In the spring of 1980, a group of 30 students showed up at high schools across New York City carrying a just-launched newspaper, 150 copies each. The new outlet’s focus was radical for its time — race relations, environmental issues, education quality, gay rights and more. “Thinking about AIDS” read a cover. One teacher wrapped copies in butcher paper to smuggle them into her classroom.
New Youth Connections, later renamed YCTeen, was also written entirely by students, working through the evenings in an old Manhattan zipper factory.
Some 7,200 articles later, the editor who guided those teens retired in January. Keith Hefner, 65, is continuing as a part-time adviser to Youth Communication, the nonprofit that publishes YCTeen. His replacement as executive director is Betsy Cohen, who has been with the organization for two years, after working for a major publishing house and a charter school network.
For decades, Hefner’s small team of editors helped propel a youth voice movement, launching careers of renowned scholars and prominent activists, including the novelist Edwidge Danticat, and Shawn Dove of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Unlike a wave of other teen-produced publications launched in the 1980s and 90s, YCTeen still publishes today. It found a national audience balancing young writers’ need for free expression with readers’ interest in timely, reported stories.
“Starting long before Facebook, we wanted to demonstrate the idea that young people — especially those from groups that had been silenced — should have their voices in the mix,” said Hefner, who estimates the organization he founded has reached millions of readers.
In 1993, New Youth Connections spun-off the magazine Represent, written exclusively by young people in foster care. Hefner remains on the board of another independent spin-off, Rise, written by parents who have been the subject of child maltreatment investigations.
Danticat, the acclaimed author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and the recent story collection, Everything Inside, shared via email that she was 14 when she first met Hefner, tapping out her early prose for his Connections on a typewriter. “He was always kind and enthusiastic and always made us, the student writers who worked with him, see so much possibility in ourselves. He did this for so many of us, by treating us as writers from day one.
“To him we were not only inner city youth, or immigrant youth, or youth in foster care, or whatever other single label the rest of the world attached to us.”
New Youth Connections was finding general readers, but also provided literacy training and social and emotional learning for youth, many from under-resourced black and Latino communities. In 1989, Hefner was awarded the prestigious MacArthur fellowship.
“It was not a top-down process. We got together, we sat around a table, talked about the issues we wanted to explore, and we wrote about them,” said Rachel Swarns, who learned how to type and interview with Connections in the 80s, and became a foreign correspondent and reporter on immigration, presidential politics and First Lady Michelle Obama for The New York Times. “I didn’t have writers in my family. He made journalism tangible and real.”
Hefner’s interest in news media began in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his high school newspaper overcame administrators’ resistance and published an exposé on the football coach refusing to field a black player.
”Wow, they made a difference. There was a black quarterback not long afterwards,” Hefner explained to The Times. ”That was the earliest influence on me.”
He produced activist zines from his parent’s house before moving to New York City after graduating. One subscriber, running a youth organization out of a church basement on the Upper West Side, invited him to create a news periodical by and for local students.
“The hypothesis was that, when you see that your personal struggles are shared by others, it’s no longer a personal issue. It’s a social issue…It can spark agency and activism rather than depression and despair,” Hefner told a social justice magazine in 2016.
Among early inspirations were another teen publication started by a Chicago nun, Sister Ann Heintz. A federally commissioned 1974 study had also concluded school newspapers were excluding minority students, and rife with “censorship, racism, elitism, and mediocrity.”
After its founding in 1980, New Youth Connections quickly grew to reach every public high school in the city. Prominent philanthropic interests took notice, including Henry van Amerigen, Time Inc., and The Marshall Project’s founder, Neil Barsky, who was a longtime board member.
Connections featured a mix of hard reporting and personal experience, publishing everything from breakdancing profiles to information on birth control and abortion. A newsletter side project included a poem by one of the falsely accused teenagers from the Central Park Five case.
