City youth become community organizers, promote change

Teens take to street with cameras to document trouble spots

July 30, 2011|By Julie Baughman, The Baltimore Sun

Kevin Smith, 15, excitedly began snapping pictures of an old, weathered tombstone he found after wading through tall grass just outside a fenced-in landfill near Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.

"What else can I find?" he said to his friends.

Takira White,14, stretched her arms high over the same fence, trying to capture the immense height of the piles of concrete and trash.

Smith, White and seven Baltimore students plan to display these and other photos at an exhibition on environmental racism — a term used by advocates to describe how impoverished areas become dumping grounds — as part of a summer project for a nonprofit called The Intersection.

But the students are not just snapping pictures. The group helps train inner-city youth to become community organizers, and their photo exhibit is designed to advocate, not just to put on a display. Other projects include planting a community garden and going door-to-door to register voters.

"If no one in this community votes, they'll get skipped," said 16-year-old Naomi Cornish. "I want to be able to speak my word and make sure people understand what I'm saying."

Cornish spent Tuesday afternoon knocking on doors in East Baltimore with 17-year-old Eric Burrell, trying to sign up people to vote in the coming mayoral election. The group has registered more than 70 people, and hopes to get 300.

"I want our community voices to be heard," Burrell said.

The Intersection is putting on its own mayoral forum at 6 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Carmelo Anthony Center on East Fayette Street. The students will be able to question candidates, and show off their photos as part of the exhibit.

Zeke Cohen, the group's executive director, said people need to hold their leaders accountable and force them to address tough issues. "Democracy does not end at the ballot box," he said. This winter, the nonprofit is planning another initiative, to help unite Baltimore's Jewish and black communities.

Photojournalism has become a central part of this summer's advocacy projects.

White said she wasn't quite sure about becoming involved with The Intersection but later concluded, "It was not what I thought it was," and became inspired. She said many people won't sit down to read a book, but they will look at a picture and be able to get a serious sense of the area's problems.

The students in her group are traveling around the city and documenting disparities in cleanliness between high- and low-income areas. It not only for the kids, but also for residents to show that, "they are part of something positive in this community," said another executive director, Yasmene Mumby.

Smith hopes to do just that. He said that he has seen, "oil, trash, dirt and mud" seep from the landfill they visited into the streets near his home on Streeper Street. He hopes that his pictures will inspire local officials to do something about the runoff that he fears could be endangering his neighborhood.

After leaving the landfill, students traveled a few blocks away to North Kresson Street, where they photographed a pile of crushed glass two-stories high. Pieces of blue, brown, green and clear glass were confined only by a low concrete wall. Shards spilled into the street from a hole.

"To be able to capture something inside of a picture," White said. "That'll open [people] up to everything."

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