A Reminder

by Jenny Stratton

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Photo from CAFSNJ group home, by Jenny Stratton

In Dr. Robert “Bob” Jones’ office hangs a painting of a mother and child.

In this painting, titled “Comfort” by Amanda Dunbar, a mother holds her child close; both mother and child are wearing white dresses and their heads are turned so that neither face is visible. The heavy brush strokes of white oil paint bleed together requiring time for the eye to distinguish where the mother’s dress ends and her child’s dress begins.

Dr. Bob Jones is the CEO Emeritus for New Jersey Children’s Aid and Family Services (CAFS). He has served as the CEO for thirty years and before that worked as Executive Director for the former Counseling Service of Ridgewood and Vicinity. I have quickly realized that long tenures of service are not unusual at CAFS. Most of the staff I have been introduced to have worked at CAFS for at least a decade and remain deeply connected to the organization’s mission: to preserve and protect vulnerable children, and when needed provide families for them.

Bob, who in addition to his multiple medical licenses and decades of experience in child welfare, has a great interest in primatology, informs me that to understand the purpose of displaying this painting I need to understand a herd of macaques.

He tells me about a study in which a herd of macaques in the Yaeyama islands were fed grain on the beach. As they ate the grain they would unintentionally ingest an undesirable amount of sand. After several days, the adult female macaques carried the grain from the sandy beach to the water. The water washed the sand off the grain and they would proceed to eat it sand-free. The next day their offspring followed their lead and also deposited the grain in the water prior to eating it. After a little over a week the entire herd followed the mother macaques’ behavior; the quality of their meals improved.

The study is a parable, the painting a reminder.

Walking the halls of CAFS’ offices these kinds of powerful reminders appear everywhere once you start looking for them: from handwritten letters, to photographs, to tokens and crafts gifted from children, to even a reproduction of Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother photograph on a 5×7 postcard. Each artifact has its own remembrance story.  Each traces back to the people and communities CAFS aims to serve. I am given my own purposeful inspiration for my time at CAFS through Lange’s image and words: “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”

Children’s Aid and Family Services was originally established in 1899. In addition to a long institutional history, the organization runs a wide array of holistic programs and services to aid vulnerable children and their families. Their complex scope of work is ever-evolving and currently includes adoption and adoption support services, therapeutic foster care, childcare, and early childhood education, drug and alcohol abuse education and prevention, eldercare, and community outreach. While their central office is located in Paramus, NJ, the organization manages several different kinds of group homes and programs throughout northern New Jersey.

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Drawing from CAFSNJ home, photo by Jenny Stratton

Most of the children and young mother’s living in CAFS’ housing have endured trauma in their lives, have little or no family support, often struggle in school and are at high risk for a life of poverty. According to the study, “Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America,” a child born into poverty today is five times more likely never to escape poverty than children who do not experience poverty.

“There’s no place like home.”

Betsy repeats this phrase excitedly as she clicks her sneakers together and holds up a blue dress. It is only two days until Halloween and Betsy will be dressing up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. She has been showing me around her room including her doll collection, photographs and favorite outfits. Betsy lives with three other residents in a Children’s Aid and Family Services’ managed home dedicated to providing 24-hour care specifically for adults with developmental disabilities. This is the sixth and most recently acquired home CAFs runs as part of their Disability Support Services program. Following state-wide implementation of the Olmstead Act, CAFS is creating community-based homes for both youth and adults with developmental disabilities. Six of these homes have already opened their doors, with plans for more under way.

After Betsy is done showing me her room, we sit and crochet together. Betsy is crocheting a yellow dress for one of her dolls. I am crocheting a basic green scarf. In the time it has taken me to finish my first row, carefully following a pattern saved on my phone, Betsy has almost completed one of the dress sleeves without missing a stitch.

During my first six weeks with the organization I have been welcomed with open arms to learn, observe and engage with as many homes, departments, programs and individuals as possible. This crash course has included sitting in on different department meetings, spending time with staff, volunteers and children, touring CAFS’ facilities, participating in public events, after-school activities and dinners at the different CAFS managed group homes, as well as enrolling in the same training required of prospective foster and adoptive parents. Eventually I may work in one location, group, program area etc. but with this thorough overview, I am getting to know the interconnected nature of the different societal issues CAFS works to address and people they serve.

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Artwork from CAFSNJ group home, photo by Jenny Stratton

One such connection can be found in The Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources, which formally joined CAFS in 2009.  In the wake of headlines about the growing epidemic of heroin and opioid use in Bergen County, the center’s work overlaps with the needs of many of the children living in CAFS’ therapeutic group homes and their families of origin.  Another cross-pollination between programs has emerged from the establishment of a crocheting club for the children living in therapeutic foster care. Their first project will be to crochet baby blankets for the young mother’s living in the CAFS group home called Zoe’s Place. Betsy will be one of the crocheting club mentors.

With the complexity, crossover and magnitude of CAFS’ work I am being graciously exposed to, I see how the unique reminders displayed by staff in their work spaces act as personal compasses guiding them out of the weeds. CAFS Director of Communications, Sheila Riccardi describes these reminders as “grounding” and adds that they are “expressions of the emotions that come with what we do, which can run the full gamut on any given day.”

