The Power of A Picture
November 1st marked the 10th anniversary for Critical Exposure, where the education is multi-pronged: Teach students documentary photography skills, and teach them to use those skills to make a difference in their schools and communities.
“The photography is a way to engage the students,” said executive director Adam Levner. “The combination of the photography and the advocacy is really a very intentional process. What we’re seeking to do is to develop students who can become civic leaders because they have experiences rooted in communities and schools. “
Critical Exposure works with low-income students in DC area high schools, offering both afterschool programs and in-school partnerships at no cost.
There are three primary benefits to the students, Adam said.
First, they learn that they have the right to question things, and more importantly, to try and change what they believe is not right. Presently, Critical Exposure fellowship students are using their photography and advocacy skills to protest the school-to-prison pipeline, which pushes at-risk students, often minorities, out of the education system and into the penal one.
Second, they learn the power of collaboration and working together.
And third, they get to see that people value what they have to say. “The young people we work with are often told they don’t have anything to say of value,” said Adam, “so for them to testify in front of city council, or to have their photos at an art gallery, is validating for them.”
Worth a Million Words
As a teenager, Delonte Williams wasn't headed down what one might call the right path. He had, he said, an "I don't care" attitude.
"I was willing to put myself in a bad situation," he said. "I was exposed to hurt and I never found anyone who taught me how to deal with it."
Expelled from his first high school, Delonte re-enrolled at Luke C. Moore High School. It was there that he first encountered Critical Exposure. It was through the program that Delonte said he felt respected for the first time.
"They gave me a chance to share my pain rather than telling me what they think is right," he said. "In Critical Exposure, I felt like I would be accepted no matter what I said."
Through conversations about leadership and advocacy, Delonte learned about right and wrong, and about systems of power. He also learned about the power of a photograph.
"I didn't think about how much meaning (a photo) had until I thought about using one for change," he said. "A picture is probably worth more than a thousand words. Maybe a million."
"I live in a SE neighborhood called 37th. There is a view near my house that shows town houses that clearly differ from the houses in my neighborhood. They are bigger, more expensive and isn't as lively as the neighborhood I live in. I don't ever see anyone in the other neighborhood but I see a lot of cars so I know it's occupied. It's like they watch us while we watch them, except they probably see us more than we see them." - Delonte Williams
Today, Delonte, now 21, is a facilitator for Critical Exposure. He received his high school diploma in 2013. He leads students only a few years younger than himself, taking them through the process of planning projects, and identifying and tackling issues. He wants to give them the same self-confidence he gained.
"I want them to understand the power of youth voices. I believe young people have a very strong voice. I think they can make history. I want to encourage them."
And what about? What does Delonte believe the future holds for him?
"Hopefully a changed world."
Through the Lens
Critical Exposure teaches students about leadership and advocacy through the process of documentary photography. The following photographs were submitted by Critical Exposure. They represent the work of the students who participate in the program.
New vs. Old
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
The 2013-2014 Fellowship class at Critical Exposure has been turning their lenses on the school-to-prison pipeline, in which disciplinary practices and zero-tolerance policies in DC city schools force more students away from their education and toward the risk of incarceration. The students are advocating the implementation of a restorative justice program in DC schools.
The following text is a transcript of a speech delivered by Critical Exposure student Gina, on Nov. 13, at the District of Columbia Public School FY15 Budget Hearing. The videos were produced by members of the 2013-2104 Fellowship class.
Good Evening Chancellor Henderson. Thank you for hosting this meeting and giving DC youth the opportunity to speak.
My name is Gina. I’m a senior at Luke C. Moore High School and I live in Ward 8. I am speaking on behalf of the Critical Exposure Fellowship Program. We are a group of DC Youth working to implement restorative justice programs in DC.
What is Restorative Justice? Restorative Justice practices reduce the need for unjust punishments and suspensions, by building a community within the school where students feel supported. Restorative Justice programs are being successfully adopted in public school districts across the country, including some schools in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, Maryland.
Students in DC are being pushed out of schools by harsh discipline. My younger brother, for example, gets suspended every time he steps into schools for minor reasons. The last time he was suspended for 10 days because he spoke out of turn in class. Another time it was because he was not wearing the correct uniform. In the 2011-2012 school year there were more than 10,000 suspensions in the DCPS school system. If we start using Restorative Justice we can decrease that number, and benefit the students as well as the administrators. We believe that Restorative Justice programs will also prevent fights and other incidents, decrease the rate of student dropouts, and increase graduation rates.
We want to ask you to include funds to start a Restorative Justice pilot program in a DCPS high school for the Fiscal Year 2015. We have collected over 100 signatures from DC residents in support of our campaign, including Councilmember David Grosso, Monica Warren-Jones from the DC State Board of Education, and DCPS teachers, parents and students who believe in Restorative Justice. On behalf of the Critical Exposure Fellows, I want to thank you for taking the time to listen to our ideas.