June 3, 2015

On April 27, the day the anger over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody reached fever pitch, the mainstream media zeroed in on the burned buildings, looting, and violent standoffs between police and the people of West Baltimore. Outlets like CNN and Fox News dubbed the protesters — many of whom were young students just released from school — thugs, as tension escalated.

Eighteen-year-old high school student Amir Price was eager to capture the chaos and offer a counter-narrative. When a friend invited the D.C. native to tag along on an expedition to watch the protests unfold, Price was able to photograph the civil unrest and highlight the importance of youth activism, in one fell swoop.

When the pair reached the city, the two drove in the direction of a cloud of smoke, ending up at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. There, Price saw a line of police facing a crowd of young people. Some high school students were running in and out of the CVS that became a symbol of the day’s riots.

“It was pretty scary,” he told ThinkProgress. “As soon as we got out of the car we saw a couple people walking down the street and someone literally said to us ‘be careful with your equipment, watch your back.’ It was scary but it was for a good cause: to see what was going on first hand and that that’s what’s actually being shown.”

At one point, he said, officers completely surrounded a man and moved the crowd so that nobody could see what was happening. Price was able to climb a nearby banister to watch what was going on, and witnessed officers arresting and dragging the bloodied man on the ground.

“I tried to capture everything that happened. It’s interesting to look at the footage I have. Some of it was what the news was portraying, but a lot of it is what they aren’t portraying,” he said. Few outlets mentioned the clergy who prayed over police officers and assisted them with crowd control. Youth who looted buildings were portrayed as criminals, whereas the children (including one 9-year-old boy) prevented from going home by law enforcement were overlooked.

Clergy and protesters kneel down before police. Many people joined in prayer.

Clergy and protesters kneel down before police. Many people joined in prayer.


Price is one of many students involved with Critical Exposure, a DC-based community organization that emphasizes “photography and advocacy to make real change.” Every year, participating high school students develop campaigns to improve their schools through visual story-telling. Their photographs are hung in public venues to expose what’s happening in the education system, and the larger communities they belong to.

During the launch of the organization’s ‘No Filter’ exhibit to showcase student photography from the past year, Price’s work was on full display, as was the work of his peers. Photos captured the disciplinary system in schools, Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, the push for school uniforms, and deteriorating school conditions. All of the students highlighted issues that were important to them, but policing in the education system was one of the year’s main themes.

“None of these students’ stories or voices have been enhanced or distorted, and that is a very rare thing. If you have listened to what the media, public officials, or others who try to speak for youth have to say, you know that it’s a very different narrative,” said co-founder and Executive Director Adam Levner at the exhibit. “When we speak for youth, we filter their voices no matter what their intentions are. As the students have made quite clear, they are more than capable of speaking for themselves.”

D.C. is one of many cities with a big law enforcement presence in schools. Students walk through metal detectors every day, and are routinely (and sometimes forcefully) confronted by security guards. The same students are criminalized outside of school grounds, thanks to city-widejumpouts. Police officers in unmarked cars routinely “jump out” of their vehicles and aggressively search young people of color — often with guns drawn. D.C. Lawyers for Youth (DCLY) estimates juvenile justice spending for one young person is four times more than money spent on a public middle school student in the city.

“Current events have made very clear the need for this work,” Levner said. “We can recognize that if we’d been listening to young people all along, we would’ve avoided these tragedies in the first place. Young people didn’t find out that they were being treated poorly by police from CNN. CNN could’ve asked them any time.”

Young people didn’t find out that they were being treated poorly by police from CNN. CNN could’ve asked them any time.

As Baltimore protests erupted, many activists pointed to the dismal situation facing young people of color as a reason Freddie Gray’s death resonated with so many residents. For instance, the unemployment rate among young adults in Baltimore stands at 37 percent, while the city’s general unemployment rate sits at 8.9 percent. That, along with underfunded schools and few community resources has left young people with little to do. For people living in rundown neighborhoods, all of these factors contributed youth outrage, which reached a boiling point on April 27. Indeed, the combination of poverty and frustrations with the status quo has inspired many students to join grassroots activist networks across the country.

Police square off against Baltimore demonstrators.

Police square off against Baltimore demonstrators.


Although one of Critical Exposure’s goals is to provide a platform for youth to educate the public and push for systemic change, teachers have learned a good deal from their students as well. Akil Kennedy, a world history teacher at Luke Moore Academy told event attendees, “In going out and taking pictures of their lives and taking pictures of the schools, [they] helped me learn a lot more about the lives of my students and what they go through everyday. That’s something that’s extremely valuable as a teacher…learning the things that stir them up [and] motivate them, and using those things to move them forward.”

In fact, those who participate in the program are redefining school curricula. According to Kennedy, schools follow strict schedules, leaving little time to learn about students outside of the classroom. One of the key components of national curricula is the ability to read and write, which can lead to a rigid style of teaching and learning. By integrating photography and providing the opportunity to develop campaigns and see them through, students are actively changing the main pillars of education.