During this first month, I have been thinking about the nature of trauma-informed photography and storytelling; how photography can be used to translate the complexities and dualities inherent in traumatic situations; how shared vulnerability has the power to produce strength. Lewis Hine defined a good photograph as “a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.” I think about how impressions here might echo.

 

With Great Appreciation to WILFREDO PEDRERO

by Brenna Cukier

“Describe Freddie in one word.”

This was the question I asked all of Freddie’s nearest and dearest, AKA: his co-workers at the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park.

Each time, the recipient of the question took a moment to reflect before carefully selecting a word. These were a few of their choices:

“Loving.”

“Caring.”

“Gentleman.”

“Superman.”

Their responses were included in a short video I made for CFL’s Celebrating Community fundraiser, which is an annual event that brings together CFL employees and benefactors to celebrate the non-profit’s impact on the community. Each year, one of CFL’s 250 employees is chosen to be honored at the event for their hard work and dedication. This year, that recipient was none other than Wilfredo Pedrero, who, of course, is the star of my documentary Super Freddie.

It was a Thursday night at the end of May. New York was just starting to get hot, but it was already humid enough to break a sweat on the walk from the subway to the event, which was held in a trendy for-rent loft in Soho.

Freddie certainly broke a sweat in his newly-purchased maroon suit, which was unforgiving in the city heat.

“I got a bunch of compliments on the train here,” Freddie told me, dabbing the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. “People thought I was going to a wedding or something like that.”

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After an unsuccessful attempt to procure a hot dog outside the venue, Freddie headed to the fifth floor of the building, compulsively straightening his bowtie using the reflection of the brass elevator doors on the way up.

Enter Freddie. A room full of CFL employees and supporters buzzed with chatter as they sipped on cocktails and nibbled hors-d’oeuvres. Julia Jean-Francois, the executive director of CFL, spotted Freddie out of the corner of her eye and immediately went to greet him.

“You look incredible, Freddie,” she beamed. Freddie humbly accepted her compliments before trying to find his closest friends, Smilie and Frank.

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Everyone spent the rest of the evening in anticipation of Freddie receiving his award. Not wanting to miss a moment, I mic’d up Freddie with a wireless lav as I captured video footage from across the room, so I was privy to his innermost thoughts for the duration of the evening. The thing is, Freddie has no innermost thoughts, because he says almost absolutely everything he thinks aloud.

“Is my bowtie on straight?”

“No, really — is it straight?”

“I wonder who all these people are?”

“Do you think I can get onto the roof?”

“How am I going to go to the bathroom with this microphone on?”

Another forty or so minutes went by with Freddie making his rounds in the room, all to the tune of his inner monologue and a mariachi band playing in the corner (Freddie: “why would they get a mariachi band for this event?”). About ten minutes before the scheduled presentation of Freddie’s award, he asked if we could go outside for a cigarette.

“I’m really overwhelmed,” he confided in me once we were in the elevator. “Nothing a cigarette can’t fix, though.” Outside, we stood in front of the building as Freddie watched more and more people dressed in suits (though none in maroon suits) enter the double doors.

“Who are all these people? Do I know them?”

He ran his hands over the many different pockets of his ensemble in a desperate search for his cigarettes. Relief washed over him as he located one, brought it to his lips and lit it in one swift motion.

“I never got an award like this before. I’m nervous.”

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We stood out there for what felt like a while, Freddie getting a puff of his cigarette in between mouthfuls of conversation, before someone had to come and get us because they had already started the presentation of his award.

“Oh, shoot!” Freddie said, as he stubbed out his cigarette and stowed away the remainder in his jacket pocket for later. We hurried upstairs and made it to the front of the crowd that had gathered to listen to Julia’s speech about Freddie.

For the first time all night, Freddie was silent as he listened to what Julia had to say about him and his work at CFL. At the end of her speech, Julia presented Freddie with a thick, glass placard engraved with the words, “CELEBRATING COMMUNITY AWARD…presented with great appreciation to WILFREDO PEDRERO.”

Then, the video I made for the occasion began to play:

When the screen faded to black, everybody angled themselves in the direction of Freddie (who had now sought shelter in the back of the room) and clapped. They clapped for a long time. Freddie humbly received their applause, followed by a round of hugs from his teary co-workers who had appeared in the video.

I had a hard time keeping tabs on Freddie for the rest of the night, because he was constantly being pulled into groups to take photos or shaking hands with people who were congratulating him. At one point though, just before the very end of the event, we ran into each other seeking refuge on a couch in the back of the room, which had a plate of obscure-looking appetizers placed on a small coffee table in front of it.

Freddie pointed at the plate, “What is this stuff? Some kinda vegetable?” He held up an ominous-looking mush on top of a cracker and inspected it.

“I can’t eat this stuff. I’m starving,” he semi-whispered to me. “I can’t wait to get back home and have some chicken parmigiana.” The crowds started to trickle out and not long after, Freddie decided it was OK to head home, too. But before he left, he obliged my request for one last interview (and cigarette) out on the street.

Freddie looked like he’d walked off a movie set; the cigarette hanging cooly between his fingers as he brought it to his mouth, standing in his maroon suit in front of candy-colored Soho buildings in the magic hour light.

