“This project made me want to come to school because of the simple reason that we’re being heard. We talk about the little things and next thing you know, you have that change… We’re just going to continue with this and make the school even better, so that it’s the best for everybody: the staff, the teachers, and the students. “
Anthony, 11th grade, D.C
Anyone who knows the name “Michelle Rhee” knows there isn’t a shortage of education nonprofits in the National Capital Region. Some provide direct services to close the achievement gap or work to reshape the country’s educational system, but it is rare to find an organization that does both. One such nonprofit is Critical Exposure.
The 7-year old non-profit teaches low-income youth “to use the power of photography and their own voices to become effective advocates for school reform and social change.” Critical Exposure maintains a delicate balance between the short-term needs of youth empowerment programs and the long term goals of educational policy reform by partnering with over 50 schools, youth groups and advocacy campaigns.
Community Partners are Key
Despite its small size (only a handful of employees and a few Americorps members), Critical Exposure has been able to achieve significant policy gains. Though the majority of its projects lie within the borders of the NCR, schools and nonprofits from far beyond its boundaries have partnered with Critical Exposure including groups in Pennsylvania, Texas, and New Orleans. It has garnered over $400 million in extra funding for public schools.
One of Critical Exposure’s current projects is a partnership with the District’s Washington Metropolitan High School. In January, staff began to work with students, who quickly identified the school’s lack of a quality library as an issue. They began to document the conditions of the current library, as well as the need for more literacy resources in general in their community.
Though this project is on-going, the participating students have already met with the Superintendent of their school and the DCPS Manager of Library and Media Services to discuss their research and their concerns. As a result, the superintendent pledged an additional $2,000 towards the creation of a student-designed library. Following further exhibitions of their work, students received donations of nearly 400 books.
When asked about the organization’s evolution and the challenges it has faced, Executive Director and Co-founder, Adam Levner, explains that Critical Exposure has adapted its model over the years to address the difficulty of aligning student project schedules with the oftentimes-slow pace of policy change. The result is the organization’s commitment to incorporating both long- and short-term goals into their work with students.
Though Critical Exposure always keeps policy-level changes in sight, they now simultaneously focus on helping students work towards short-term gains, such as changing the way school security guards treat students. This dual focus helps students feel empowered by seeing concrete changes in their schools as a result of their efforts, yet still introduces them to the complex process that is advocacy for policy change.
One of the most remarkable things about Critical Exposure is the way it has been able to use their expertise in documentary photography to support and enhance the work of other advocacy groups, youth organizations, and public schools working toward shared goals. They will showcase their work at an upcoming event “Picture Equality,” which will include a reception and photography auction featuring work by several Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers.
As those of you who read my previous post will no doubt already guess, I see extraordinary power in including those affected by educational iniquity in the process of advocating for and implementing school reform. Critical Exposure does this well, and as a result, their programs have transformed the lives of many of its youth participants, bringing them out of the darkness of addiction and substance abuse, the shadows of shyness, and into the public sphere of their communities.
In a time and place when so many, across all sectors, seem to be vying for the best and most effective way to create their particular vision of change, running parallel to their colleagues in the same field, Critical Exposure is a welcome breath of fresh air and collaboration. Isn’t that what the unsector should be all about?
Photo Credit: Critical Exposure