“It was phonetically spelled, it was slang. Not overly done, but it was street vernacular — the homeless man, the welfare kid who was struggling to make it,” said Bonz Malone, of his column Street Talk, which he started writing for Connections as a 17-year-old graffiti artist from Bushwick. “It was reporting too — there’s three sides to every story, and a fourth side for what really happened. I could never have learned that on my own. It was like Edward R. Murrow school.”
“Keith has a way where, it’s like Tai Chi, not mixed martial arts. His humble, trusting way allows young people to open up and share with him and his staff,” said Shawn Dove, describing how the soft-spoken, white midwesterner connected with diverse student staff.
A First Platform For Foster Youth
By the 1990s, New York Connections had become nationally recognized. Print circulation peaked above 80,000. Yet, Hefner noticed certain student contributors were especially hesitant to write about their experience: youth in foster care.
“Almost without exception, they would not write about it, they would not disclose that they were in care to the rest of the staff,” said Hefner. “This was a time when gay kids were first coming out. I started to see that youth in foster care faced similar stigma, and that it was even more psychologically crippling.
So I was rolling around in my head, what could we do?”
The solution was the spin-off magazine called Foster Care Youth United (later renamed Represent), first released in July of 1993.
The magazine was disruptive at its inception. Foster care officials rarely encouraged foster youth to tell their stories publicly and uncensored.
“One young person was ordered by his group home never to write about his group home again, after his article appeared,” said Al Desetta, a former Represent editor.
The city’s child welfare commissioner at the time, Robert Little, a former foster youth himself, wrote a memo urging his staff to support the magazine. NPR did a story on the project, and within three days, the magazine had received hundreds of phone calls from across the country. Circulation went from 3,000 to 15,000, and two young contributors were invited on the Charlie Rose Show.
“Represent’s writers are survivors. These stories of resilience were really empowering and hopeful to me, because we so often hear so many statistics and negative things on the news about youth in foster care,” said Pauline Gordon, who started writing for Represent at age 16, and now works for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. “It really helped me get through my own situation when I was in foster care.”
Eventually, almost every nonprofit foster care agency in the city made the magazine available to youth.
“Represent has been widely read, and widely distributed, to many or all of our offices around the city,” said Eric Brettschneider, first deputy commissioner for Children’s Services. “You can still find copies” of the latest issues in some ACS offices, he added.
As Internet access spread, New Youth Connections (later YCTeen) and Foster Care Youth United (later Represent) saw print circulation drop. YCTeen has dwindled to 30,000, and Represent to 4,000. The number of full-time editors is down from five to two. The board even considered shutting down the organization early last decade, says Hefner.
Instead, positive feedback from teachers convinced them to shift focus to building curriculums and professional training, based on youth articles. Philanthropies like the New York Community Trust and the Jenesis Group have supported the transition, and local government pays the organization to work with teachers and juvenile probation officers.
“We still reach a considerable audience with our publications, but really our goal is to get these stories reprinted in curriculums where trained adults use them,” said Hefner. “If we train a group of teachers in a school to use our curriculum, we are guaranteed all 24 stories in that curriculum are going to be not just read during the course of the year, but talked about and written about, with activities built around them.”
Despite a shift in approach, the retiring publisher’s legacy of amplifying unheard voices remains unique.
In 2004, a prolific contributor to Represent named Antwaun Garcia wrote about being called a “crack baby” in school, and how the shame almost derailed his education while he was in foster care.
“You had kids from broken homes, broken neighborhoods, and you’re in [Represent’s] newsroom, and the majority of the editors were Caucasian,” said Garcia, who now works for a software company. “We’re looking at them, like, how can we trust you guys?”
Quickly, he said, that trust was established. The “crack baby” story became widely cited in the national debate over the now-discredited label. Strangers approached the teen-aged author to thank him for his writing.
“They gave us this platform where you didn’t feel isolated, you didn’t feel sheltered, you didn’t feel neglected.
Represent made me a better person, period.”