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For a moment, he seemed like a completely different Freddie to me. Without his superhero t-shirt or his backpack of comic books, outside the confines of the food pantry without a box of groceries to shelve, it was like meeting Freddie for the first time in an alternate universe.

But the illusion soon faded when Freddie made a confession.

“I hope I don’t gotta wear another suit like this for a long time,” he said, backing up so my camera could take in the entirety of his outfit. “I know I look good but…these shoes are killing me!”

Etta

By Laura Doggett

Etta, pointing at a hole in a tree in the forest: “Look, the owl lives there. It might be a home. It looks like a home. It’s nice and deep and hollow. It’s very brown and earthy. We kind of share the same home because we live together on the same earth… but, that’s his home. You know, I could live right here and be okay.”

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Still from video by Laura Doggett

“I could live here.” Etta tells me this enthusiastically when we are in the forest, by the ocean, in the sky in a tram car above New York City. I met Etta one day in the art room at the Next Generation Center (NGC), where I have been running photo and art workshops this year as a Lewis Hine Fellow. Etta is one of the young women from the Center I’ve begun working with to make short videos, using the camera and their artistic expression to create portraits of their realities and dreams during these transitional moments in their lives.

The Next Generation Center (NGC) is a community-based center in the Bronx with programs designed to support the needs of youth in foster care and those who have aged out of foster care, as well as those involved in the Juvenile Justice System. NGC is more like a second home to the teens and young adults who frequent the building, filled with the genuine warmth and interest that emanates from the counselors and mentors, and the smell of food wafting out from the catering kitchen into the center room where lively conversations are happening on the sofas and pool balls are flicking across tables. NGC is a mellow hum of bass and beat bursts vibrating from the music studio, a shrinking pile of Homer’s Iliad books used for Rap Odyssey, yoga mats for meditation, a circle of chairs for girls group, and so much more. Afternoons at the center, young people take in the newcomers like familiar brothers and sisters.

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Still from video by Laura Doggett

The first time I met Etta, she whipped out her art journal, which documented her summer in wild, scrawling black-inked figures, each page and day never quite ending but spilling into the next. It was her summer of 17, a year she says was pretty reckless, trying to stay out of her home and her head as much as possible. These days, newly 18, she’s well into her winter journal, and while familiar summery sketches wind through a page or two, these red-inked pages are filled with lots of writing, and self-reflection.

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Still from video by Laura Doggett

18. The year of rebirth, Etta says. The year of redefining herself, of living with a new moral compass. It’s also the year of emancipating herself from the foster care system, opening up her first bank account, and figuring out how to live on her own.

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Still from video by Etta

“My film is about truly transitioning from the beginning to the middle. Sometimes I like to think that this is the end of the beginning. It’s like a series of books. The beginning was 18 years ago, and I think I’m ready for another one where I’m taking in my transition of this is who I am, this is who I want to be, these are my goals, this is how I’m going to reach them.”

“Every day I wake up, and I always feel different because I’m aware I’m changing. I think about it all the time. I was on the train today and I was like, I wish I wasn’t so aware of all the things I’m aware about, you know? If I can just live my life and be aware but not really know that I’m being aware. Just actually live in the moment. And I’m like how can I enjoy life when I’m constantly thinking of how to make this situation better in the process?”

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Still from video by Laura Doggett

“I grew up faster than I needed to… Growing up I had a lot of responsibilities, taking care of my sister and stuff. I was the mom, I was the leader of the household the person making all the rules and decisions. I’m used to being the mother around the house. I’m used to if they make a mess, I clean it and make sure things are right. I don’t want to come home and hear mommy’s mouth, you know? It was always best to just get things done.”

 

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Still from video by Etta

“I’ve tried to figure out the root of the problem. I was like I don’t know if it was life itself, or my mother, or my father not being there, or always moving from home to home. I tried to look down and deep to see when did this darkness overshadow me. Like I’m just this big ass ray of sunshine, and then I got this dark ass hurt.”

“I don’t know… This film for me, I want people to watch it and be enlightened. I don’t want them to feel bad for me. I hate pity.”

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Still from video by Etta

“So for my film I’m going to direct this scene of my vision for a better humanity. I would use the place (the farm house and land) in the Catskills, and all the actors will go there, and I’ll just record… we need to get some children running up in that place, so we can have scenes where there are mothers taking care of daughters.”

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Still from video by Etta

“The only way to live in NY and to survive and have money in your pockets is if you’re roommating with like 5 people. So why not just have a huge household where there’s a whole bunch of adults making children, loving each other, pushing each other to do better, inspiring each other, being there for each other. A nuclear family is not a good family. Because then your children are just getting two people to choose values from. And it’s just like hey, I can take all these learning experiences, and we learn from each other, but we have to learn in different ways. That’s why school just doesn’t work, because that one authority, that one person there, having more power over that child, where that child can learn extremely fast if they can just learn in different ways. You know? And if there are different ways, then the children could actually teach each other…”

“There will be a class where like we’re not divided, we’re together, we’re one, we’re like in unity. There’s no reason to single out anyone. There’d be like a lot more group work, and hands on stuff, and different ways of learning. Because not everybody is the same learner. The majority of the class would graduate to move on to the next grade, but there’s still some left behind. You know, because they have to teach the other kids. So in order for this to continuously work, these kids continuously teach these kids, who teach these kids, who teach these kids. And in order to move on you need to be able to teach this, this and that. We’ll like map out this big schooling system where we basically live and learn, you know?”

