Teaching Photography & Advocacy to D.C. Youth

by Critical Exposure
"Chocolate City"
"Chocolate City"

This summer we worked with students at We Act Radio as a part of the Summer Youth Employment Program. Students used photography to document issues of gentrification in Anacostia. Tyler participated in our program and wrote the following poem to contextualize his photograph of Frederick Douglass' house.

Chocolate City

Tyler, age 21, We Act Radio

Who are we to blame? Do we blame it on the drug game? Or the men in suits with the million dollar campaigns?
Where do we point the finger? Do we point it at the homeless man who’s snortin’ up? Or the fact that his old home is boarded up?
We in the Southside of the 51st state. The nation’s capital huh? Please explain the 1 in 4 unemployment rate…
Frederick Douglass house sittin’ on top of the hill, overlookin’ this bull***t, I wonder how he would feel.
I’m open to change, but don’t forget about the people who gave this city its name.


Samera's junior year of high school was much different than her previous two years. Samera – a bright, charming, and talented teen – was suddenly the target of bullies, and was harassed so severely that she struggled with depression and dropped out. While out of school, she cut herself off from friends and rarely left her home. After six months she decided that she needed to try again and earn her high school diploma. Unfortunately, after a few months at a new school, she learned that she would have to restart as a freshman because the administration would not accept her transferred credits.

Struck by the school’s inflexibility to work with a reformed drop-out and deflated after discovering the difficulty of starting over as a freshman, Samera dropped out again. After another six months, she enrolled herself in a third school that would accept her credits, but is known for its lower academic standards and high rate of school violence and truancy.

Samera is now in our Fellowship Program, where she is learning to use photography to document the issues she has faced in graduating from high school – including bullying and troublesome administrative policies – and is using those photos to advocate for changes in schools that would make it more welcoming for students to stay in school, and allow them to return to school should they drop out. She recently participated in our first-ever multimedia boot camp, where she used her photographs, writing, and her own voice to tell her story.


See Change: Samera from Critical Exposure on Vimeo.


Supporters leave notes of encouragement
Supporters leave notes of encouragement

Young people these days aren’t interested in reading, supposedly.

High school students at Washington Metropolitan High School, a public alternative school in Washington, D.C., busted that myth, along with the ones about young people being apathetic and lazy. Through hard work, courage, creativity, and determination, these students built a library.

This is a story of transformation. It is about a library that started out with broken doorknobs, shattered glass, no furniture and useless books and that will soon open its doors with nearly $20,000 worth of new furnishings, equipment and books.

But more importantly, it is about the transformation of a group of high school students from ordinary kids in a new school into agents of change who saw that their ideas and voices mattered. They discovered that by making their case clearly and insistently to people in positions of power, they could effect change. They are the heroes of this story. Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor says, “They have shown all of the other students at Washington Metropolitan that a small group of students can make a big difference.”

When Javonte’ Anderson, Joshua Elliot, and Diamond Diggs and arrived at their Critical Exposure class last January, they were there in part to fill an internship requirement. A fourth student, Eboni Stewart, was never formally in the class but soon became involved with Critical Exposure, taking on projects with enthusiasm and her own personal whirlwind energy.

Javonte’, Joshua, Diamond, Eboni, and their fellow students didn’t know much about what to expect from Critical Exposure, except that it had something to do with photography. They didn’t know then how much they would enjoy taking photographs, or that these photographs would become powerful tools for creating change in their school.

Critical Exposure is a nonprofit that teaches youth to use the power of photography and their own voices to become effective advocates for school reform and social change. By empowering young people to develop skills as documentary photographers, leaders and advocates, Critical Exposure shows citizens and policymakers the realities of low-income schools and communities through the eyes of the youth who confront them every day.

Critical Exposure’s unique model combines art and advocacy. It empowers students by giving them opportunities to use their art and voices to create change. As Javonte’ said about the library project, “I learned that I could get the things I want through organization and gathering people and that the more people you have the better chance you have of getting what you want because you’ve got people to back you up for your cause.”

From “Point and Shoot” to Advocacy Targets

Andrew Anastasi and Emma Scott, two AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteers working with Critical Exposure, taught the class at Washington Metropolitan. They taught the class’s ten students how to use a camera, introductory photography techniques, and how to use photography to document a problem and tell a story.

After learning some basics, the students set off around their school in search of problems and issues to document. Among the most glaring examples of needed change was  the unmarked and locked “library” on the second floor. In an otherwise clean and adequately-equipped school, the library was a complete mess. The student’s pictures tell the story best: doors without knobs, broken furniture, and the books---many of which were meant for younger kids or many years out of date---strewn all over the floor.

The students began exploring what other D.C. school libraries were like, and were shocked at the disparity in facilities between some of the best schools in D.C. and their own. As Diamond wrote, when they started “movin’ around and goin’ places to take pictures, it started gettin’ fun.”

With their pictures in hand, they began to work on identifying who they needed to show the pictures to as part of their request for a new library. They focused on key officials in the D.C. Public School system and set to work on a 12-month long campaign. They wrote letters, made phone calls, and exhibited their work around the city. They insisted and persisted. Eventually, some commitments started rolling in. The former president of Howard University donated 900 volumes from his personal collection and the university donated used library shelving.

But the students’ most important target was the D.C. Public Schools system. They now understood that their school had inadequate facilities and they had as much right to a functional library as any other student in the city. By meeting with their principal, they discovered that the school had not receive the funds to create a library when it first moved into the old elementary school building it currently occupies. So the students set up a meeting with their principal’s boss, Superintendent of Cluster XI Schools Chad Ferguson.

