videos of the Kroger attack had more than 555,000 views and, inexplicably, more than 330 thumbs up.
Wynn said when he saw the Kroger video, "I was hurt because I knew the backlash was going to be awful."
And it was. The comments White saw on Facebook stunned and scared her. Posters assumed all teens in Memphis were out of control. "Should we be carrying guns?" she wondered. "It wasn't me," on the Kroger video, White said, "but because of what happened, I'm being seen differently."
It's ironic, they say, that they're taught not to stereotype, but that's exactly what adults are doing to them, based on the actions of a relatively small number of kids.
Before the extermination comes the dehumanization. It happened in Rwanda when Hutu propagandists deemed the Tutsis cockroaches. It happened in Germany when Nazis called Jews rats. And these teens worry that it's happening again, when adults call them animals and savages, and other adults leave those assessments unchallenged. When all that politicians and criminal justice officials have in the way of solutions are law enforcement hammers, the teens become nails.
"Being a black teen, a male, everything is on the line 100 percent of the time," said Regi Worles, 16, a junior at White Station High. "I have dreams. I want my dreams to come true. I don't want anything to ... " He fished for the word. "Ruin you," finished Emma Donnelly-Bullington, 17, a senior at Central High School.
The media shapes the perception of adults and sometimes teens themselves.
"A lot of people don't realize the power the media has," said Wynn, who worries about a self-fulfilling prophecy. "What they see is ultimately what they believe."