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Still from video by Laura Doggett

“Me, I’m a visual learner. You know? You visualize something and it becomes a reality once you’re able to envision it. So to be able to take my documentary and say here’s my vision, and then watch in 20 years, or 5 years later, or 2 years later, and to be like, here it is happening, like 2 years later, because I envisioned this. You know? So I think to direct this, i need to get like an older me. And I’ll put her around a lot of children and stuff, and she would literally be just… the awesomest Etta ever.”

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Still from video by Etta

“I’m excited. I’m excited to become the best entrepreneur movie maker multi-media artist teacher leader… just… a creator. A happy, loving, prismatic, creative, outgoing, free-spirited goddess that taught us how to really live.”

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Still from video by Etta

Stay tuned in the months to come to hear more from the filmmakers from NGC.

Super Freddie

By Brenna Cukier

“Here, that’s Fu Manchu…you know him? And that’s Spock from the Starship Enterprise…just came out of my head. This one I didn’t get to finish…”

Two tan and weathered hands flick through a stack of pen drawings on printing paper.

“This is our co-worker…she doesn’t work with us any more. This is Wonder Woman. This is Hot Stuff…I used to love Hot Stuff, you know the comic books? Oh, forget about it. Here, that’s supposed to be New York City. See the twin towers there?”

The hands and drawings belong to Wilfredo Pedrero, or “Freddie” for short. The drawings span more than a decade of his work, and nearly every single one is dated in the corner with the exact time and geographical location of its completion. While Freddie provides me with a detailed explanation of every drawing, it’s almost unnecessary. His pictures are like carbon copies of his muses, the majority of whom are characters from his beloved comic book collection. Freddie never leaves the house without at least half a dozen comic books in his backpack.

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All images stills from video by Brenna Cukier.

“I’ve been collecting since I was eight years old,” he tells me, flipping through the pages of his most recent addition. Freddie is now fifty-five. He points out his favorite characters, the details in their costumes, and explains to me again why Superman has the best powers. “I love the stories; I love drawing from them. That’s the only reason I read my comics…to get ideas to draw.” Freddie places the stack of comics on the shelf beside us, right next to a box full of peanut butter jars that need to be stocked.

Freddie is the Superman of the Center for Family Life (CFL) food pantry.

The food pantry is just one of many services CFL offers. CFL is one of the original settlement houses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and it serves the neighborhood’s predominantly Mexican and Chinese immigrant community. Once every two months, any Sunset Park resident can come in and receive an emergency package of food that is meant to supplement their family’s diet.

It’s been twelve years since Freddie started running the show at the pantry. Not only is Freddie responsible for placing orders and handling donations, but once the food actually arrives, he is also in control of organizing it. This work is an exact science for Freddie. Every type of food has a particular place on the shelves and an even more specific way in which it must be stacked. More precise yet is the way in which the food packages must be assembled.

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Freddie takes each client into consideration, and after reading over their identification sheet, makes specific food choices based on the ages and culture of the individual and their family members. The pantry operates Tuesday through Thursday, when residents are welcome to collect food between the hours of 11am-1pm. The rest of the time Freddie spends manning and preparing the pantry. When he’s not doing that, he’s doing custodial work.

“This place is clean,” Freddie tells me. “I do this. I keep it clean.”

Freddie and I are outside of the CFL main office on 39th Street. The thoroughfare is crowded, like always. The fire station across the street provides a constant soundtrack of sirens and hustle, along with all the noise from cars and passersby on the corner at 5th Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street. Freddie sweeps the pavement in front of the office thoroughly, pushing upheaved gravel over the curbside and back into the road.

“I try to tell people you’re supposed to think of this place as your home,” he says. “We try to make them think that this is their house, because everything we do here is for them.”

* * *

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In his real home, Freddie is no less responsible. He lives in Coney Island in a neighborhood called the Marlboro Projects. He and two of his brothers, along with their girlfriends and children, live together in their mother’s old apartment. This is also where his mother single-handedly raised Freddie and his six siblings.

But Freddie spent his early childhood in Puerto Rico, where he was born.

“We lived in these little projects called Canales. It’s still there, but it’s bad now,” Freddie recounts to me. We’re sitting in his bedroom. Behind him on the wall is a huge bulletin board with pictures of his family, a few of his drawings and a certificate for perfect attendance at his job. “It’s so bad that the police don’t even go in there,” he continues, “but when we lived there, it was pretty nice.”

Freddie tells me he used to spend his mornings as a child asking for money on the streets; no shoes, just shorts. “No one’s gonna deny a little kid when they’re begging,” he says. He’d come home with pockets full of change and hand it all to his mother, who was raising their household on $21 a month through public assistance.   

When the family arrived in the U.S. in 1968, they settled in Coney Island. Freddie has never lived anywhere else since. Today, he’s more than comfortable with this fact. But as an adolescent, the neighborhood proved to be more than troublesome for Freddie and his friends.

