It isn’t news that the District’s public school system (like many across the country) often fails to instill the critical thinking skills required to participate in today’s job market or pursue higher education. We can debate the causes of this situation — there isn’t an easy scapegoat — but one key voice in this discussion is often overlooked: the students themselves. Critical Exposure, a local non-profit organization, helps these students articulate their voice in this conversation through a unique arts-based curriculum that melds photography with youth empowerment, creating social change in their schools and communities. Zoom In: National Lens, Local Focus, opening May 22nd at the Pepco-Edison Gallery in Chinatown, is the organization’s eighth annual exhibition featuring some of the most compelling images from this year’s youth participants. I recently sat down with Development and Communications Director Alison Hanold to learn more about the organization’s mission and what they have in store for gallery visitors this year. (Editor’s note: East City Art is a media sponsor for the exhibition.)
Founded in 2004, Critical Exposure is the brainchild of two amateur photographers with backgrounds in education and community organizing. Alison notes that, “while students in low-income public schools were often discussed, analyzed and critiqued, they were rarely asked to contribute to the conversation of how to improve their schools… their voices were conspicuously absent.” With a curriculum focused on photography and expository writing, Critical Exposure gives students not only an avenue to document their experience but also a forum to share that experience with key educational decision-makers. While focused on DC, Critical Exposure’s program has been replicated in cities and rural areas across the country.
There are many nonprofits working creatively to empower District youth; we have profiled some of these in the past. Critical Exposure is fairly unique for two reasons. First, the organization grounds its program in the realm of academia, teaching students about the history of photography as a mode of social communication and persuasion. While students receive training on the art of photography (composition, lighting, etc.), they also research the lives of historic photographers such as Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange to gain a better understanding of how photographic images can shape social dialogue. In addition, professional photographers regularly drop in on the classes to offer advice and feedback and share their real-world experience. Secondly, Critical Exposure has established partnerships with numerous schools to include the organization’s program in their art and/or social science classrooms; the organization is literally part of the youths’ school day. Critical Exposure also runs a fellowship program for students who have previously taken their class or have experience with photography. The program brings students together from different schools across the city to work as a cohesive unit, advocating for change on a city-wide scale.
Regardless of location, programmatic objectives remain the same. Students are led through a series of group discussions designed to let them speak candidly about issues they face on a daily basis. Cameras in hand, the students are encouraged to visually document the impact of issues discussed in their breakout groups. Back in class, students work together to visually weave a compelling narrative from their photographs that illustrates how their social issues play out in their school and local community. They then engage their cohorts by exhibiting their photos in common areas around the school and at meetings with school administrators. According to Hanold, the students then take their message to the local community by holding public rallies and art shows (such as the Zoom In exhibition) before finally lobbying public figures who have the power to influence the changes students are seeking. Surprisingly, the issues students want addressed are not always directly academic. While past student groups have focused on issues such as school nutrition and library facilities, other issues address wide-ranging community issues such as security, neighborhood transportation and issues around social justice. Hanold is quick to point out this year’s Fellowship topic, the “school-to-prison pipeline” (defined as “the systemic funneling of low-income youth from public schools to the criminal justice system”), as an example of a social issue that, while positioned outside the school walls profoundly impacts the students’ scholastic experience.
Results are tangible and Hanold proudly recites a variety of success stories faster than I can dictate. One local student group succeeded in gaining a new library for their school. Another student group in Prince George’s County tackled the issue of nutrition and convinced County Executive Rushern Baker to support their initiative. The end result of their lobbying was a $50,000 grant towards a community garden in their neighborhood – an area bereft of fresh food options. Last year students at H.D. Woodson Senior High School in Northeast Washington documented the effect of “zero tolerance” policies on student engagement and urged the dean to implement alternatives to suspension. The dean agreed, and through their activism alternative disciplinary measures have been instituted that do not force students onto the streets during school hours.
Achievements continue on an interpersonal level as well. Hanold notes that some of Critical Exposure’s students have struggled in school in the past. Some students face the stigma of having dropped out of school before returning and entering the program. Suspensions are not uncommon, and she notes one of their participants had been suspended 16 times before entering the program. The past is behind them now, and some of these youths are now the most engaged participants in their program and according to Hanold, typically become leaders among their peers. While their photographs may take center stage, students are pressed to think critically, write persuasively and speak confidently on issues they care about.
This creatively will be on display when Critical Exposure opens their eighth annual spring exhibition, Zoom In: National Lens, Local Focus this month. The exhibition is in part a fundraiser, but perhaps more importantly serves to artistically validate student achievements of the past year. It is easy to imagine what an incredible feeling an artist feels when their work is exhibited for the first time. That is the gift that Critical Exposure is giving their students – some of whom prior to their involvement with the organization had never entered a gallery! According to Hanold, roughly 100 photographs from over 70 students will be on public display along with multimedia stations in the exhibition displaying more on-line images. In addition, students present at the exhibition’s opening will be sharing their spoken testimony with the audience. Participating in the exhibition will be students from Luke C. Moore, Anacostia and H.D. Woodson Senior High Schools, all of which are located on the eastern side of the District. We look forward to learning from these citizen-artists!
Zoom In: National Lens, Local Focus opens with a public reception on Wednesday, May 22nd from 6-8 pm. The event is free and open to the public (a suggested donation of $35 is gently encouraged). The exhibition runs through June 6th during regular gallery hours. For more information about Critical Exposure and the exhibition, please visit their website here. For PEPCO Edison gallery hours and directions, please visit the gallery website here.