Audra Carson | Photo Takara Williams
What happens when middle schoolers are given cameras with the goal of going much deeper than taking pictures? Community Lens, which is an initiative that fosters leadership, community engagement, and place-based education endeavored to find out. Kim Sherobbi, a community practitioner and former DPS teacher, is the director of the initiative that is currently in its second year. Learning takes place inside and outside of the classroom. Community Lens operates from Birwood Houses I & II, community houses located on Detroit’s westside, and neighboring Noble Middle School. It is an excellent example of place-based education and it is experiencing some wonderful results.
Participating students at Noble Middle School have discovered that they possess gifts and talents that have impressed their community educators, each other, and, most importantly, themselves.
In early 2018, by recommendation of Educator and Student Advocate Ms. Rosalind Furlow, the students decided to spend two lunch periods per week learning photography. Upon assignment of digital cameras, the youth were provided instruction on their use, as well as the rules and expectations of classroom behavior. The students were totally unaware of how their focus would be adjusted and special character traits highlighted by learning to become photographers.
Classroom time was led by Ms. Sherobbi and assisted by renowned photographer, activist, and entrepreneur Piper Carter, and myself, a community leader and entrepreneur. Ms. Carter provided careful instruction on the foundational elements and techniques required for a great photograph. Short how–to videos were shared in the classroom along with hands-on learning assignments. The students learned composition and techniques such as framing, pattern, and depth of field. While looking at photos from prominent magazines, they learned that often, if the subject is a celebrity, technique is secondary, or non–existent.
Students were provided a relaxed atmosphere at Birwood House II, where during their winter and spring breaks they attended ‘learnshops’ led by community leaders like Ray Solomon, who is a Detroit City Manager for District 7, youth-organizer Julia Cuneo, and Denija Hodge, who is a former Community Lens student. Open dialogue occurred regarding conflict resolution and leadership during which time the educators in Community Lens began to see the emergence of leadership traits in their students. The youth walked the neighborhood on photography excursions that encouraged honest conversation regarding the aesthetic and physical conditions of their community. The photography techniques discussed in the classroom over the months were used in the streets where they lived and attended school.
The students toured Studio D, a professional photography and recording studio located close to their school. The visit prompted thoughtful questions and deep engagement as the students learned about lighting techniques, career pathways and enriching life lessons. Visits to the Boggs Center, Michigan Roundtable Annual Youth Leadership Conference and Eastern Michigan University were phenomenal experiences for the students which broadened their scope regarding community engagement and leadership. Additionally, a program-ending exhibit at Adams Butzel Recreation Complex showcased the student’s work for guests that included Noble School staff, family and community members.
Photography skills were developed, creativity emerged, and some charming and dynamic youth from Noble Middle School found out that their “eye” and their voices matter— with those, they have the potential to change their community.
Audra D. Carson is a lifelong Detroiter and proud alumnus from Cass Technical High School and Olivet College, in Olivet, Michigan. Currently she leads two social enterprises: De-tread that addresses the global issue of post consumer tire waste and Izzie LLC, a Strategic Beautification company. Additionally, she volunteers with Community Lens as a student engagement assistant.