Amir Price stands in front of his Black Lives Matter exhibit at Critical Exposure's 'No Filter' event.

Amir Price stands in front of his Black Lives Matter exhibit at Critical Exposure’s ‘No Filter’ event.


“The really big push right now [is] literacy, but we only think of one literacy, and that’s text-based literacy,” Kennedy said. “There’s also media literacy, which is all around us every day, whether it’s on your phone, computer, television. You look at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — my students are on it all the time, taking pictures of themselves, documenting their lives. Students want that creativity; that’s what Critical Exposure gives them a chance to do.”

For Amir and his peers, that creativity fuels a greater purpose. “I want to achieve social justice. I want to make sure that all sides are being shown, and that the people have a voice,” he said. That same spirit is behind youth engagement in cities across the country, from Ferguson to Baltimore and D.C.

July 3, 2015

Many students across the US must undergo security screening before entering their schools each day - including placing their bags in x-ray machines and walking through metal detectors.

Security guards, police officers or both are often working on the premises.

A Washington DC after-school programme called Critical Exposure brought a group of students together to discuss how this impacts their education.

Over the past year they photographed symbols of security in their schools, and met school officials to voice their concerns.

Police say security is necessary to keep students safe - particularly in areas with gang-related activities.

This video is the first in the BBC series Summer in the City, which will speak to young people across the US about the issues affecting their communities.

Produced by Lynsea Garrison and David Botti

May, 2015

On May 20, 2015, PEPCO’s Edison Gallery was absolutely packed with people who had come to see Critical Exposure’s annual show.  According to Adam Levner, founder and executive director, over 400 people attended NO FILTER, the annual exhibit of youth photography for social change.

An intense security check, designed to share students’ every day experience entering school, did not deter attendance.  The students, trained by Critical Exposure in advocacy and activism, decided that they wanted others to know what it feels like to walk through a metal detector and have a security guard wave a wand over you.  People were abuzz, talking about this experience.

“We’re trying to create the next generation of youth activists,” Adam Levner said. “We’re glad people were so engaged and impacted by what the students has to share.”

For nearly ten years, Critical Exposure has been teaching youth photography and advocacy skills, so that they can tell their stories – in new and creative ways – and create change.

Critical Exposure partners with Washington, DC, high schools.  Their partners for the 2014-2015 school year included Coolidge Senior High School, Luke C. Moore Academy, Next Step Public Charter School, and the Washington Metropolitan High School.

Akil Kennedy, an instructor at the Luke C. Moore Academy, said that it’s easier for some high school kids to take a photo and talk about the photo than to tell an adult what’s on their minds.  For some youth, photography is a catalyst for dialogue about issues in their world.  It also becomes a tool for challenging – and changing – the dominant narrative on a variety of topics.

One student said, “I learned how to actually tell my story through photography.  I can take a photo of something that’s bothering me.” Critical Exposure students talk – as a group – about things that affect them, and decide – as a group – what they will work on. They then look for allies who can help with the issue, and learn to advocate on their own behalf to authorities. The end result is some meaningful change in students’ lives.

This past year, topics included resource disparities and school facilities, school uniforms, and a range of other issues.  At their own initiative, several current and former students attended rallies against police brutality, taking photographs to document the movement: Black Lives Matter.  In the aftermath of the riots, one Critical Exposure fellow and two alums traveled to Baltimore to photograph and videotape events.  The result was an amazing social media campaign and an extremely moving portion of NO FILTER.

“We’re excited about the quality of the student’s work and the depth of what they had to share,” Adam Levner said.

November 5, 2014

In Washington, D.C.'s public schools, African-American students are almost six times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white classmates. Students with disabilities are also disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

But a group of local students is hoping to use their artwork to change that.

Students participating in a program with the nonprofit group Critical Exposurecontend that disciplinary practices in the District's public schools contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, which pushes minority and vulnerable students out of school and into the penal system.

For the past two years, Critical Exposure has brought students together to document the problems in their school district through more than just data and numbers. The students use photography and multimedia projects to depict the difficulty their peers face in finishing school as a result of tough disciplinary policies. Some of the student photographers have been suspended at some point during their educations, and many have seen friends and peers suspended for minor infractions.

“They see what happens when students get 10 days out of school with suspensions, how students get in trouble with the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system and how it snowballs from there,” said Adam Levner, the executive director and co-founder of Critical Exposure, in a phone interview with The Huffington Post.

Scroll down to see the students' photos.

Levner said that members of his organization's 2012-2013 after-school fellowship class identified the school-to-prison pipeline as a problem they wanted to document. The 2013-2014 fellows then chose to continue the project, while other program leaders brought the idea to individual schools as well. (The current class of fellows has not yet decided what it will be documenting.)