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“We always did stupid things outside in the neighborhood,” he tells me. We’re still in his bedroom. He’s staring out the window through the gap between the shade and the sill. The wind is howling against the pane, it’s the coldest day of winter yet. Nowadays, you’ll rarely find Freddie outside of his apartment after 8pm.

“I don’t hang out like I used to,” he tells me. “I used to go to Alphabet City at three or four in the morning. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with a friend. Now I won’t even go out of my neighborhood.” Today, a good night in Freddie’s opinion is one spent catching up on his favorite TV shows (almost all of which feature superheroes) or flipping through his comic books. But the peace is often interrupted. Specifically, it’s interrupted by gunshots, which Freddie says he can frequently hear coming from the other side of the projects in the early hours of the morning.

“That’s the young kids…they stay out all night selling drugs thinking it’s the fast money. They don’t realize that when you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with death. They don’t listen. Sooner or later, they’ll learn.”

While Freddie’s days dabbling in these same neighborhood activities may be long behind him, his status as a neighborhood hero is not. During the waking hours of the day, Freddie takes it upon himself to interfere when he witnesses activity like this in the projects. He will stop kids on the street – even ones he doesn’t know – and try to steer them in another direction. It’s his attempt at preventing them from taking the same road he did, which ultimately led him to multiple rehab stints.  

Freddie has no difficulty talking about rehab. In fact, he speaks about his stints as if they were as commonplace as going to college.

And he almost did go to college.

At eighteen, Freddie was offered a full ride to Pratt Institute to study art. He made it through the first week of classes, then he got arrested.

“I threw away that scholarship,” he says as we skim through more of his drawings. He’s pulled out boxes of them from his closet and they’re scattered across the bed, which is bare save for a beige bottom sheet. “I was too young. If I could use it now, I’d go. But I guess I’ll just develop art in my own way.”

I ask Freddie if he’d ever consider using his art professionally. He explains that while he often draws things with tattoos in mind, he doesn’t see it panning out. His work day is demanding, and when he gets back to Coney Island, his other responsibilities kick in.

Freddie has helped his ex-girlfriend – who lives in an apartment just a few buildings down – raise her two sons since they were five years old. The boys are now grown and have children of their own, whom Freddie refers to as his “grandchildren.” When he gets back to Coney Island in the evenings, Freddie heads straight to the family’s apartment. He first walks the dog, Maxi. Then he takes care of the three grandchildren, the responsibilities for which can range from cooking dinner to playing Barbies.

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Not everybody in Freddie’s life is supportive of his unconventional situation. His brother often gives him grief for spending so much of his life with kids that are not his.

“I tell him a father is not the one who makes, it’s the one who takes care of,” Freddie says. “It’s easy to make kids. But if you’re not gonna take care of them, what kind of father are you?”

Freddie never met his own father. His one connection is a single photo taken when his father was seventeen. It’s black and white, his father is standing and looking straight into the camera.

“People tell me I look like him,” Freddie says. “I don’t see it.”

* * *

Back at CFL one day, I ask Freddie who his favorite superhero is. He launches into an explanation about why it’s Captain America. It has to do with a particular encounter Captain America has with Iron Man, in which Iron Man accuses Captain America of not being a “real” hero due to the fact that his powers are all thanks to a special serum.

“The serum is what gives Steve Rogers his power,” Freddie explains to me. “Without it, he’s just a regular guy. But it’s not just the serum that makes him a hero.”

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Freddie is about to elaborate on this when Gladys walks in. Gladys is the other food pantry attendant. She’s ten years older than Freddie; she also has ten years on Freddie as a CFL employee. She has six sons of her own, but Freddie is her seventh. He refers to her exclusively as “Ma.” This has held even more significance since Freddie’s mother passed away three months ago.

Freddie continues.

“It’s his whole persona,” he says about Captain America/Steve Rogers. “He always wants to help people out. That’s what makes him a hero, not the…”

Gladys interrupts him.

“Yeah, Ma? What happened? It’s raining? Alright let me go get that for you…can we take a break?” Freddie asks me. “I gotta go get her something from the store…”

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Brownsville

By Nicholas Pilarski

I bike twenty-four blocks from my apartment in Flatbush to the housing developments of Brownsville. While riding, I watch the sun slowly rise, back-lighting the monolithic buildings that lay to the east. As light passes through the nation’s largest network of affordable housing developments, shadows divide the streets into a complex crosshatch of light and dark. This is not unlike the geography of the landscape itself, where invisible lines have divided the community from prolonged affiliated conflict, forcing many youth in the neighborhood to choose what side of the street they walk. The origin of this rivalry is a mystery to those who call Brownsville home, yet everyone is forced to abide by specific rules born from a painful history. This history predates the lives of young people walking in the streets of this community. Each housing unit is either red or blue, with the police often adding a third color into the complex negotiation of power.

The complicated, geo-political environment is not justly articulated in the stereotypes often applied to Brownsville. There is community here. There is a certain potent quality to its residents, aptly described in conversation by a young resident. Knocking on the wall with the back of her hand, she reflected: “These [buildings] are tall and made of stone. We are tall and strong like them. But people don’t see this from the outside. You come from Brownsville, people have assumptions about you. They think you are something you’re not because you come from this place. But we have a lot. It might not be like other places. But it’s our place. And a lot of us are proud of it.” Made in Brownsville shirts, namesake tattoos, and verbal affirmation exemplify this pride. Daily exchanges of proud residents greeting each other in the streets as their day begins make this sense of provenance, and community, ever more evident.

