Community Impact

Youth, Mobile Portraits and Community Narratives

Our Digital Inclusion Week guest blog series continues with Anthony Rea of the Mattie Rhodes Center, which has been serving the community in Kansas City for 125 years.

I should preface that this story is really about digital inclusion, but I just wanted to give a little context to the how and why we do what we do with young people and the leadership they offer us when we give them space to learn and question.

I used to instruct digital photography in the Pilsen community of Chicago between 2009 and 2013. It was a community going through drastic changes with gentrification and new developments transforming the landscape of the neighborhood. My group of young people tasked ourselves with the job of documenting the people and spaces that made up their community – actively responding to their transforming environment and personal histories. It was an exciting time for all of us – the work was beautiful but more importantly, it communicated something important, and our young people were the ones leading that communication through their art-making.

Fast forward to a little over a year ago -- I’m in Kansas City’s historic Northeast community working with Mattie Rhodes Center watching our after school instructors work on a stop-motion animation with students using the instructors' phones and makeshift tripods. I’m sitting there thinking how these young people needed the right tools – how we needed a photo/video program. So I start to draft up a program (and a budget) that would put tablets in the hands of our young people, we would produce imagery and audio projects that told their stories and stories of their community – they would respond to the issues that impacted them the most, so ultimately these amazing young people could build skills around social media, representation, communication, and image-making. After personally shopping the proposal around to a few funders my boss said there was a Google Fiber representative that wanted to know what plans we had regarding technology and digital inclusion. I handed her my proposal, and we were off!

Now, fast-forward several months and our Digital Media Lab, sponsored by Google FIber, has been working with students at our Northeast Mattie Rhodes Center location since Spring 2019. Students have explored self-portraiture and representation explicating who they are and where they hope to be in life. More importantly, they have been learning to use this tablet – this iPad as an actual place of artistic production. Expanding on the consuming function that many of us might consider, our youth are learning more about this device, the various available apps that they can access to create and share their creative and visual ideas, and how to responsibly share through social media.

We have also started to engage community members through a Community Photo Booth that we created. Our setup is a simple one, with iPads and tripods. Many of our students talked about their families not having “professional” family portraits. That discussion quickly took us into saying, “Why can’t we be our own professionals ?” So we looked at portraiture and imagery that we appreciated and held our first public event last May. The photo booth created an opportunity for our students to be the “professional” photographers in the neighborhood for their families and community. They manage the process, have forms and use Flickr as a way to share the photos with our participants.

We are now building the photo booth idea into our Digital Media Lab so that more students can go through the steps and will eventually build videography skills. The goal is to transform our students into a mobile portrait and video team taking family portraits in the area and collecting narratives from our Northeast Kansas City residents.

By providing space to learn how to use the tools, our students have the opportunity to do something really exciting with technology. They are moving beyond just being passive consumers of imagery but actual producers of it -- taking control of not just their imagery and representation, but even how their immediate friends and family and ultimately their community is seen. Digital inclusion isn’t just about the technology, it’s about the connection, and that’s what these kids are doing every day.

Posted by Anthony Marcos Rea, Youth Development Coordinator, Digital Media Lab at the Mattie Rhodes Center.

Top photo caption: clockwise from upper left corner 1. Hailie Freeman, Lincoln Middle School; 2. Perla Ramos, Frontier Middle School; 3. Emma Courtice, Lincoln Middle School; 4. Diego Montes, Frontier Middle School; 5. Darianna Marquez, Lincoln College Prep HS; 6. Dominic Ramos, Frontier Middle School. From "Selfies & the Portrait," Spring 2019 and "Layering the Self Portrait using PhotoshopMix," Fall 2019.

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