by Jeff Collet
On April 28, 2015, a day after the funeral of Freddie Gray and the subsequent escalation of protest violence, and in response to the narrowly focused reporting of national and local news outlets on the Baltimore Uprising, Wide Angle Youth Media (WAYM) students and staff felt compelled to use their documentary skills to collect positive images of Baltimore youth. This marked the beginning of Wide Angle Youth Media’s year-long project collecting photographs at spring protests and hosted workshops at schools, libraries, and organizations in more than 15 neighborhoods. The project culminated in the publication of a photography book (through what is now called the Community Voices program), and a collection of audio and video reflections about the protests and their home.
Project Goals: WAYM’s goals in this year-long effort were to highlight youth perspectives that directly countered the often negative portrayals of Baltimore and its youth. WAYM hoped to share their student’s work in a diversity of spaces both locally and nationally, and included the youth in the presentation of their work whenever possible. The After Freddie Gray video, was publicly released at WAYM’s annual fall fundraiser in 2016. The event, titled This is Baltimore, featured speakers who reflected on key moments in the city, celebrated the community-centered work being done in the city, and also included sales of the photography book, “This is Baltimore.”
Tools and Technology: WAYM used their website blog, social media channels, local screening events, and film festival submissions to promote the work of their students. To date, “After Freddie Gray” has been screened at Arlington International Film Festival, Arts Every Day Youth Film Festival, Baltimore High School Film Festival (awarded Best Documentary), Baltimore International Black Film Festival (awarded Jury’s Choice Award), BlackStar Film Festival, College of William & Mary Global Film Festival (awarded Best Middle and High School Documentary), Daniel A. Citron Film Festival at the Gilman School, Reel Expressions Youth Film Festival, MY HERO International Film Festival. It was also aired on Aspire Network’s AspireTV through ABFF Independent.
Impact: The result was a compilation of youth produced projects that that show a city filled with hope, vitality, and resilience. Work included: the photography book, “This Is Baltimore”, which was distributed as a free online publication for anyone to view and as a printed publication. Over 700 books were printed and more than 200 hardcover copies of this book were distributed for free to participating workshop sites, students, community members, donors, celebrities, President Obama, and a selection of local universities and all city library branches. The book continues to be available for a small donation, and a set was also distributed to a local nonprofit, Teacher’s Democracy Project, so Baltimore City Public School teachers can check out the book to use in their classrooms. “This is Baltimore” is also in the Library of Congress Collection with copyright and ISBN. “After Freddie Gray” has been viewed by thousands of audience members at local screenings and at national film festivals. Student radio reflections were aired on WYPR, the Baltimore NPR affiliate, and nationally on All Things Considered. In total, content generated through Wide Angle’s This Is Baltimore year-long project has reached over 1 million people. In 2015, Wide Angle Youth Media was named Baltimore City Paper’s Best Nonprofit. In 2016, the Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities visited WAYM through recommendation of the local organization, Maryland Humanities, to learn more about This Is Baltimore and how youth storytelling can impact the national landscape of the humanities. WAYM was a finalist for the National Arts & Humanities Award in 2017.
Organization Background: Through media arts education, Wide Angle Youth Media cultivates and amplifies the voices of Baltimore youth to engage audiences across generational, cultural, and social divides. Their programs inspire creativity and instill confidence in young people, empowering them with skills to navigate school, career, and life. Established in 2000, WYAM has served over 5,000 Baltimore youth. They are a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.
Project Resources: More than 150 students, staff, community members, and volunteers helped bring this project to life. Staff involved included: Executive Director, Development and Communications Director, Program Director, two Community Voices program instructors, one volunteer, two high school Video Team staff, 13 youth curators, and one Towson University professor. Wide Angle was able to apply for the Baltimore Community Foundation’s “Rebuilding Baltimore Fund” and then received additional support for the project from the Maryland Humanities Council. According to Wide Angle’s executive director,“This is Baltimore” had a budget of around $20,000. The budget supported workshops expenses, the printing of the book ($9,000 for hardcover through Book Baby, and $3,000 for softcover through Spencer printing), student stipends, and the launch event. In addition, the salaries of support staff on the project were support from the Maryland State Arts Council and Open Society Institute Baltimore.
