City teens speak in youth group’s films

The short, five-minute narrative films projected onto the wall of a room in the New Haven Public Library had their superficial differences: Some had music while others did not, some were humorous while others struck a more serious tone, and some featured personal art and drawings while others told their stories through photographs.

But by the end of the hour-long screening, the small audience made up of teens and adults identified a common thread linking all the films — they each gave a voice to a member of the New Haven youth advocacy group Youth Rights Media.

“Digital Stories: Words and Images from New Haven Youth,” the series of narratives aired at the library last Thursday, is the latest in a string of YRM productions, including public service announcements and longer documentaries focusing on teenage issues in New Haven. Created by Laura McCargar ’02 when she was a senior, YRM currently performs two functions: media production — including public service announcements, personal narratives and documentaries — and youth activism.

Justine Case, a sophomore at Common Ground High School and a member of YRM, was one of the students who produced a film for the Digital Stories screening. Her film focused on how she was inspired by the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers,” which tells the true story of troubled youth in urban California who are encouraged by their teacher to make a change in their community. Case, who was struck by the similarities between her own experience in New Haven and those of the teens in the movie, ends her narrative on a note of optimism about the possibilities for change in New Haven neighborhoods. She hopes the short films will help audience members find personal connections with New Haven students.

“It lets them know a little bit about us without actually knowing us personally,” Case said.

In just a few years, YRM has been able to establish a firm foundation in New Haven, forming partnerships with city institutions like the New Haven Police Academy to expand awareness of youth issues and holding workshops in public schools to teach teenagers about their rights when interacting with police.

McCargar, who is currently the organization’s executive director, said the motto that best encapsulates the organization’s goal is “Making media, making change.” While the two components of its mission are distinct most of the time, McCargar said, they periodically overlap. For example, after YRM members — who are selected from New Haven public schools — choose a topic for a documentary film, the organization focuses its outreach and advocacy on that issue.

McCargar said the filmmaking process is largely student-driven, with the adults in YRM working to guide the students, facilitate production and help with technical aspects.

Though the project is centered around the idea of increasing the role of youth in effecting social change, YRM peer education coordinator Kyle Brooks ’05 said the organization gives teens access to production technology that they would not otherwise have. Case, for example, had previous experience with PCs, but she said making documentaries on Apple computers exposed her to new software, such as iMovie and Garage Band, and helped her develop new computer skills.

Brooks also said the students grow at a personal level, by gaining greater knowledge of their individual rights and how the political system operates.

“I think they gain a lot more confidence in themselves and understand that they have a powerful voice, and when they channel that voice into something productive it can influence people,” he said.

McCargar said YRM’s projects are funded by a wide array of local and national private foundations, but the organization has for the most part eschewed public funding from the city and state because of the potential conflict of interest.

“We have not pursued public support because it would complicate or hinder our ability to advocate for some of the changes the youth advocate in their films,” she said.

Other programs of Youth Rights Media focus on providing SAT preparation for high school students, consulting about job, college and scholarship applications, and assisting with schoolwork. Kayty Himmelstein ’09, the Dwight Hall Urban Fellow at YRM who helps provide these services, said she finds that meeting and working with youth in the community has helped her feel more at home in the Elm City.

“It’s nice to have the opportunity to work with youth in a setting that’s not school and to get to have a personal relationship with them as well as an educational relationship,” she said.

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