Street Level Media: A Conversation with Beyond Bullets' Stephanie Skaff

Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear more about the PopTech Salon on Social Mapping in Chicago. We’ll also have an update on video artist Lincoln Schatz and Ceasefire’s collaboration, Cure Violence, a groundbreaking digital hybrid of public art and public health outreach designed to empower communities to take control of the violence epidemic.

In mid-May PopTech held a salon workshop to highlight Ceasefire’s innovative efforts to “intercept” gun violence and to discuss how new information technologies might help broaden the impact of these initiatives in various communities.

To continue our exploration, PopTech recently caught up with Stephanie Skaff, the project director of the Downtown Community Television Center initiative called Beyond Bullets. The project is using youth-produced media – and media production – as a critical component of gun violence prevention.

What follows are excerpts of several conversations that I’ve had with Stephanie in the last couple weeks.

Beyond Bullets just wrapped up a weeklong tour to a number of schools in New York City, highlighting the media that the team’s young journalists have recently produced as part of the second year of this initiative. How did it go?

The biggest story to come out of the tour was our MC, Ronald Merritt. Ronald is a 23-year-old filmmaker from Jamaica, Queens. He knows 36 people who have been killed. When he got a camera, that’s when his life changed.

Ronald Merritt

On the tour, kids would ask him, “Where do you live now? How do you go home everyday?" He still has to go home to the projects, where he lives, and deal with street life. But now that he has a camera, he has an identity as a camera guy. He used to be known as “Du da Shooter,” because he was always handed the gun when his friends needed a shooter. After learning how to use a camera, he changed his name to “Du U TV” and put down the gun.

Before he starting filming, he had never gone 5 blocks beyond his home turf. Now he’s obsessively filming, going out and talking to new people, and working everyday.

So these kids can see that it is possible to stop the violence in their communities because he’s an example of someone just like them who is doing it.

Ronald’s story illustrates an earlier conversation Stephanie and I had about the power of stories to help prevent the sort of violence that Ronald has experienced.

Beyond Bullets uses existing technologies to focus on the stories that highlight not only the devastating impact of gun violence but also the efforts of young people to be leaders in their own communities. Beyond Bullets shares these stories in a number of ways, using the production of those videos to empower young people, and then posting these videos online as well as screening them in communities that are most affected by gun violence.
We really need to tell the stories behind the statistics – to understand the suffering that comes from the deaths of the 30,000 people who have been shot and killed in this country. If you start to isolate stories, you can actually start to dig into the depths of this problem. If you tell a story about one mother who lost her child to gun violence, which leads to how that affects the brother and the sister and the father and the best friends, and the school, and the community center, everyone who was surrounded by that single person who was shot and killed.

I think having young people produce this media is really critical because you can get their perspective. Young people are disproportionately affected by gun violence, and they have a lot to say about it.

May 2010 Beyond Bullets tour

How do these stories get to the heart of the Beyond Bullets project? Tell me more about how this project emerged from an autobiographical film?
The project started in 2005 with a (DCTV) youth media student, Terrence Fisher, wanted to make a project about gun violence in his neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. So he started making this film and in the middle of making it, his best friend, Timothy Stansbury, was shot and killed in front of him by a police officer. The film itself took on special significance for him. He finished the film, which was called Bullets in the Hood, and it did really well at Sundance and at the Tribeca Film Festival. He realized that although it did really well in the film circuit, his own community hadn’t gotten to see it. So he screened it in his own community. DCTV took their “CyberCar,” which is really a former passenger bus that was converted into a media production and exhibition vehicle. It has a video wall on the outside to screen the film. They took the film around New York City and up to Hartford, Connecticut. There were “talk backs” after the film to talk with teenagers about gun violence in their communities.

There were a number of reasons that film was successful. The primary one was that Terrence was a teenager, and it became a great outreach tool for other teenagers. Terrence’s voice was really critical in reaching out to other teenagers, mainly on youth violence in cities.

Beginning in 2008, Beyond Bullets received support from the Ford Foundation, the Community Information Challenge of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the New York Community Trust. The project has focused on building a national presence as well as fostering local partnerships to help extend the impact of youth-produced media, but also on highlighting the work of amazing individuals who are transforming their communities everyday. Tell me more about this.
The first year we were really focused on identifying the problem. I was really shocked to learn how normalized gun violence has become in communities. It’s become accepted. Now we’ve started to identify solutions.

We’re focusing on getting youth filmmakers to pick up cameras to tell the stories of local heroes like 22-year-old Shaina Harrison. She’s really quite an incredible young woman. She grew up facing a lot of the same choices that her peers were facing, without solid role models or parental guidance. She was around drugs, she was around gangs, she was around a lot of things that could have taken her on a different path but made deliberate choices to move beyond those things. She had teachers and leaders who saw something in her and gave her opportunities that her peers never got. She runs a program called “Reaction,” a group that meets once a week after school and basically reacts to gun violence in their communities. It’s actually become the most popular after school program – this is at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 100% of her students have graduated, and 90% of the students in the program have gone off to college. They come in to talk about their own experiences and they learn about gun laws nationally and locally. Hopefully, DCTV will start teaching her students to make documentaries so they can become their own anti-gun violence journalists.

Part of the real impact of Beyond Bullets is that the organization makes stories like Shaina’s, and the success of her particular strategies, visible to other communities as well. Stephanie and I spoke some more about the project’s outreach strategy and the direct community action component.
If we can get policy makers to the site, legislators, and other community leaders to the site, just in a way to confront the things that are happening in our city streets, then that in some way is a kind of intervention. But we’re not lobbyists, we’re trying to showcase the issue.

But really, local partners are most critical to our campaign. We want kids to be contributing [to the website] as often as possible. If we can get as many people as possible posting stories to the site, who have been affected by this issue, then that, in some way, can really help. So we have to get to the people that kids admire, and work with them. Give over our tools to people who work with these kids on a daily basis. They have the answers to their own communities. We want local partners to use the tools that work the best for them, and they don’t have to be managed by us.

So after your spring tour, what’s next for Beyond Bullets this summer?
Right now, we are focusing on New York City right now so we can really work on what’s going on in each of these neighborhoods and so that local communities can use our site as a resource.

Starting this summer, and into the fall, we’re going to be working with a lot of teenagers that have been affected by gun violence, or have grown up in communities that are affected by gun violence. And the more young people we can have picking up cameras instead of guns in these communities, the better: to become unafraid to talk about this issue, and become unafraid to document it, and stand up to it, the better.

The Beyond Bullets initiative is still in its early stages but it suggests the power of stories to make change. It also suggests the impact that aggregating these particular stories about young leaders whose hands-on approaches can truly impact their own communities. As the Beyond Bullets team of teenagers, cameras in hand, take to the streets of New York City this summer, PopTech will be checking in on their progress. Stay tuned for more.

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