Last Wednesday, Anna and I attended a screening of The Philadelphia Project, created by Erahm Christopher. This documentary spanned over 7 months of class time in one of toughest areas in Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion High School.
After the screening, there was a talk back with Erahm, one of the students from the documentary-Lacora (I'm not sure if that's how she spells her name), and the moderator who grew up in the Strawberry Mansion area. I really enjoyed listening to the circumstances behind the project and how it came to be. Taken directly from his website, this quote re-states what he said at the talk back:
"During this seven-month program, Erahm worked with sixteen youth at the only high school in the most dangerous police district in Philadelphia. Erahm trained the youth to deconstruct narrative media to understand how artistic techniques may influence how a viewer thinks and feels. The students learned how to apply the same method to express their thoughts regarding current events. The collaborative process helped unify the youth and improve their communication, public speaking and writing skills. The program culminated in a spoken word presentation to members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Erahm documented the entire program on camera, resulting in a 60-minute documentary currently being utilized as an educational tool to help improve the social dynamic of their urban community."
By itself, that is cool--but what was even more encouraging to me was how Erahm described how this process grew out of analyzing his own creative process. He encouraged the students to "create," as a response to emotions, particularly those of aggression, anger, sadness, or negativity. It was moving to see his work truly creating positive social change.
Not only was the documentary and talk back powerful, but having one of his students as a speaker validated the work. Lacora wasn't super outspoken, but I found her response to the question: "why did you trust Mr. Christopher?" very authentic and impactful. Lacora essentially said something along the lines of: the fact that he was there, he kept showing up, Mr. Christopher would text or check in on [her] and others to make sure [they] were doing alright, consistency.
The film described a moment a few months into the experience where the group had a sense of ceasing to be individuals and began operating as more of a collective. They had decided that the last few months of this time together would accept "no more garbage," no more nonsense. There seemed to be a shift from the earlier months, where many students were guarded, hardened, in survival-mode, if you will--to more of a trusting, not afraid-to-lower-their-guards collective . Around this time in the doc, one of the students mentioned how they used to think that they were the only ones who had experienced some of the more difficult circumstances in their life, but after hearing each others stories, came to an awareness of...oh, I guess we are a lot more alike than we thought...and...I guess there is the possibility that there are other people out there like me.
I am excited to see how the exposure of this documentary can effect communities to come as distribution plans grow.
One of Erahm's upcoming projects is entitled Listen. From what he described at the talk back session of The Philadelphia Project, it sounds like Listen is going to explore how in a world so connected by technology, why are people, students especially feeling more isolated than ever? Erahm believes it's because there is a distinct lack of listening, a disconnect. To take another excerpt from Listen's website:
"Listen tells the story of nearly every high school in this country where students hide their pain, friends ignore each other’s cries for help, and adults are too overwhelmed to stop and listen.
Created in response to the crisis facing our youth, Listen gives a voice to teens everywhere. It’s a wake up call to face the reality that if we’re not part of the solution, we are all responsible for the next tragedy."
I hope to get a chance to check this project out.
The last thing I'm curious about in regards to The Philadelphia Project, is what, if any factors played a major role in Erahms success compared to the teacher that was there every day. Off the top of my head, I don't recall the teacher's name, but here are a few more obvious things to consider: both people were white in an almost entirely non-white community, teacher was female and Erahm male, and from the brief glimpses into the teacher's testimony in the doc, both seemed to genuinely care about the students as people, their wellbeing and future, and both seemed to be consistently there (which Lacora and others had said was so important). Other than there sexes, although Erahm was there, he wasn't there every single day.
So, I just wonder if there was something to be said about only having Erahm there once a month provided some sort of novelty that invoked a better response. Sort of like the fun step-dad who always takes you to the theme park when he's in town and doesn't have to facilitate discipline and the grittiness of the day to day. He's a filmmaker, that's flashy. Even if the intent of the program wasn't to make a documentary from the beginning, I'm sure there was still some sort of flashiness that might have prompted a greater response. As a student I know I would have been drawn to it.
Erahm did get a rather deep and vulnerable response from the students; so don't get me wrong, I know that Erahm asked some really engaging questions and was very present...the doc speaks for itself. I don't think Erahm's mentality was some sort of "savior complex," either, I'm just acknowledging the people that are in the trenches day in and day out sometimes don't get the credit that they're due.
Whatever factors were involved to have the outcome be what it was--that's great--I just hope that this experience that the students received will continue to shape them in their adult lives. Maybe they will be able to share that with more people and continue this movement of change, one community at a time.
Culturally relevant--community relevant in my case, education focused, perspective changing, creative. These things light my fire. Glad to have seen another artist who is doing something about it.