Despite the hyperbole and hand-wringing about a slacker generation growing up on XBox 360, TV, and glowing laptop screens, a program from the YMCA Metro Detroit is betting those obsessions could be used to spark lifelong learning habits, and possibly a new generation of creative types for the region.
The program, started by Gillian Eaton, vice president for arts and humanities at the YMCA Metro Detroit, is just over two years old. But already it has migrated into the River Rouge School District
and has caught the attention of the state's Film Office, which sees potential in teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers high-tech skills they can later turn into careers.
"Kids have an automatic and genetic understanding of media in a way that I don't," Eaton says. "They're way ahead of us. ... Career guidance counselors are 20 years behind the times. They're not telling these kids that things they do naturally are potential job opportunities."
The program, housed in the Y Arts division of the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit, has ambitious goals. It not only educates kids aged 12 - 16 the ins and outs of filmmaking, graphic design, photography and other art forms; but puts them face-to-face with business clients. The students, like creative groups everywhere, must pitch and win over clients including the U.S. Census Bureau and area environmental nonprofits, and ultimately deliver a commercial-grade short-film or public service announcement.
It's an early lesson in the pragmatic side of the creative life, Eaton explains. But putting the kids in business situations has other benefits as well. "We could have just had them make fictional movies on their own, but we didn't choose to do that because they need to be aware of the judgments that are made on creative work and how to survive that," she says. "But also, for these kids, it's about partnership, about negotiation; there are all of these discrete learning opportunities."
But for the Y Arts program
, such learning opportunities likely would have been rare, if not nonexistent, for most of the kids that have gone through it.
Eaton kicked off a six-week summer camp with about 50 inner-city youth; 25 of which came from Detroit-based Don Bosco Hall, a residential center for youth who have been court-ordered into treatment for delinquency, abuse, or mental health reasons.
"These were not the 'easy' kids," Eaton says. "It took us a week or so to get them to trust us, but by the end they didn't want to leave, we had to literally push them out the door. "
"No one had sat down and talked to these kids for a really long time," says Anthony Hepp, director of multimedia development at Y Arts, and an area filmmaker and Web designer. For some, the camp provided the kids the first chance they'd experienced to "understand they're viable people and that they have possibilities in life." he adds. "You'd see some kids that would just walk differently."
It's a vital benefit to a program that teaches kids how to fall in love with learning, said Bob Cabeza, executive director of the YMCA Youth Institute in Long Beach
, Calif., the inspiration for Y Arts media camps. It's a paradigm-shift from the 3Rs, dusty textbooks, and overcrowded classrooms many of the kids experience at school. The Institute teaches technology as a way to maneuver in a system "that doesn't necessarily work for them," he says.
Cabeza's program teaches the kids a wide range of digital skills; including how to use complex four-dimensional modeling programs of the variety that produced Avatar.
In 2007, grant funding helped launch a nonprofit digital media firm that serves a growing list of clients. A portion of the work of students at the Youth Institute goes into servicing clients.
"It's project-based activity, and it puts them in a problem-solving environment, whether architecture or film, and then they can conceptualize," Cabeza explains. "What happens in our schools is book learning, but we're not doing the exposure or experiential learning for them to make those connections."
Cabeza's program has been around for about 10 years and has been studied by California State University and pointed to as a national model for boosting student engagement and pointing so-called "at risk" kids in a positive direction. The program runs in Long Beach schools and could expand nationally, if they're able to secure the $2 million to $3 million needed to do it.
"Detroit might be one of the major sites," Cabeza says. "Gillian gets it. She understands the dynamic of how you engage youth with technology. Steve Jobs said it best; technology isn't hierarchical; it's a tool used for real-world engagement."
"They're engaged with something they love to do. That learning spark becomes a learning fire. They gain confidence and then begin to have competence in their confidence," he adds. "... It's a different paradigm."
Excitement over the Y Arts Detroit program by Carlos Lopez, superintendent of River Rouge schools, led to its integration into the English Department last September.
Donald Bilinski, a technical assistant at River Rouge High School, says the students are just beginning to relax their skeptical stance and begin to trust that this isn't high school as usual.
"In urban schools, kids are cynical, they don't trust as readily," he explains. "But I expect over time we'll be seeing several light bulb moments."
Eaton and Hepp have introduced the idea to several other school districts throughout the Metro Detroit region but state budget wrangling and overwhelmed administrators have made it nearly impossible to consider new programs. Hepp says that a funding crunch could cause Y Arts to scale back the summer camp program it already has this year. The program is fully supported by grants and fundraising Y Arts undertakes, he said, not by the larger YMCA organization or membership dollars.
It's a painful pullback. Staffed by working artists, the Y Arts isn't shy of ideas of how the program could be expanded to provide more opportunities for collaborative learning. Work with the state film office's work development office is just beginning, Eaton says, as is work to expand the program into more school districts. A far-reaching goal is to create a Detroit-based film festival that would engage youth from the U.S. through Central America.
"It's absolutely incredible what they're doing with their film school," says Richard Jewell, workforce development director for the Michigan Film Office.
For Eaton, who in December went on a year-long sabbatical, and Hepp, it's imperative that the program be allowed to continue its work. "What we're trying to do is get younger kids interested and seeding the future, making an employment base here, so that if we keep the tax incentive they know they're coming to an educated employment base," Eaton says. "It's forcing everybody at the moment to be really inventive and cooperative."
Michelle Martinez is a freelance writer and editor who has reported on
Metro Detroit businesses and issues for five years. Her previous article
was A Hollywood Education. Send feedback
.All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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Y Arts program directors show Hanley International Academy students, in Hamtramck, Mi, how to operate digital video cameras and the process of interviewing.