Arranged literally and figuratively as an anchor within the community is The Brownsville Community Justice Center (Center), part of the Center for Court Innovation. The pride and strength of the residents seen in the streets is reflected in the ethos created by the Center. There, a philosophy of youth-led innovations works to reconfigure relationships between community and the justice system.

Working in conjunction with the Center, I engage with five young men in a project titled “Opportunity Youth.” We explore documentary practice, from animation to the audio doc., and work to develop technical skills as a way to identify each individual’s unique, artistic voice. Currently the young men are defining their body of work, which is taking the form of photo-essays and a small group-created script that has parallels to the afro-futurist movement of the mid-1970s.

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Kadale and Craig working on personal Audio Doc.
Quaming, Craig, and Kadale in animation masterclass.
Quaming, Craig, and Kadale in animation masterclass.

Another young man involved with the Center, Ray, is a natural community leader, taking a role in anti-violence initiatives in Brownsville. Together, Ray and I will develop a documentary video game. The medium will allow us to create proactive dialogue across divided houses and navigate Brownsville geographically, both currently not possible given lines of conflict drawn throughout the community. In a virtual environment, youth will have the freedom to explore Brownsville without these political or physical borders. Established gamers will be able to explore individual narratives of the community that they would not have access to otherwise. The primary hope of the game is for users to transcend literal and figurative obstruction of an ongoing rivalry, one in which both sides hold similar dreams and struggles. As multiple real-time users navigate a virtual Brownsville, they must work together to complete various missions, which are rooted in the shared viewing of interviews and narratives. By the end of the “docu-game,” when all missions are complete, it will be revealed that the real-time users, or “avatars,” in the game are comprised of individuals living in buildings across the whole of Brownsville. Built into the gameplay is a mechanism that theorists and practitioners Augusto Boal and Sanjoy Ganguly would call instruments to “rehearse a better reality through play.” Their interactive theatre work has led to peaceful solutions to violence in India and Brazil, where the idea of finding empathy through play is foundational to spread peace through communities in conflict. These models will be used heavily throughout development.

In order to attempt to translate Boal and Gaguly’s theatrical concepts to our virtual environment, we are excited to announce a partnership with Brooklyn-based experimental artist, Alexander Porter. Alex has generously donated an unreleased Alpha version of his 3D motion scanning software. Using this, we will record and interview participating Brownsville residents and place them in our constructed virtual world. This project still remains in its planning stages with many details and technological harnessing yet to be finalized. Images of this technology in motion are included below.

3d Scan of Room. Source: Alexander Porter
3d Scan of Room. Source: Alexander Porter
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People cut into blank space. Source: Alexander Porter
3d man recorded in NYC Subway. Source: Alexander Porter
3d man recorded in NYC Subway. Source: Alexander Porter

With both the five young men involved with “Opportunity Youth” and Ray, I am excited to move forward with these talented Brownsville youth. We look forward to sharing updates moving forward.

Newspaper Squad

By Amanda Berg

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South Bronx United Newspaper Club selfie during the last day of after school tutoring. From left to right, Samuka, Amanda, Moriken, and Ayouba.

My dad tells a story about the scars on his knees. He learned to play baseball on the asphalt lot behind his school. For years he played on that blacktop, with chalk marks for bases and a chain link fence as the boundary. A slide into home meant a bloody knee.

When he moved from the Bronx to suburban Long Island his new school had a baseball field made of grass and dirt. He wondered why it was not paved over.

One day a friend, the first in his neighborhood to have a color television, invited him over to watch a Yankees game. The game flickered on the screen and the outfield glowed green. The color tubes were less surprising than the grass.

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Picture Poem by Samuka Kenneh for the SBU Press.

I forgot about my family’s connection to the Bronx during my first few months working with South Bronx United. Both of my father’s parents grew up here and my dad was born here. One of my very first memories taking documentary photos was freshman year of college when I asked my dad to go back to his childhood home on Tenbroeck Avenue with me.

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The front page of SBU Press, a community newspaper published by students of the South Bronx United after school tutoring program.

Facilitating the newspaper club at South Bronx United was a great learning experience in terms of teaching youth and considering my documentary approach. It was a fun adventure, exploring and bonding through creative expression, getting to know a place where I have roots but am not familiar.

The main members of the club are Samuka, Ayouba, and Moriken. They prefer to call it the “newspaper squad.” Everyone contributed to the writing, photography and design of the paper. I love how collaborative the process has been. Sometimes one person would do the interview and another write the story, while a third person would take pictures and make key edits. We covered everything from the Bronx African Cup of Nations Soccer Tournament to the local community farm. One of my favorite stories written was about being young and Muslim during Ramadan in the Bronx.

