New Haven – Several weeks ago, a dozen or so high school students gathered at the site in the East Rock neighborhood where a 23-year-old man had been shot to death the week before.
The city’s 29th homicide of the year had mobilized these young people. Armed with portable Flip video cameras, the students fanned out to interview residents.
“They were out, talking to people on the street, even though they were upset about what had happened,” said Carina Tautu, program director for the nonprofit group Youth Rights Media.
“Some people were open and willing to talk about the situation. Others weren’t. Either way it was really good practice for them,” Tautu said.
This year at Youth Rights Media, 13 teenagers are working together, under Tautu’s direction, to produce a documentary on youth gun violence in New Haven.
“We asked them what they wanted to focus on,” Tautu said, “and that was overwhelmingly what they said.
“Half of our kids directly know — or the rest have a friend who knows — someone who was shot,” she said. “And they all have something to say about it. So I’ve asked them to record their lives and talk about how gun violence is affecting their lives.”
“We’re teaching our young people to make what we hope will be a good film,” said Janis Astor del Valle, YRM’s executive director.
“But in doing that,” she said, “we’re also teaching them why it’s so important to express their voices, and the power of media, and how they can use that media to promote social change.”
‘Are we rolling?’
Three or four days a week, students from public schools across Greater New Haven arrive at the studios of Youth Rights Media (YRM) for a three-hour, intensive, afterschool program. Sitting around a large table in the color-splashed, loft-like studio on Willow Street, in the East Rock section, they snak on pretzels and cocoa and talk documentary: shooting, editing, battery life and memory cards before getting to work.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a New Haven student named Cornelius sat in the studio under the bright lights, awaiting his cue, calm and comfortable in his interviewer’s chair against a backdrop of student art.
“Quiet on the set,” he said. “Are we rolling? Oh — is sound ready? Hello. My name is Cornelius … and I’m representing Youth Rights Media.”
It was Youth Rights Media’s first interview of the school year. Facing his subject, a community organizer, he threw out a big question: “Why do you think the youth are so violent and angry?”
The group was on its way toward making its 11th film.
More than a studio
YRM enters its 10th year of incorporation in 2012. The group, with its three full-time staff members, made its first film in 2002.
The 10 documentaries under its belt are all student-produced, del Valle said, and they’ve had an immeasurable impact on the community. Not to mention on the producers themselves.
On a functional level, YRM is a media production studio: students learn the basics of documentary, camerawork, research and interviewing. With all those camera exercises and practice interviews, said del Valle, the point is to see their skills evolve.
The students “don’t necessarily realize it, but working on this stuff gives them a chance to gain self-confidence in public speaking, in interacting with adults, in being comfortable with technology,” she said.
“And it’s about giving them the opportunity to document the world as they see it while understanding what their rights are.”
Any student from the New Haven area is welcome to apply for the program, but most come through word of mouth — social workers, educators and others send candidates their way. There’s a process and an interview, but del Valle said they don’t like to turn anyone away. The young people come from a mix of backgrounds and many are hired as interns — meaning they receive an hourly wage for their work at YRM. The organization is nonprofit, with funding largely from the city, foundations and individuals.
YRM started as an effort to educate students about their rights, particularly in encounters with police. That turned into a film called “Cops, Kids, Rights and Respect.” The organization has moved steadily along since then — putting out a documentary once per year.
As part of the documentary process, Tautu sends students home with portable Flip video cameras.
“We ask them to focus on a list of questions, to interact with family and friends and themselves — all in relation to issues of gun violence. Why are kids so angry? Why do they devalue human life?” del Valle explained.
Taking control of a camera and exploring their own worlds gives them a sense of ownership, she said.
That video footage will be incorporated into the film — mixed with big picture interviews like the one taking place on this Thursday, and street footage.
In the past, YRM has focused on education and the juvenile justice system. A 2004 documentary –“ CJT$: At What Cost?” — offered a bleak portrait of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) in Middletown, a rehabilitation center for boys ages 13 to 16.
“That film had an impact on the whole state, not just the youth,” del Valle said. “It woke people up to the issue that too many of our young people were being imprisoned for nonviolent offenses when what they really need is counseling, social services, smaller treatment facilities.”
The film features a 16-year-old Travis Ruffin — an YRM alumnus — as narrator. He had spent time in the juvenile facility before joining the documentary crew. At its completion, YRM took the film on the road, hoping to get the facility shut down. In August 2005, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell promised to do just that in a news release. She’s quoted as saying that the training school had developed a prison-like atmosphere with high rates of recidivism.
“Incarceration of juveniles is meaningless without a clear focus on education,” she said, in the news release.
CJTS remains open to this day, though del Valle said she hasn’t given up hope that it will be shut down. She continues to screen the film, and others. An YRM documentary from 2005, “Book ‘Em,” focuses on the school- to-prison pipeline, and affected school suspension policies, del Valle said.
“We get requests to screen that film almost every week.”
A half-hour before Cornelius took his interviewer’s seat, the YRM studio was a chaotic flurry of action. Half the group was en route to the house of local community organizer Barbara Fair for a taped interview — when Fair herself walked through the studio doors.
What followed was a scramble of phone calls, quick camera, lighting and sound set up — a team of young filmmakers springing to action. Then the taping started, with Stefan John on sound, Aissata Kouroma and Daykwion Aleman on cameras, and Andre Brown on lighting.
Fair wore a black T-shirt with bright yellow lettering: I am a Community Organizer.
She pondered Cornelius’ question — Why are youth so angry?
“I think the kids are feeling neglected,” Fair said. “They’re being pushed out of school, dropping out of school, there are no jobs for them. And I see a lot of guns flowing in our community with no intervention. A lot of kids think making it to 21 is a huge success, and that’s so sad.”
Fair, a licensed social worker, is executive director of My Brother’s Keeper — a grass-roots, social justice organization in New Haven. During the next 50 minutes, the discussion continued, evolving from one-on-one to a group conversation. Cameramen, lighting specialists, sound assistants all jumped in. Fair ended by echoing a core YRM belief.
“We have a lot of people talking about the violence, but they’re not doing anything about it. They’re talking at the kids and not listening to the kids,” she said.
“They say they’re experts on what’s going on, but when I go to these forums talking about what’s going on with our kids, I don’t see too many of our kids that are actually at the table having this discussion. And I think they’re the experts on what’s going on in their lives.”
“Part of what we do is allow the community to see that our young people are incredibly valuable resources,” del Valle said before the taping. “And we need to listen to them and make them part of the process.”
Lollipops and commitment
Cornelius explained after the taping that he is not violent and angry. But he has been indirectly affected by gun violence, and he likes being part of a group working to bring attention to the issue. Relaxed and energetic after having conducted a successful interview, he handed out lollipops from a sack he’d brought to share with the group.
“I feel really good about our projects here,” he said. “It’s good training for talking to adults, and for understanding the community and all the issues.”
Cornelius, 17, said his parents had had problems, and he didn’t get the care he needed as a baby. He has been in group and foster homes since before he was 2, but he is open and generous with his story, painful as he admits it is.
“I’ve really struggled with what I’ve gone through at times,” he said. “But I’m OK, and I’m being taken care of.” Now, he mostly struggles with wanting his freedom.
“I’m 17! I’m excited to go to college.”
The young man is energetic and ambitious — he has a budding website and hopes to study communications. But for now, he said, he’s focused on making this documentary, and using film and media to make an impact on his world.
Cornelius started coming to YRM every day after school early in the fall, del Valle said, even though he was unpaid at that point. He worked hard and showed incredible commitment.
“So of course,” she said, “we found a place for him here.”