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Youth Document Durham allows local teens to build a community record--and work toward a more tolerant society



Summer camp evokes images of swimming pools and romping in athletic fields. But for about 60 Durham teens, a local program introduces them to a field of a different sort: documentary photography.

Youth Document Durham, sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies, is a three-week day camp where 13- to 15-year-olds who live in Durham (city and county) build a community record while learning photography, creative writing and interviewing skills. Campers capture their world in words and with manual cameras provided by the program. They learn how to develop their own black-and-white film and discuss how to promote their work--all for a $25 fee, which is returned in the form of a gift certificate upon successful completion of the program.

Barbara Lau, director of community documentary programs at the center, said that Youth Document Durham, now in its seventh year, is also a way for young people to work toward a more tolerant society.

"We try to model mutual respect in how we work as a staff, and we talked about how the students could continue that. The goal of helping kids get along is certainly not our primary goal, but it is one of many important ones. And in their projects, the kids talk about reality. But they also come to talk about how they want things to be."

The reality is that, although local schools are as multicultural as any institutions in the area, youths of different racial, ethnic and class backgrounds rarely get to meet on any meaningful level, said Rosey Truong, the center's visual arts educator, and Chris Weber, the former program coordinator.

Truong was a co-leader of one of three thematic groups for this year's two camp sessions: She worked with the "Worldwide Colors" group, which focused on diversity issues, while other staff members led groups called "Why Kids Fight" and "Jobs that Pay." The topics were selected by an advisory group of teens.

Using the documentary approach, the participants in the first session tapped their lives for subject matter but were challenged to go beyond their own experiences. The 10 members of "Why Kids Fight" did investigative research into the May 29, shooting at South Square Mall, which involved a 16-year-old gunman who could have been their schoolmate. In "Jobs that Pay," the youths visited doctors and other professionals, then combined their findings into a makeshift magazine. The "Worldwide Colors" group talked to an immigration lawyer and produced a mural and quilt.

Rising high school sophomore Vaushawn "Shawn" Gibson, who went to Brogden Middle School this year, was surprised to see the diversity at Youth Document Durham. The first session of 30 students was approximately one-third black, one-third "Anglo" and one-third Latino with an additional two South Asian students.

"It's hard to get to know [teens from different backgrounds]. Brogden has a lot of blacks and not a lot of whites and Latinos. There were only about two Asians in the whole eighth grade," Gibson said.

In the past, the burgeoning Hispanic population and participation in Youth Document Durham has demanded some focus on Latino-black relations. According to the U.S. Census, the Hispanic population in North Carolina quadrupled during the '90s. That means blacks and Latinos are increasingly sharing the same physical spaces, such as housing and schools, and the same economic space.

But living together or in close proximity isn't the same as mingling socially. Rosey Truong noted that for several years the running controversy at Youth Document Durham has been Hispanic participants speaking in Spanish and others, particularly black youths, objecting on the grounds that the Latinos might be talking about them.

While campers get a healthy dose of multiculturalism and conflict resolution, Truong said the inter-group tensions that exist outside Youth Document Durham seep in and won't be resolved in three weeks.

Shawn Gibson knows how it feels to be stereotyped. As a young black male sporting braids and untied boots, he was told by a police officer he looked like a drug dealer or a kid bound for trouble. But he said he entered the program with an avid interest in photography and few notions about other ethnic groups.

"I don't really mind Latinos," he said. "They just sometimes make me mad. If you say 'Excuse me,' and they don't move, that just makes you get ruder."

He conceded that the small problems he's had with Latinos could be a language barrier. Gibson plans to take Spanish when he goes to Riverside. "I will probably understand more of what they go through and have a better attitude," he said.

Enrique "Henry" Armijo, an Orange County human rights specialist who has helped with the program in previous years, commented that Youth Document Durham allows teens to appreciate differences but also underlines their similarities.

"You really get to visually see what they have in common. Sidney would come back with a picture of a car, and Pedro would, too. It was important to them, but in different ways," he said.

Beyond the program's multicultural bent and getting kids turned on to photography, Lau said, Youth Document Durham gives its participants a chance to express themselves in ways that middle-schoolers rarely have. One activity gave the campers a dilemma and asked them to serve as a "mayor's advisory board" to recommend solutions.

The problem-solving aspect came into play when the "Worldwide Colors" group stumbled upon the Web site of a white supremacist group while looking for online statistics about hate crimes. Immediately, said group leader Rosie Truong, the students began discussing what they could do to protest the Web page's content and drafted a letter to the site's sponsoring organization.

Jordan Campbell, a "Why Kids Fight" co-facilitator, said that the students' stand was not unusual because teens, contrary to what some adults may think, have a lot to say.

"They are really aware of what's going on, but they feel nobody's listening." EndBlock

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