Temple Times Online Edition
    MAY 4, 2006
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Temple project gives Philadelphia youth a soapbox

Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg/University Photography
Matthew Little (left) and Fritz Lubin, youth participants in the Temple Youth VOICES Project, prepare for taping a scene in Paley Library for “The Step After Next,” a group-produced video documenting some of the choices young Philadelphians face after high school: college, jobs, the military and the street life. “The Step After Next” is one of two VOICES videos that will be screened this Saturday at noon in the Underground in the Student Center.

Friday, the Temple Youth VOICES Project will celebrate its fifth year of empowering young people in Philadelphia’s underserved neighborhoods to use their voices for positive social change.

VOICES, one of the flagship projects of Temple’s University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), has enabled hundreds of Philadelphians between the ages of 14 and 21 to produce videos, create publications and make multimedia presentations that document the challenges of their lives.

In five years, VOICES classes — usually 10 to 12 youths paired with two to four Temple student mentors — have produced more than 30 videos that have unflinchingly covered the subjects that matter most to their creators: frustration with school and jobs, obstacles to higher education, interactions with police, racism, violence, drugs and more. Every aspect of production, from story development to editing, is planned and executed by youth participants with support and guidance from Temple student mentors.

“VOICES allows young people to work in a supportive, safe environment with tools that they don’t otherwise have access to, like video cameras and professional computer software,” said Barbara Ferman, the UCCP’s executive director and a professor of political science at Temple.

VOICES recruits most of its youth participants from community partner organizations around the city, such as Vare Beacon, a community center housed at Vare Middle School in South Philadelphia. The project is completely externally funded; after a startup grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, VOICES has been funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America Program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the William Penn Foundation and the Philadelphia Foundation.

One of the project’s goals is to expose young people in low-income neighborhoods to campus life.

“We make a point of bringing VOICES youths to Temple,” Ferman said. “Although these young people face many formidable obstacles when it comes to access to higher education, we want to help in a small way by demystifying the whole college experience for them.”

It works, according to junior criminal justice major Kim Russell, a VOICES instructor and former youth participant. Although Russell’s family encouraged her to go to college throughout high school, it was working with Temple students in VOICES that convinced her that a college degree was something she wanted for herself.

“I looked at the Temple students and thought ‘I could do this too,’” Russell said during a video editing session with a VOICES class in Gladfelter Hall. “That’s why I feel like I’m making a difference by building relationships with VOICES youth. I try to tell them not to let money problems and family issues determine their success in school. I encourage them to use education as a way to better their lives.”

The next step for VOICES, said Catherine Cavanaugh, the UCCP’s associate director of youth civic engagement, is to find ways to help young people put their media projects to work to effect change in their communities.

Over the past five months, a VOICES video called “Connecting Truth to Power: Youth Speak Out on Their Communities, Their Lives and Their Challenges” has been screened by a team of VOICES youth at a Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention conference in Washington, D.C., and at a Delaware Valley Grantmakers’ forum on youth issues.

“It is a real inspiration to see, over and over again, how seriously the youth approach their work in VOICES,” Cavanaugh said. “It is a constant reminder that if you just provide young people with an opportunity and resources, they will consistently rise to the occasion.”

Two VOICES videos will be shown at the Underground in Temple’s Student Center this Saturday at noon: “The Step After Next,” about post-high-school options — college, work, the military or street life? — and “The Glass Ceiling,” a series of stories about the obstacles young people face, from employment problems to bias in the criminal justice system.

- By Hillel J. Hoffmann