The youth showed their photos to Superintendent Ferguson, as well as Pat Brown, DCPS Manager of Library & Media Services, in a meeting at their school. “We know that sports teams get start-up money, so why not libraries?” asked Javonte’. The students began by requesting a commitment of $2,000 from central office to support the creation of a school library. After months of doggedly following up, the students eventually secured more than $18,000 in funding from the Office of Youth Engagement at DCPS.  These funds were new and separate from the school’s annual operating budget. Work on the new library is set for completion in February 2012 with an opening date of February 24th.

A New School: Real World Experience and Challenges

Washington Metropolitan High School is new; the 2010-11 school year was its first. It uses “The Big Picture” model, emphasizing real world learning and requires students to complete an internship each semester.

Yet, according to the DCPS website, only 19% of Washington Metropolitan’s 270 students met or exceeded the D.C. CAS standards for reading.

While Javonte’ likes reading, he noted that in general, “We students don’t read enough books and some of us may be illiterate, so we need to read more books.”

Eboni said, “This school is amazing. It has earned respect. The students work hard and do right. Tests are hard and sometimes we struggle, but we try our best.”

A Library of Their Own

All of the students commented on the ways in which they think the new library will improve their school. Javonte’ said he thinks that “it will be new and refreshing and it will feel more like a high school.”

Josh hopes the new library will improve the learning experience for other Washington Metropolitan students by giving them a place to get their school work done, do research, and just find a book to read. He believes that there are a lot of kids who like reading, “especially the girls.” Diamond said that she cannot wait to read “books about relationships, plays, drama.”

Eboni said that kids have lots of commitments outside of school (e.g. caring for younger siblings, working, etc.), which made it difficult to get to a neighborhood library on the weekends. Having a library in school will make studying much more convenient.

Principal Williams-Minor noted that students will play a huge role in helping to run the library. She does not see the lack of a staff librarian as a problem (DCPS funding does not cover a librarian), but rather an opportunity for students to learn and practice these skills themselves----using the school’s real world skills approach. She plans to create library internships and give students the chance to run the library and figure out the best systems for checking out and organizing books. “They won’t do it exactly like a professional librarian would, but we will make it work to our advantage.”

In addition to providing a great resource to improve literacy and study skills, the principal also sees the new library being a great focal point for inviting in people from the community for poetry slams, book signings, a “whole host of literacy-rich activities.”

Hopes and Dreams for the Future

The seniors in the group are glad to leave a new library as their legacy for their younger classmates. However, much of their thinking these days is about next steps. All are in the process of applying to colleges and all expect to carry double majors. Their interests are wide-ranging, and include:  Anthropology, Finance, Pre-Law, Pre-Dental, Physical Therapy, Psychology, Hospitality Management, and of course, Photography.

Javonte’ said he would be so happy to get into his number one school---Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University---that if accepted he will “dance, and do circles, and criss-cross and do cartwheels and stuff. “

Celebrating the End of a Long Journey

“It has been a long journey, but a successful one, considering that we started with nothing,” notes Principal Williams-Minor. “It has been well worth it to see the students learn advocacy skills.”

“To me,” she added, “the greatest achievement is not the library itself, though that is really important, but it is that a few students made a huge difference. They were the ones who talked to people in DCPS and made this happen. That’s an inspiring lesson for every other student in this school.”

Javonte' welcomes students, staff, and supporters
Patrick Mara, DC State Board of Education, Ward 1
Patrick Mara, DC State Board of Education, Ward 1
Adam Levner (CE
Adam Levner (CE's ED) w/ supporter and students
Box of Books
Box of Books

In February, Josh Elliot will speak at the opening of a new library at his high school -- a library being built with funds that the students fought for using the photographs and advocacy skills they developed with Critical Exposure. 

D.C. Metropolitan H.S. opened in 2010 with enough money for a computer lab or a library, but not both. The principal, faced with a tough decision, chose computers. The “library” is a mostly empty room with a few boxes of donated books, most of which are old, in bad condition, and totally irrelevant – one student found a self-help book from the ‘80s for navigating a mid-life crisis.
Josh and his peers focused their Critical Exposure project on getting a real library. They took photos showing their lack of resources and examples of a great library, and presented their images, stories and a plan for a new library to their superintendent and other DCPS officials. They asked the administrators for $2,000 to get started.
They didn’t get $2,000. They got $18,000.
The pride and ownership this accomplishment has given Josh is clear – he’s less shy and his teachers say that he’s become a leader among his peers. He’s even planning to study photography in college.
I see myself as a role model, not only for my family but for my community. Critical Exposure has contributed to that and helped open my mind to new possibilities for the better, and for the greater good.” – Josh
At Critical Exposure we give youth the tools to be seen and heard. We can’t do it without you. Please consider making a gift today to support students like Josh.
Locked Doors
Locked Doors


Students in the Latin American Youth Center's Upward Bound program used our photography and advocacy training to request summer housing from George Washington University. Upward Bound provides college prep support and training. Students stay in the dorms during the summer program, which costs Upward Bound $15,000 plus food. Students met with Joel Gomez, Interim Associate Dean for Research, and received a commitment for a minimum of $15,000 toward paying for the dorms (which could allow Upward Bound to add more students or college tours to its program), and a promise to arrange meetings within GWU to create a scholarship program for Upward Bound students!

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Organization Information

Critical Exposure

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.criticalexposure.org/​
Critical Exposure
Project Leader:
Adam Levner
Washington, D.C. United States

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