This post is about a project that has many owners: myself, Max and Molly, Susan Bodnar-Deren of VCU Sociology, VCU Sociology students, Bob Argabright of Oak Grove, and most importantly, the Green Team.
In Fall of 2015, we started working with 8 middle-schoolers from three different schools in Richmond, Virginia. These 8, known as the Green Team, work in connection with Groundwork RVA to represent and advocate for improvement in their community.
Over the course of the winter and through 2016, we worked with this group to teach project development skills focused on media production: specifically idea mapping, critical thinking, acknowledging your own biases when telling stories, and staying organized on the soft skills side; and video production, interview skills, video editing, and developing stage presence and confidence on the hard skills side. We also worked with a few cohorts of VCU Sociology students as they worked with the Green Team and dipped their toes into service learning.
We went out in the field to record, brought in guest presenters and speakers to share insights with the group, and took field trips to community landmarks to find inspiration for the kids to tell their story.
Over 1 1/2 years, we met at least once or twice a month. We covered a lot of different ground with the Green Team. The story they wanted to tell about their community was multi-facted and complicated; They love their schoolmates, family, friends, and neighbors. However, it’s an undeniable fact that the neighborhoods they come from, Oak Grove and Bellemeade, have been historically poor and affected by crime. These neighborhoods still carry a heavy stigma that weighs on its residents, including the children. They’re aware of it. They acknowledge it. The challenge of this project was not how do you communicate that awareness, but rather, how do you want to communicate it? How do you take ownership of that story and history as a child? As a teenager? As an adult?
It was a major project that ultimately resulted in an 8-minute video. While my hand was guiding smaller hands over the mouse and clicking the right buttons at certain points, the final product was entirely their own.
In the way that love letters can be imperfect and scrappy in a way that testifies to genuineness, this video was, too. Their handprint is on it distinctly, as was their message of hopefulness and aspiration.
Last winter, right before Christmas break, they had a showcase at the Bellemeade Community Center and shared the culmination of their year of work with family, friends, and long-standing members of their community. They shared a meal, performed, screened the video, and each of the kids – Jaresha, Alyasia, Ii’dajah, Ii’jeana, Khalia, Bobbi, Nave, and Jahari – took a turn to speak about what the project meant to them. There was lots of laughter, a few tears, and a really abundant sense of love and community in this room.
I haven’t recapped this project until now because we’re still working with the Green Team. We’ve moved onto a new endeavor with board games, and by the Fall we’ll have another showcase to write about.
But there’s a pull to reflect on this project now, in the summer, for one reason: in jut a few weeks, the majority of the Green Team is splitting up and moving on to high school.
Watching these 8 kids mature from 7th graders who’d never touched a camera into high school freshmen with real presence has been a reminder of how quickly time passes and how just how much can change within it. Seeing them hit milestones – be it in their technical abilities, thinking skills, maturity, or else – forced me to constantly check back in to my 13 year old self and frame every decision within the question of “would preteen me grow or benefit from this?”
We tend to get wrapped up in our own head spaces when it comes to work and accomplishing tasks – I think that having a hyper goal-oriented attitude, while valuable, can also be the culprit behind unintentional ignorance towards the needs of others. It was working through each stage of the project thoughtfully and patiently that enabled their video to develop such a heartfelt center. I appreciated this group so much – because through the very act of being themselves, they helped me become more empathetic.
Knowing this project was always going to be transient made every session with the kids special. Like with many projects we work on, the process became the most important aspect, far and above any final product. At the end of the day, we wanted the kids to feel like they were walking away from their work towards multiple new potential beginnings at their fingertips, rather than one end.
When asked about his feelings on the project, Jahari said “It’s like we’re creating our own legacy.” If one sentence could sum up this project as a success, this was it.
The evidence can be found throughout journalism, literature, cinema, and more: good stories can change the world. And even if this one story told by 8 different kids from Richmond, Virginia never reaches a global audience, it at least changed one world: theirs. I’m really happy that we were able to guide this group through projects that empower them as young adults and storytellers – and even more importantly, as agents of change in their own communities. Even though the dividing paths of high school makes the future of the Green Team unclear, I can’t wait to see how each of these change-makers forges their own path into adolescence and beyond.