The newspaper gave us all an excuse to be together, ask questions, and take a closer look. The club was a reminder of the kind of community engagement and self-reflection that drew me to photography in the first place.Draft007_commVoices copy-600

How Would the Media Portray You If…

By Sarah Stacke

In late July I held a workshop for exalt alumni designed to facilitate conversations about how, since the invention of photography, communities of color have used photography as a tool of empowerment. exalt, the organization I’m collaborating with as a Lewis Hine Fellow, is an after-school program serving youth who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Using our visual literacy skills, we analyzed imagery from 1850 to 2015 that represents figures, movements, and photographers including Sojourner Truth, Emmett Till, James Van Der Zee, Hank Willis Thomas, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, Ferguson, and the If They Gunned Me Down campaign.

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If They Gunned Me Down is a social media campaign that was initiated in 2014 as a response to the media’s visual portrayal of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, participants of the campaign post a picture of themselves at their best juxtaposed with a picture that might reap less sympathy, ultimately asking, “If they gunned me down,” which picture would the media choose to represent me? In Brown’s case, rather than pulling an image from Facebook of Brown at his high school graduation or with his family, many outlets pulled a picture of Brown flashing a peace sign, which was then translated into a gang sign by some media.

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Pushing back against stereotypes and demanding that society becomes more visually literate, students in the workshop created their own campaigns and hashtags using the If They Gunned Me Down campaign as an example. Each student planned clothing, props, facial expressions and body language for their own “dueling” portraits and wrote the accompanying text.

Photography by Sarah Stacke Text by Dirk Shultz
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Dirk

 

Photography by Sarah Stacke Text by Amanda Mouzon
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Amanda

 

As Soraya Nadia McDonald says of the If They Gunned Me Down campaign,

it’s not just demanding that people…see past clothing. It’s questioning if it’s possible for people, especially young black men, to live their lives online without worry that an innocent photo of them gettin’ gully at a party will somehow become re-appropriated as evidence of black thuggery…The hashtag asks if black teens have the same right as others to make mistakes –– to do dumb things and post about it on Facebook or clown around with their friends –– without becoming branded in perpetuity.

Photography by Sarah Stacke Text by Loela Pacheco
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Loela

At exalt, the dueling portrait exercise is particularly poignant. Code-switching, or changing how we express ourselves when moving between various cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our identities, is a large part of the curriculum. Learning how and when to code-switch –– and owning a thoughtful decision not to code-switch in some circumstances –– is something we all share, but the reality is that the ability to code-switch can be a matter of life or death, especially for people of color.

Photo by Sarah Stacke Text by Ikim
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Ikim

Sharing Crossroads

By Sarah Stacke

I’m dedicated to developing intimate stories about intersections of culture, history, and geography that create marginalized communities. This has led to Love From Manenberg, a long-form documentary piece shot in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa; a project about the Cherokee Reservation in Western North Carolina; and most recently, a series documenting court-involved youth in New York City.

There are few, if any, places more geographically marginalizing than a prison cell. Although not all of the young men and women I’m currently documenting have spent time in prison, they are all students of exalt, an organization that elevates expectations of personal success for youth involved in the criminal justice system. exalt is a city-wide organization, yet consistent with patterns of arrest rates, program participants come from NYC’s poorest zip codes, and many face challenges such as multi-generational poverty, foster care involvement, low education skills, incarcerated parent(s), racial marginalization, and living in households in which they are often caregivers for siblings and sick relatives.

As a Lewis Hine Fellow collaborating with exalt, I recently had the opportunity to develop the curriculum for an exalt alumni workshop. The five-day course was designed to teach the students the fundamentals of documentary thought and to guide them in creating their own documentary piece. The work they produced was based on a “crossroads” they had experienced; each student focused on a story of overcoming adversity and finding the strength to make their life better.

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Excerpt from Reality Check: 7th Period Phone Call by Jamal

On the last day of the workshop the six students presented their projects to the exalt staff and to other current students. It takes courage to share personal stories with others, particularly as a teenager, and especially when the story makes one vulnerable. Brandon and Donnell shared how exalt helped put distance between themselves and street gangs, Jamal talked about the decision to be a devoted father when at 15 years-old he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, Nicole examined her transition from only child to older sister at 18 years-old, and Melanie shared her story of transforming from a man to a woman. At the end of the presentations everyone in the room knew each other a little better.

Sharing stories helps us connect and relate to one another, which are the first steps toward empathy. If there’s one thing I hope my students and the viewers of their work carry with them, it’s the meaning of the word “empathy,” and the extraordinary feeling of connecting with and relating to somebody that you never thought you would.

The Bronx is Thawing

The clock skipped ahead an hour and the sun rose with a purpose last Sunday. After months of freezing temperatures and early sunsets there was finally a high forecasted above 32 degrees. It was 48. Warm enough to lift my spirits but not warm enough to melt the layers of ice and snow off Macombs Field.

In the shadow of Yankee Stadium players and coaches of South Bronx United gathered together to shovel over 7,000 square yards of wintery mix off their home turf in an attempt to assist the sun in clearing the field for next weekend’s soccer games. I admired their dedication and thought, what is worth shoveling 7,000 square yards of snow for?

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U16-U19 South Bronx United players shoveling Macombs Field the week before their first outdoor soccer game is scheduled to be played. Photo by Amanda Berg

South Bronx United is a non-profit soccer club that uses soccer as a tool for social change. Their programming is equally focused on education, character development, and soccer skills. I have spent most of my time as a Lewis Hine Fellow with SBU at their after school tutoring program. Helping someone with homework is no small task. I know from experience that a simple take-home worksheet can cause real anxiety. I remember what it felt like to be in middle school and it seems just as difficult and formative now as it did then.

