'I Am': Teens share stories of race and identity in Woodlawn Library media workshop

In the film “I Am,” Nyah Courtney, 17, lays out her identity, claims it as her own.

Courtney is an artist. She is a pacifist — and a “very patient person,” she adds dryly as a friend picks at her hair with a comb, and another shuffles a set of playing cards in her lap.

A junior at Woodlawn High School, Courtney is currently taking four college courses through a dual-enrollment program: English, psychology, history and physics. She dreams of becoming a concept artist for Ubisoft, a video game company.

And, she says in the film, “I am black.”

“We’re breaking the stereotypes,” Courtney said of her film. “We are our own person, our own beings, we have our own lives. Just because of our skin color, it doesn’t mean you can objectify what we do or what we say.”

During “Youth Speak Out,” about a dozen teens broke into groups to tackle the heavy subjects of racism and identity as they learned to maneuver film equipment and edit their work.

The workshop, put on by the nonprofit Wide Angle Media, is intended to give young people in the Baltimore region a way to express their stories through film. Woodlawn Library’s workshop was the first of its kind in Baltimore County.

Wide Angle Media director Susan Malone said that the organization teaches digital media literacy to young people, largely in Baltimore City, as a way to “engage young people in telling stories and civic learning, and to think about the issues going on around them.”

“We focus not just on the development of a young person,” Malone said, “but on learning how to work as a team, how to work on a project together, how to listen and interpret and share back to a broader audience.”

Teachers Anne Sophie Amegah, 24, and Emma Bergman, 22, guided the students two days per week for three weeks, showing them how to use the Canon DSLR cameras, create storyboards and scripts and edit the final product in iMovie.

Amegah said that at the start of the workshop, the teens brainstormed ideas under the umbrella of Wide Angle Media’s annual theme, “Black Lives Matter,” discussing issues such as stereotypes and the experiences of women of color.

After planning, filming and editing their projects, the student-made films were screened for a standing-room audience of family and friends on Feb. 22.

“I learned there’s a lot more than just a camera,” said Kelis Gordon, 15, of Woodlawn. “There’s the mic setup, the backdrops, you have to make sure it’s clear and focused. It’s not like a camera on your phone.”

“I just hope that they have an imagination for this medium,” Bergman said near the end of the workshop. “Whenever you learn a new skill, you get a lot of ideas based on that skill. So I just hope that they’re inspired to keep making media and keep sharing their voices.”

One group, whose project theme was “stereotypes of Africa,” sprinkled water from a bottle in front of a camera lens to mimic rain on a sunny, 70-degree February afternoon.

When the teens pulled up their footage on a MacBook later that day, they put their hands in the air in triumph.

“See? We made it rain,” said MaKayla Davis, 15, of Woodlawn. “Hashtag rainmakers.”

Throughout the workshop, the teens laughed and joked around with each other, the instructors and the library staff. When MaKayla played the voice-over on the MacBook, she cringed and shouted: “Oh my gosh, you can hear the valley girl in me.”

Amid the noise, Ifeoma Onwuli, 13, of Gwynn Oak, sat quietly, editing her project: a film about Black Lives Matter, and how issues like police brutality are so commonly discussed in the media that she said people are getting desensitized to them.

“We’ve become so used to it that we don’t take the time to realize what’s going on,” Ifeoma said.

To communicate that message, she used clips from major movements in history — from the civil rights movement to the Million Man March to the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, which took place when Ifeoma was still in elementary school.

Bergman, a teacher and part-time employee of Wide Angle Media, said that though the three-week workshop afforded only limited time to teach the teens complicated technical skills, they picked them up quickly.

“They’re smart and interesting and fun students,” Bergman said, “So it’s been a lot easier than I thought.”

Kate Sigler, assistant branch manager at Woodlawn, said the workshop was funded through a $3,000 community grant from Best Buy.

Sigler applied for the grant, she said, to cater to the crowd of students that walks to the library from the neighboring Woodlawn High every day after school.

“We have a lot of really creative kids,” she said. “The more stuff we can expose them to, the better.”

Sigler said as many as 200 teenagers pack the Woodlawn branch each afternoon, playing video games, eating snacks funded through a USDA program and spending time with their friends. The library, Sigler said, is an “unofficial after-school program” — a safe, easy and convenient place for teens to hang out, often until their parents come to pick them up.

“The conversation is always, ‘How do we get kids to come to the library?’” Sigler said. “We don’t have to do that. They’re here.”

The challenge, she said, is coming up with “productive” activities for the after-school crowd, “rather than us just having a mass of unruly teens.”

Library system spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said that while a number of libraries in the county have large after-school crowds, Woodlawn’s is the largest.

The Youth Speak Out workshop is one way to occupy the students while exposing them to new skills.

“I’m here every day anyway,” said Kriz Ruffin, 15, of Gwynn Oak, before turning to Sigler and teasing, “And they don’t want to hire me yet, so I might as well do the project.”

Kriz said he decided to participate in the workshop because he is interested in photography, but could not fit a class into his schedule at Woodlawn High.

DeAndre Banks, 14, said he is considering becoming a photographer when he grows up, and that this was his first experience being taught to use a camera.

DeAndre said the film he made with his partner Kelis is about "owning our identity.”

“We did audio and we said what we are, and what we’re mistaken for, and what we can’t change and what we can change,” Kelis said.

“My appearance already makes people think something of me that I know I’m not,” DeAndre said. Asked what that something was, he laughed. “I guess you could say, the whole ‘hoodlum’ thing. I don’t steal, I don’t do drugs,” he said.

“Doesn’t skip school,” Kelis added.

Their film, DeAndre said, urges people to “own who you are, not try to change for anybody else.”

Courtney’s group’s film, too, is about the teens owning their own identities. In one shot, Monica Webb, of Woodlawn, slides sideways on the ground into the frame.

In a later scene, the group — Courtney, Webb and Kriz — crack up together, sitting side by side on a staircase in Woodlawn High, their laughter captured in slow motion.

“There’s a huge capacity for students to express themselves through media,” Bergman said. “And they shouldn’t be underestimated.”

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