Seattle-based Youth in Focus puts cameras in the hands of youth and teaches them how to turn negatives into positives. They empower youth to find their voice and gain self-confidence. And along the way, they teach young people how to take some pretty amazing photos. Livestock is delighted to announce that it has partnered with Youth in Focus to make those photos available for purchase, with proceeds going back to Youth in Focus and its programming. Scroll down to read the interview with their Executive Director, Trina Gadsden. And if you’d like to purchase some excellent photography and also support a most worthy cause, you can visit the Youth in Focus gallery by clicking here.
YIF: Youth in Focus is a youth development program that uses photography to empower our students to be able to tell their story through a different lens. We work with around 300 youth a year from all walks of life: those struggling in school, homeless, affluent, we take anyone. This is a really open place and an open community for these youth to feel a sense of belonging and to explore photography and what’s going on inside them using a camera instead of having to talk about it. It’s really magical how we’re able to work with these brilliant young minds.
My role as Executive Director is to fund the organization, to keep it moving in the right direction, recruit the right students and find the right teaching artists. I make sure that everything is growing in the right direction and positively affecting our youth.
YIF: Kind of a funny way. I was on the Blue Earth Alliance board (blueearth.org) 10 years ago with Walter Bodle – the founder. And when he was leaving the Blue Earth Board to go back to run Youth in Focus, I got really excited about learning about the positive impact Youth in Focus had on teens. As I was in the corporate world at JP Morgan at the time and the nonprofit world was new to me. A few years later, my best friend’s mom ended up with brain cancer. I was very close with her and loved her dearly and while she was in the hospital we had a profound conversation and talked about regrets. After she passed away, I took that conversation to heart and acted on it. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and then came back to Seattle and got an Executive Masters in Nonprofit Leadership. I ended up running a nonprofit in Uganda and knew that I wouldn’t be able to have to the opportunity to see some of these young souls again due to the circumstances and it was really painful. Walter called me and said you need to apply for the Executive Director position. I was already aware and involved with Youth in Focus as I’d worked a lot with them in graduate school and it was finally the right time for me to join in an official capacity.
YIF: There are usually about 10-12 youth in each class and they decide to work in digital or black and white. We interview each student to see what resonates with them in order to figure out which route they want to take. Sometimes we have autistic students who may need a different type of support but we make sure to work with everyone. We have professional teaching artists who have usually started as a mentor in the program so we know how they’ll work with the students. Each class is two and half hours long, twice a week over eight weeks. At the beginning of each class, teaching artists do check in’s and connect as a community and then they jump in and learn a skill and practice it together. At the end of day, classes do a check out and talk about what we’re they’re grateful for. Throughout the program, students are working toward their final photograph, self portrait and written artist statement, which they present and talk about at their End of Quarter Show that is open to the public. In this day and age, it doesn’t matter your background – every youth needs emotional safety and the ability to be able to express their feelings.
YIF: So many. There are so many. There was one student named Tony who had been in foster care for a bit and was getting tossed around to different places. He would come in my office a little early each day, so I could tell that he needed extra love. I really connected with him. Most of the time we laughed about silly stuff. But one time he was so upset that he was getting kicked out of his foster home and wanted to know how to talk to his foster mom to see if he could stay. I mean, I’m not a social worker but I really felt for him and tried to help him in any way I could. He ended up at a new school and one day he said he thought one of his new teachers was going to adopt him, which felt like a long shot. A month later he got adopted. I was crying, he was crying, he was dancing around my office – it was such a joyous thing. Later that quarter his new dad was at his show and it was just amazing.
One youth from Mexico took a black and white photo of a mailbox and his artist statement was about how he moved around a lot because his mom was constantly having to change jobs. His dream was to be successful enough to buy a house for him and his mom to live in and a mailbox was that ultimate symbol for him of permanence and home.
Derek is another student. He did a series where he took pictures of his friends at school being happy and playful and then went home with them and took photos of how they were really feeling. At his End of Quarter Show – he stands up in front of the audience and goes from this nervous youth to this incredible speaker and gives this speech about how people hold in their real feelings. He just bared his soul.
YIF: Yeah definitely! The goal isn’t to make them photographers but it’s to make them feel empowered to be able to go out there and accomplish their dreams. A couple of our students, Kaya and Chris have gone on to study photography in college. Aside from learning this skill, we ultimately want to just help them stay in the moment and use photography as a vehicle to express their feelings.
YIF: You can purchase student photos right on the Livestock gallery and have the option to choose a professional gallery frame now which is really special. The net proceeds are split 50/50 with Youth in Focus and the student. It’s a great way to help empower the student and keep them supported via the program. It lets them know that they matter and that their creative voice matters.
To learn more about Youth in Focus and its programming, please visit their website.