Since then, Critical Exposure students have testified at public hearings about the issue and had a series of meetings with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. They also successfully worked this year to establish a pilot restorative justice program, which emphasizes discussion and conflict resolution over suspensions and expulsions, at a local high school.

Malik Thompson, 19, was involved with Critical Exposure throughout his high school career. He has experienced firsthand the impact of "school pushout." Following his older brother's death several years ago, when Thompson was in the ninth grade, he says he stopped going to his citywide, application-only high school. After several months of truancy, and what he describes as “minimal efforts” from school administrators to draw him back in, Thompson says he received a letter from the school informing him that he was no longer enrolled.

“Basically, I was kicked out,” Thompson told HuffPost.

The next year, Thompson became involved in Critical Exposure after seeing a flyer at his new school. He is now an intern at the Gandhi Institute in Rochester, New York, a nonprofit that helps promote racial justice and nonviolence education. There, he facilitates workshops for young people in schools while leading photography and videography efforts.

Thompson, who ended up finishing his high school career in a home-school program, also advocates for the expansion of restorative justice programs in schools.

Restorative justice, he said, "creates [a culture] where the entire student –- like what happened outside the school and during school -- is acknowledged and taken into account."

Thompson continued, “I think more programs like Critical Exposure should exist where young people have avenues to begin to experience their own power, to work collaboratively together with adult supporters in order to make change in their world."

"Critical Exposure was essential to me becoming the person I am today," he added.

Below are photos from Critical Exposure’s students, representing how they see the school-to-prison pipeline in their everyday lives, provided to HuffPost by Critical Exposure. All photo captions were written by individual photographers, but have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Click the article's link to see student photos.

September 23rd, 2014

When most D.C. teens take photos—likely with their smartphones—images tend to go only as far as their social media networks. However, youth who participate in programming run by non-profit Critical Exposure learn documentary photography and have taken their photos as far as the D.C. Council.
Since 2004, Critical Exposure has partnered with D.C. public high schools and after-school programs to engage kids whose voices often go unheard. At the end of the program, CE says, participants become fully engaged civic leaders.
“We teach them how to use photography to document particular issues that impact them and then teach them how to use those photographs to advocate to get the problems fixed,” says Adam Levner, executive director of Critical Exposure.
Students at Eastern Senior High School, H.D. Woodson Senior High School and Luke C. Moore High School have identified and campaigned around issues such as racism in the classroom, declining graduation rates and a lack of arts education and extracurricular opportunities.
The students photograph themselves, their peers and friends, and their surroundings. They learn how to write captions that contextualize the perspectives of youth who yearn for justice and change. Through the power of images, students have secured over $500 million toward making crucial improvements to their schools, such as building a new library, adding relevant curriculum, improving security processes and building community gardens.
Most recently, says Levner, students have rallied to tackle the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend where students' petty transgressions that would once have led to a warning or detention now lead to long-term suspension or police enforcement.
“Having the students arrested at the school often leads young people into the juvenile justice system, which can lead to the adult justice system, and that creates a pipeline where students are pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system,” he explains.
In 2013, participants in Critical Exposure’s fellowship program, housed at the Thurgood Marshall Center in northwest D.C. pushed to implement Restorative Justice programming into all D.C. public schools. This model of discipline has been successful in gathering victims, offenders and community members in safe environments to address the root causes that lead to disruptive acts.
The teenaged fellows attended workshops and meetings, met with city officials and the chancellor and testified at D.C. Council hearings—experiences they never dreamed of having.

Critical Exposure fellows testify at the D.C. Council about the school-to-prison pipeline
“For almost all of them, its the first time that they've ever spoken publicly or ever testified around an issue,” says Levner, who works to prepare students with written testimony before hearings. “They get excited about having their voices heard and realizing that they have the ability to address issues, not just experience them.”
The fellows’ efforts secured funding from the city council to implement a pilot program at the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus during the 2014 school year.
Teen pregnancy prevention has also been an issue of high concern for participants. In 2013, a partnership between the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative and the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy allowed youth from the Kenilworth and Parkside neighborhoods of northeast D.C. to create public service announcements and other educational collateral around the issue.
The program culminated in a multimedia exhibit at Busboys & Poets with Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander in attendance.
“There’s definitely a lot of excitement when students walk into an art gallery [for] the first time and see their work on the walls and see people from the community not just seeing their work, but really looking at it, reading their captions and trying to understand the stories behind it,” says Levner.
A number of students who leave Critical Exposure go on to pursue photography and remain civically engaged in their communities, creating lasting impact.
“Having the students be able to change a policy or a practice that directly impacts them in their schools or communities is the most exciting—seeing the ownership that they have over that change and knowing that the change is not just going to impact the students who participate, but all of the students who go to that school and will go to that school in the future.”

This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Adam Levner's name. Elevation DC regrets the error.