Here’s how it happened
Wide Angle Youth Media staff and students were already engaged in documenting and responding to the present tense and aftermath of the Freddie Gray uprising. They quickly realized an opportunity to give a stronger, more focused voice to the youth of Baltimore who were now under the critical lens of local and national media.
The idea to make a book came very early. Wide Angle set about curating the photographs, quotes, and stories that came out of all the different workshops and core educational programs to determine what would be in the final print.
Thinking critically about their engaged practice, Wide Angle staff printed off selected images and had the youth vote on what they felt should be included. The same was done to pull quotes and short essays from youth-produced videos. Two high school students were involved throughout the year advising the editorial and layout processes. One of those students wrote the epilogue for the book. In addition, in order to provide a historical context for the book, Wide Angle reached out to a Towson University professor of visual anthropology to be involved with the process. He also wrote the book’s forward.
The book was intentionally designed and completed with the goal of having it mark the one year anniversary of the uprising. Wide Angle meet that deadline and mailed out copies of the book to the participating students prior to the public release.
Here’s what worked
1. Responding quickly with funds
Wide Angle was able to access discretionary funds to support initial organizational responses to the Uprising. The organization now has $3,500 allocated in the annual budget for an Innovation Fund, which students and staff can apply for to finance small projects or pilot initiatives.
2. Honoring the work
Wide Angle staff were adamant that all youth involved in the project receive a hardcover copy of the book (vs. soft cover as initially planned). Wide Angle was able to fundraise to generate money to cover the printing expenses.
3. Being inclusive
The Community Voices program strategically went to different geographical parts of the city, so it enabled youth with very different backgrounds to have input and a shared voice.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Research financial and distribution models for book publishing.
Creating a book is a very time-intensive and expensive process. The process took longer than anticipated and WAYM lacks organizational capacity to push out sales online. WAYM still has a small inventory of books available for a small donation. The time spent organizing the distribution of the book stretched the capacity of the Wide Angle staff, both in terms of time and budget. Working with local bookstores to sell copies of the book and navigating the tax implications of the book sales proved to be more complicated than expected. Getting the books out to all of the students who participated proved to be difficult as well. Not every student participated during the entire production process. Over the year that it took to create the book, students moved, their contact information changed, and some students were in housing insecure situations.
Here’s what else you should know
- Evolve how you work: This year-long effort reframed the way that Wide Angle works. Prior to This is Baltimore, Wide Angle lacked thematic continuity across programs and communities. “In the past, we would allow students in each individual community to select their topic.” Says Wide Angle Program Director Moira Fratantuono, “In any given semester, we might have the environment at one site, homelessness at another site, bullying at another site, etc. We recognized that our staff would be better equipped to have more meaningful conversations and be better prepared if we had some sense of a direction at the front end. This approach also enabled us to have better curriculum resources in place right off the bat. Upon completion of the projects, we can be more intentional in strategically distributing the work to have a greater social impact locally as well nationally.”
- Maintain momentum: Wide Angle is currently wrapping up their second year-long theme following the success of This is Baltimore. This year the students have chosen the theme, “Why Black Lives Matter”.
- Be intentional with addressing equity: “We spend a lot of time here thinking about equity, race equities specifically. That’s a best practice that I would suggest for any youth serving organizations. Thinking about equity issues in terms of how your leadership reflects your community could be based in class if not race: How your board membership does and does not reflect that community. We try to make sure that we are being intentional with our work and consider how we need to do the work differently. I think that’s that’s a best practice that needs to be employed more across the board. We also now have a staff person who is a part-time teacher with a race equity background. She’s now in our classrooms engaging students in discussion and has conducted trainings with our staff. That has been really significant and very important especially around the theme of ‘Why Black Lives Matter’.”
To learn more about his project, send WAYM Program Director Moira Fratantuono an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.