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SBU student athlete working on his homework during tutoring. Photo by Amanda Berg

Last week I sat down to help a 6th grader named Brayon do an English language assignment. The task was to describe a journey through pictures. My eyes lit up when I read this. Brayon was on the Internet googling images of his hometown in Mexico. Everything he searched was in Spanish. I realized he understood part of the assignment but was new to English and was confused by the word “journey.” We went back and forth brainstorming what he wanted to describe. As we talked he searched for other images. I could tell his ideas were forming but I wasn’t sure what exactly he was going to draw.

First he drew an intricate picture of a church. He wrote underneath, “the first journey I went on is when I went to church to talk to God that nothing happen to us.” Next he drew a plane shooting upward into the sky. He then depicted trees with snakes hanging from them and a large wall in the distance that he called the frontera. The last image was of cars driving away. One by one he worked out his captions and wrote them under the pictures. Brayon depicted his journey immigrating to the United States.

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Brayon’s journey. Photo by Amanda Berg

 

The student athletes at SBU are incredibly diverse. Their life experience is unparalleled. They have powerful personal stories and unique perspectives on the world. The challenge they face is in believing their stories are important. With a slight shift in self-perception, a personal narrative can transform. Expectations rise. Doors open. I think this sort of shift is crucial to an individual’s success, happiness and shared cultural understanding, especially a young person who is faced with the task of imagining their future. This is central to why I love visual stories but also why I love sports.

Sports give you a compressed narrative, a clear beginning middle, and end. There is obvious tension, opposing sides and an undeniable outcome. Life is not always so well defined but most of the stories that get us through are. As a player you can be anyone you want for the duration of the game. You can risk failure and always try again. You can imagine the future, the win, the lose, the playoffs, your college teams uniforms, your loved one watching you… You are given a literal field of possibilities to explore. I think sports and photography are ideal metaphors for what it means to be alive. Both give us the tools to explain our human experience.

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The SBU Newspaper Club skyping with Mike McCray, digital content coordinator at the Dallas Morning News. Photo by Amanda Berg

 

As part of my role at South Bronx United I am leading a Newspaper Club. We meet every Wednesday during tutoring. Our goal is to explore how stories create change and ask our selves what stories matter most. The club is practicing journalistic photography and writing techniques that we will use to creatively document the community. By the end of May we will take what we have reported, design pages, send out to print, and distribute our newspaper. By then the Bronx will be in bloom and the fields will be open for play.

The Crossing

By Amanda Berg

One of the most challenging parts of moving to a new place has been introducing myself. People ask, “Who are you? What do you do? Why are you here?” It doesn’t feel like enough to say, “I am a photographer from New Jersey.” Am I a Lewis Hine Fellow from Duke? Or a recent Graduate from North Carolina? Am I just a photographer? Why am I here, really?

In an attempt to be honest, I stumble.

My daily commute is a long one. For the first time in my life that doesn’t mean I am the driver. Sitting on the NYC Subway each day has given me a time and place to read.

The first book I brought along for the ride was And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. I identify strongly with his writing. I arrived in the city and immediately felt something was missing. The horizon. The limit where vision ends and the sky meets the ground. I spent the last six years practicing the art of observation. Looking as far as I could to see as much as possible. Here distance is not measured by the same plain line. The absence of a horizon has left me feeling a little lost.

nyc_instagrams_006Waiting for the elevated subway, By Amanda Berg

John Berger wrote about home as the center of the world in an ontological sense. “Without a home at the center of the real,” he explained, “one was not only shelterless, but also lost…without a home everything was fragmentation.”

Berger said home was the center of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. He believed that the crossing of these two lines, the reassurance that their intersection promised, was part of us all since embryo. My physical body is my vertical line. It comes with me everywhere I go. Where will I find a horizontal line to cross in this city of skyscrapers?

nyc_instagrams_004Eric Garner protest in Manhattan, By Amanda Berg

Lewis Hine moved to New York in 1904 from his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He was invited by friends to teach geography and natural history at a new progressive school on the Upper West Side called the Ethical Culture School. He became the school photographer and began to explore the city with his camera. He used the images he collected to teach his students about current social issues. As Hine documented urban life he established the base of his practice on a foundation of photography and social work. He called his approach “sympathetic photography” and his pictures “levers for social uplift.”

Hine began by going to Ellis Island, then paid witness to child laborers across the country, moving on to document refugees in Europe during WWI, and ultimately, for his final project, Hine climbed to the top of the Empire State Building as it was being built and documented its construction. From there he could see everything. Yet, he chose to focus his lens not on the landscape but on the men at work.

Hine found his horizon in the working class. He saw himself reflected in the shared experiences of the people he photographed. For him “the crossing” Berger mentioned was that of individuals and society.

nyc_instagrams_003The commute home, By Amanda Berg

In his classic address to the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1909, Hine said “the picture is the symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality.” In this sense, the picture is the shelter at the center of the real. The photograph is home.

I imagine; if I could introduce myself with one picture, what would it look like?