Every Tuesday afternoon, half a dozen RMU students and their professor drive to Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in the city to help Pittsburgh high school students learn the art of photojournalism.
Members of the university’s chapter of the Society for Collegiate Journalists, the students were inspired to volunteer at the after-school program by its founder, Bill Strickland, who spoke on campus last year.
“It’s one thing to be in a classroom and talk about connecting with a community, which is at its heart what journalism is,” says Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., the students’ advisor. “It’s another thing completely to have students go into a community and connect with it on a real level, and that’s what’s happening here.”
Germaine Watkins welcomes the help from his RMU teaching assistants. He has taught photography at the program for 15 years, and took classes there himself as a high school student. Following Strickland’s philosophy, the class is about more than learning what aperture setting to use on a Pentax SLR.
“My students are all inner-city students. For them to broaden their scope and look outside themselves, it helps them to be able to see other people who are doing things very similar to themselves, who are actually going to college and thinking about life after high school,” Watkins says. “It helps give them an actual goal to achieve.”
Here are the stories of three RMU student volunteers at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild photojournalism program.
BY SYBILE CHERENFANT
When I read Make The Impossible Possible, Bill Strickland’s book* about how he created Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and how it has grown, I was glad to find someone who took a different approach in helping to solve the issue of poverty in urban areas.
In most charitable organizations, such as the ones in my native country, Haiti, volunteers do not connect with children in the personal way Strickland’s organization does. The high school I attended in New Jersey had some at-risk students, but it seemed that even when the teachers tried to help them, they did not believe in them. If I were in these kids’ position, I would certainly want to be treated like I deserved to succeed in life. So I was thrilled to join Dr. Frantz and the other students mentoring kids at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, and I got to see what makes the unique program so successful.
Strickland always talks about using beautiful buildings as a way to help the people in them feel better about themselves. I was impressed with how clean, well-maintained, and decorated the place actually was. The tools and equipment were new. For the photography class, students each were given a flash drive and a camera to use during class. They had Mac laptops available, with advanced photo-editing software.
However, what really caught my attention was the way teachers and staff treated the students. The way the instructor spoke to them showed respect and trust, not pity. He did not remind them of their situation at home, but was only concerned with what they planned on doing in the future. The instructor’s concern seemed more about helping the students create a portfolio for college than helping them stay out of trouble. They were allowed to borrow the cameras so they could take pictures outside of class time if they wanted to. It felt like the instructor saw them not as at-risk children, but as students preparing for their future. He showed that he had no other expectation for them than that they succeed in life.
Getting to know this program inspired me learn more about Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Now I am writing my honors thesis on how it could expand to other countries.
BY KEVIN WILLIAMS ‘11
The first day my classmates and I went to mentor the high school students at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, I was an internal mess. My nerves weren’t just heated, they were short-circuiting.
First, I hadn’t pondered how removed from high school I was. It may have been only four years, but these kids had Facebook, and we’d had Xanga. These kids had iPads, and we’d had one PC at home that didn’t even have wireless Internet. “Uh, oh,” I thought. “I’m a dinosaur to these kids.”
Second, I felt like I was going into this from another planet. My classmates and I would be working primarily with students from city schools, an environment in which I had never been. I went to high school about an hour away from Manchester, in an area recently converted from a cornfield to a neighborhood of cookie-cutter McMansions. “I can handle the city,” I thought to myself. “But how do I mentor students if we can’t relate to each other?”
After months of gearing up, the day finally came to meet the students. We all introduced ourselves, and I thought, nothing bad yet. We watched the instructors give the students a crash course on how to work the camera. Whew! Nothing bad happened then either! And I began to realize that I had nothing to fear from these high school students. They weren’t there to somehow make a 21-year-old feel ancient. They were dedicated, invested, hard-working students who came to Manchester to learn.
And just like that, my days of shortcircuiting nerves were over.
The second week, while we waited for everyone to get there, our instructors had the students play around with Photo Booth, a program that lets you take pictures of yourself and change the colors and composition to make yourself look funny. I was bouncing all over the room, helping the students figure out the program and taking pictures with them. We were beginning to forge friendships through those photos, with their literally ear-to-ear grins and elongated noses looking as if they had been sucked into a black hole.
I never had time after that to be nervous with those students. We were all too busy having fun. And I figured out that people can learn from each other no matter where they’re from, the color of their skin, or what kinds of technology they had when they were in high school.
BY ANDREA ZANAGLIO
Before attending my first session with these students, I was more clueless than some of them about photography. They picked it up far more quickly than I did. I was amazed by their ability to seek out unique angles and capture the beauty of simple objects. I was looking through a whole new set of eyes, as theirs lit up with inspiration.
Most of our classes were indoors, but on a few occasions we went out into the city. It was then that the students really opened up and tried something new. The day they went to Station Square for a trip on the “T,” I think, was when they unleashed their full potential.
The assignment was to visually document life in the city, implementing techniques they had learned for capturing objects in motion. Walk. Pause. Click. Click. Click. Just like that, the students confined the active city around them in one single shot.
As we slowly made our way down Carson Street, they took their approach to photography in a new direction. One walked along with her camera aimed at the cracks and grooves in the sidewalk, telling the story of the people who walk there every day. Another student pointed his toward the sky, at a plane that was casting its shadow upon us. Up, down, and all around, they found art waiting to be encapsulated. Of course, every frozen frame wasn’t a masterpiece worth a thousand words. Some were merely blurs, but as they say, you have to learn from your mistakes.
When we reached the platform, the students continued to snap away despite the odd looks strangers cast at them. I was delighted to see that other people’s negative attitudes did not disrupt the students’ creative process, and that they had confidence and pride in their work.
Before long, the trolley came rumbling in like a roller coaster after its final hill, and the students got on board. We waved goodbye, but our bids of farewell were not returned. Instead, every last student was pointing a camera out the window, ready to document the next cityscape that lay ahead.
WEB EXCLUSIVE - Some quotes and photos from Pittsburgh high school students whose photography class at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild was assisted by journalism students from RMU.
"My time with RMU has been great. The girls and guys in RMU journalism helped me out a lot where some great spots are to shoot. ... I could say a lot about RMU, but for all the words to sum it up, I really have none for it left me breathless."
"My experience at RMU was absolutely a great one. I had a lot of fun being in an actual university. I loved the building ... it was so big and spread out. It was cool being there and seeing what it's like. I can't wait till the next trip to Robert Morris."
"We talked to one another discussing different topics and we had a good time together. It was great for them to help you when I needed help with picture titles or when I couldn't decide which picture would I like most. So I loved working with RMU students and their teacher. They are awesome! -- Jongchaya
"I was very interested in the photography program at RMU when we tood a field trip there with the RMU students that had been helping us. The RMU students have been really fun to work with. They have been really helpful and insightful. They also helped with my editing and showed me that my photos had great potential."
*When Strickland spoke at RMU last year, real estate developer Michael Zamagias purchased hundreds of copies of Strickland’s book to be given out to faculty, staff, and students who attended the talk. Zamagias’s daughter Olivia is a current student, and his son Noah previously attended RMU.