At COOPH, there are two things we really get behind; photography and good causes. In our eyes, bringing both together is a true recipe for success; and Seattle-based organization Youth in Focus is doing exactly that. We spoke with Executive Director Trina Gadsden to find out how photography is changing the lives of Seattle’s youth.
What is Youth in Focus?
For the past 24 years, Youth in Focus has positively impacted approximately 4,200 youth using photography as a tool to nurture both their creativity and give them an outlet to express themselves. Our mission has stayed the same: we empower youth through photography, to experience their world in new ways and to make positive choices for their lives. We put cameras in their hands and place them in a challenging environment surrounded by talented teachers and nurturing adult-mentors to create a strong community of support.
Through photography, our students find their voice, identity, creativity, and gain new confidence in their worth and abilities. Our youth gain a strong sense of what makes them unique and valuable, empowering them to share their voice through photography. They learn how to engage their peers and community through visual communication and take viewers on a journey that places value on their lives, thoughts, and intent.
We like to say:
·We are the people who put cameras in the hands of youth and teach them how to develop negatives into positives.
·Nobody has as much fun creating a safe community of trust and support for youth through photography better than we do.
-Our impact is empowering youth to find their voice and gain self-confidence, as they learn life skills and discover who they are, and what matters to them.
Who is Youth in Focus for?
The National Guild for Community Arts Education reports: “When youth development programs are sustained and respond to community needs, they encourage cognitive development, increase creativity and improve self-esteem. High quality, after school programs also have a particularly strong impact on low-income and low-performing youth.” Recognizing this need, we specifically target our programs to underserved communities and schools that have limited arts education or opportunities for youth development.
We work with youth, 13-19, who face a variety of challenges in their lives on a daily basis, and who struggle with a combination of racial or ethnic discrimination, poverty or homophobia. We feel we reach youth at a crucial time – at or before the 9th grade – when 90% of the majority of youth that drop out of high school do so during that year. Americans for the Arts have also reported that, “Low, socioeconomic status students with a high participation in the arts have a drop out rate of 4%, but their peers with a low participation in the arts have a drop out rate of 22%.” Knowing the power of creative arts education and youth development programs, we continue to expand our reach to youth across the area, giving them access to our classes and supportive community. In 2017:
-66% were students of color
·51% of students qualified for a free/reduced-price lunch at their school
·39% lived with a single parent or other living arrangements (shelters or couch surfing)
·25% identified as LGBTQ and 16% identified as non-gender conforming
Tell us about the classes…
We work with approximately 300 youth a year, and welcome all youth into our programs, regardless of their photography experience or backgrounds. During face to face interviews with our students prior to them joining a class, we get to learn more about them and their interest in photography. While they are all excited to learn how to take better photos, the majority of our students just want to join a safe, supportive community where they can make new friends and be themselves. Throughout the year, we offer beginner classes, in black and white, traditional darkroom and digital, up to advanced depending on the quarter.
How does it work?
At Youth in Focus, we strongly believe in the potential of all youth and have seen how photography is a powerful tool to help them discover their voice and build confidence to become their best selves. For those of us who have ever developed our first photograph in the darkroom from a concept in their mind, watching it come alive under the chemical fix is a pretty magical and empowering experience! Our goal is to have students be able to put all their worries aside and be in the creative moment with a supportive community, and learn to look at their life through a more positive lens.
What does a typical day at Youth in Focus look like?
When the youth arrive, they are greeted and welcomed by their peers, teaching artists, mentors and staff. Once in the classroom, the students often do a “weather“ check-in with each other to gauge how everyone is feeling for that day. They then jump right into their lesson plans, shooting assignments and editing work that is set up for the class. Throughout the quarter, students participate in critiques where they get to learn how to talk about their photography and receive supportive feedback from their classmates. They also work on written artist statements that will accompany their final photographs. While each class is slightly different, all of our programs are centered around our youth development mission and priorities of ensuring the youth feel safe, supported and can be themselves in our program.
What impact has Youth in Focus had on the participants?
Joel was a student in our Beginning Digital Class Spring 2018 who had moved here on his own from Central America. During his interview, he talked about how excited he was to learn more photography skills, but also to meet new people and have something to do outside of home and school. On his application he said:
“I want to take this class because even though I am 18 years old, I have overcome many obstacles in my life and I am currently still facing some of them. For instance, my guardian has told me to drop out of high school because she wasn’t going to help me any more. I don’t have any other support from anyone else in my family. Another obstacle is going to high school, while working full time to pay rent, food and other bills. Even though it’s been hard, I am determined to finish high school and pursue my dreams.”
Joel successfully completed the quarter, juggling his End of Quarter Show for Youth in Focus on the same night as his dance finale, too. He is set to start college this coming fall and we couldn’t be more proud of the personal growth that he realized while at Youth in Focus.
What do you like most about Youth in Focus?
My favorite part about Youth in Focus is witnessing these amazing, creative souls and watching them gain more confidence in themselves and their art. Being around creative young people who are eager to express themselves through photography teaches us what it’s like to be vulnerable. Also witnessing them create unique and special friendships and bonds that they never would have the opportunity to do in a typical school setting.
In fact, one of my favorite memories at Youth in Focus has nothing to do with photography and more about the connection with the youth. A few years ago, there was a student named Tony, who was personally struggling because he had been moved around so many times while in foster care. He would come early to class and would sit in my office and we would talk about his day, sometimes he would ask for advice on how to get along with his foster parents better as he didn’t want to get moved again, but most of the time I just listened and let him know that I saw him and appreciated him. About a year into our program, after changing schools and his foster care home again, he ran in my office and said he was getting adopted by one of his teachers in his school! We were both so excited, we started crying and jumping around my office! His new “Dad” showed up to his End of Quarter Show and Tony was grinning from ear to ear as he shared his final image and spoke to the crowd about his work and experience in our program.
What can people do to support your cause?
Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on social media to easily stay connected and help spread our mission! Individual and corporate donations fund our program, which allows us to be able to serve more youth through the magic of photography! We sell our students’ work, where the net proceeds are split between the student and our program. Locally, there are lots of other ways to get involved at Youth in Focus! We are always looking to expand our programming and with that includes the need for professional teaching artists and volunteer mentors. If you have a photography background and ample youth development experience, then consider joining our classrooms; applications are accepted year-round. We are also actively searching for Board Members who are passionate about our mission and propelling our organization forward. If you have a special talent such as IT work, then you could also volunteer your skills in our computer lab. We also are always looking for blank walls to exhibit our student’s photography out in the community and to spread our mission.
Find out more about Youth in Focus on their website, Facebook and Twitter.