Journalists strive to show and tell the truth, enabling people to bear witness to what is happening in their world or in their name. Is telling the story enough? Who doesn’t want their work to make a difference, to have an impact? Awareness is at one end of the spectrum; action is at the other.
One of the most beautiful and remarkable things about children is their optimism. Somehow -- despite much evidence to the contrary -- many young people believe that if they can just get the attention of grown-ups and tell them what’s really going down, responsible adults will try to make it right. That’s the spirit behind youth media projects.
Critical Exposure is a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that teaches middle and high schoolers to use cameras to document the conditions in their classrooms and communities. In seven years, Critical Exposure has served over 1,200 youth -- 90 percent of them students of color. “We believe that young people have the vision to change the world -- they just need the tools, the training and the opportunity,” reads the mission on Critical Exposure’s website.
I met the group’s Executive Director Adam Levner in March at the America’s Promise Alliance Grad Nation Summit. Levner is a former fifth grade teacher and an amateur photographer. It turns out that we grew up in neighboring suburbs of Philadelphia (although not in the same decade.) Adam is about to become a father. Up until now, Critical Exposure has been his baby. And it’s a kid any parent would be proud of.
Last week, for one night only, the group held its annual student photography exhibit. The event was called “SEE CHANGE: Youth > Cameras > Action!” I decided to check it out.
The space was packed with people of all ages, ethnicities and piercings. I interrupted clusters of garrulous teenagers and asked them to show me their work. They proudly led me around to their framed photos and told me their stories.Photo by Samera
“Wake Up Samera,” is a self-portrait by a girl who spends the day in bed instead of school. “In 2010, I dropped out of high school because I was bullied and the administrators refused to help me. When you’re out of school for 277 days, there isn’t much to do. I slept to run away from my problems.”
She’s not the only one snoozing during the day. Another photo by Samera shows a substitute teacher sound asleep at his desk in what was once her classroom.
Tiquana’s snapshot of a slim friend’s pregnant belly and Davonna’s picture of her 2-year-old nephew are reminders that teenage pregnancy is a leading cause of dropping out among girls. Other images on display depict homeless youth, an empty refrigerator, a sterile school hallway, decaying buildings.
“These photos show conditions in public schools that students should not be trying to learn in,” explained Levner, “Falling ceiling tiles, mouse traps in the lunch room, toilets with no seats, water fountains covered with trash bags and signs that say ‘do not drink.’”
The point of Critical Exposure is to empower kids to use their photos to advocate for what they need and deserve. Levner says that since 2004, the group’s work has led to half a billion dollars of investments in public schools. It’s a shockingly high figure so I insisted on the breakdown.
In Baltimore, Critical Exposure’s student exhibit got covered by The Baltimore Sun and City Paper. That got the attention of state legislators who called a committee meeting to take a closer look at the photos. The outcome: 100 million dollars promised to improve public school facilities.
Maryland State Senator Nathaniel McFadden said, “I believe the compelling photographs and testimony from students working with Critical Exposure were an important factor in convincing my colleagues to support increased funding for public schools. In fact we were able to triple the amount of money we received this year in Annapolis thanks in great part to their efforts. ”
Levner says Critical Exposure’s images of D.C. public schools helped sway City Council to allocate $200 million for modernization and upgrades over the past six years. Alexis, an 11th grader, wrote, “I liked that we were able to get the word out about the terrible school conditions and we actually had proof. [Now] the school board won’t say, ‘Well the kids aren’t complaining’ or ‘How were we supposed to know?’”
One student took photos of his school library: a mostly empty room with boxes of books strewn about the floor, including relevant titles such as “How to Handle a Midlife Crisis.” His photo-activism persuaded the cluster superintendent to help students create their own school library. They asked for $2,000. They got $18,000.
Levner says Critical Exposure was also part of a collaborative project in Pennsylvania to promote more equitable funding of school districts. As a result, he says, the state approved $275 million in new education spending.
But for Levner, a community organizer, even these tangible successes don’t compare to the impact Critical Exposure has on the life of a young person whose ways of seeing the world and whose self-image are forever changed by a camera.
Kids like Byron Coleman, who dropped out of school when his brother was killed. “He was deeply depressed, but managed to crawl his way back into school and ended up in a class with us. And this was the outlet he needed to release his feelings.”Photo by Byron
Byron writes, “I was on the verge of dropping out again. Critical Exposure helped me achieve the same high as I got from drugs and alcohol in ways that wouldn't get me in trouble.”
There’s a lot of attention right now on the drop out crisis in America. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and America’s Promise Alliance has invested in American Graduate, a public media project to engage communities in solving this problem. More than a million students in the U.S. drop out of high school each year. Dropouts are eight times more likely to wind up in prison. The average cost per pupil for one year of public school is $9,644. The annual cost of incarceration is $22,600. This isn’t really a question of politics. It’s a question of math and logic and willpower. Will those with the power make children and education our nation’s top priorities?
Last week, The Washington Post blog, The Root, published a slide show of Critical Exposure pictures. I hope members of Congress get the critical exposure to these images and that this experience will move them from awareness to action.
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