The voices of these students were featured last week in a temporary exhibit that was in collaboration with Foto Week DC. I went to the exhibit this past Friday after work and was pleased to see that a whole room was dedicated to the photos and biographies of the students from Critical Exposure. One young man focused on how students at Roosevelt Senior High School in DC must enter through the back door since the front entrance has been permanently locked for decades. His photos revealed how students have to walk to school through a dirty alleyway lined with dumpsters and littered with broken glass. Given that the school is 70% African American and 30% Latino, forcing students to enter through the back door certainly carries some negative connotations.
The Critical Exposure photos were uplifting in the sense that they enabled low-income students to speak out against the injustices that they face at their schools, but at the same time they were also somewhat disheartening. They painted a rather bleak picture of the way that some students come to experience their education, with a few students expressing that their school often feels more like a prison. The students' photos conveyed a message that words alone could not since the images provided stark evidence of the reality in which the students live. Had I read a book or a newspaper article about the issues presented in the photos, I'm sure I would have still been disappointed. But the photos were more compelling as they allowed me to see the world through the students' eyes, and not through the words of a scholar or a journalist.
In many ways, the work enacted at Critical Exposure reminds me of the work carried out at my internship at Center for Community Change (CCC). Both organizations aim to amplify the voices of low-income people, while giving them the opportunity to have a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives. Just as CCC interacts with immigrant families and immigrant rights organizations to advance the interests of the immigration reform movement, Critical Exposure works with teenage students coming from low-income communities to promote school reforms as the students see fit.
Although it was a bit discouraging to see the conditions that some DC Public School students are subjected to, it was inspiring nonetheless in knowing that their photos are helping to bring about positive changes to their schools. The students at one high school have persuaded their principal to hire a full-time librarian since they did not have one before, and some students at another high school are working to address the school's discipline policies. Almost any form of social change will take time, but I think that the students' efforts at Critical Exposure are especially effective since they are working at the local level at the very schools that they attend. To view an online gallery of some of the students' photos click here.