Press: 2014

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 Exposure contend 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.

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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.

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District of Columbia Youth, Parents, Teachers and Advocates Call upon D.C.’s State Education Agency to Reform School Pushout Policies

October 22nd, 2014

Mayer Brown’s DC office launches multi-pronged community service and pro bono campaign – “Making the Case for Kids” – in support of children and education

September 15, 2014

Firm will kick-off the campaign with a September 23 reception featuring the extraordinary photography of inner-city high school participants in the Critical Exposure program 

Mayer Brown, a leading global law firm, announced that the firm’s Washington DC office has launched “Making the Case for Kids,” a multidimensional community service and pro bono campaign aimed at supporting children and education. The firm will host a kickoff reception in partnership with Critical Exposure on September 23, 2014, at 6:00 p.m. at its Washington DC office (1999 K Street, NW). The event will feature the extraordinary photography of talented inner-city high school participants in the Critical Exposure program, which trains DC high school students to use photography and advocacy to make changes in their schools and communities. Mayer Brown will host the Critical Exposure exhibit in its DC office from September 15 through October 10. 

The “Making the Case for Kids” campaign includes initiatives to:

  • Bring focus to existing pro bono and community service activities and engage a large cross-section of the Mayer Brown community under one targeted campaign;
  • Expand the firm’s existing partnerships with community service and pro bono organizations and forge new partnerships with additional organizations in the DC community whose focus is benefiting children and education;
  • Facilitate connections among partner organizations that share a commitment to children and education but that have not previously worked together, to create new types of programs that leverage their mutual strengths; and
  • Enhance the operational efficiency of partner organizations through increased involvement of Mayer Brown personnel at the board level and in other consulting capacities.

“Although Mayer Brown has a long history of partnering with organizations in the DC community to benefit children and education, ‘Making the Case for Kids’ allows us to expand our efforts under one targeted campaign,” said Dan Masur, partner-in-charge of Mayer Brown’s Washington DC office. “Quality education is vital to the overall success of our District’s youth, and it’s incredible to think what we can accomplish by engaging a large cross-section of lawyers and staff, while bringing together community service organizations in the District to achieve the mission of providing broader access to educational opportunities for at-risk children.” More information on the campaign.

In addition to Critical Exposure, Making the Case for Kids partner organizations include:

With more than 180 lawyers, Mayer Brown’s Washington DC office has experienced substantial growth in 2014, adding more than two dozen lateral partners and other lawyers in top-tier practice areas, including Intellectual Property, White Collar Defense & Compliance, Securities Litigation & Enforcement, Employment & Benefits and Government Relations. Lawyers in the office are routinely recognized as leaders in the Washington legal scene by such publications as the Washington Business Journal, The Washingtonian, Legal Times, Benchmark, Chambers and Legal 500.

August 25, 2014

As we wrap up blogs for Artist Awareness Month, we welcome Adam Levner, Executive Director of Critical Exposure to 7 Questions. Critical Exposure trains youth to use photography and advocacy to make real change in their schools and communities. Previously, Adam worked as a fifth grade teacher and then as a community organizer with Stand for Children, where he led successful reform efforts that resulted in over $20 million annually in additional revenue for Prince George’s County, MD school district.

  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

I co-founded Critical Exposure in 2004 with a friend and colleague, Heather Rieman. The idea for the organization was born from our shared experiences seeing firsthand the disparities that existed in public schools and our shared frustration with the lack of public demand and political will to address those disparities. We believed that educational inequities were due in part to both innocent and willful ignorance of their impact. As a society, we tacitly accepted the reality that students in low-income communities did not have access to the same level of educational opportunity as students in wealthier communities. Our theory was that we could begin to chip away at the disparities by (1) injecting the voices of the students who lacked access to a high-quality education into the policy conversations that determined the allocation of resources that their schools received, and (2) forcing public officials and community members to recognize and confront the need to close this opportunity gap. Our shared passion for photography led us to choose it as our primary tool for empowering youth and engaging adults.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

I am excited by innovative advocacy campaigns, particularly those using art and digital media, and by new strategies for providing youth with opportunities to shape their schools and communities. Critical Exposure is constantly trying to learn from the ways that other organizations have been successful in creating change. We are currently looking to participate in the world of pop-up exhibits, especially ones that incorporate new technologies for displaying images and provide ways for people to interact with the work, as a tool for engaging community members in advocacy efforts.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I don’t have a particular hero, but there are lots of people who provide different types of inspiration for me. I always admire leaders in the nonprofit world who are able to look past their individual organization’s self-interest and see the bigger picture–leaders who share funding opportunities with other organizations even though it might mean more competition for them; leaders who invest in their employees’ long-term skills and health even if it won’t benefit their organization directly because it benefits the field; leaders who find time to support causes other than their own; etc. I admire my co-workers, who show up every day energized and eager to get going. Most of all, though, I admire our students, many of whom have already faced more challenges in their lifetime than I can imagine but who somehow find a way to keep smiling, keep taking advantage of every opportunity they’re given, and keep trying to make the world a better place for everyone, not just themselves.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

This summer, all of Critical Exposure’s programs were led by former and current students. It was amazing to watch their transformation from being the recipients of training to becoming the providers. In particular, I enjoyed witnessing the moment when the student facilitators stopped thinking of the experience as just their own leadership development exercise and began thinking in terms of what their students were getting out of the program. Not surprisingly, that moment translated into a much more successful and meaningful opportunity for everyone.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

Critical Exposure’s greatest challenge is figuring out how to continue working on particular issues where our students have made progress and established themselves as valued stakeholders while still enabling new students to have ownership over the issues they are working to address. For example, our Fellowship students have been working for the last two years on issues related to the school-to-prison pipeline, restorative justice, and overly punitive school discipline policies. In this time, they have developed substantive partnerships with local and national advocacy groups, been recognized by City Council members and the Chancellor for their involvement around these issues, and amassed an impressive amount of issue-specific expertise (in addition to the broader political education and skills they gained). Critical Exposure is working with current students to identify related issues that they are passionate about that would enable them to capitalize on the work of the students who came before them.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

Surround yourself with people who are talented but who also make work as fun as possible. This includes staff members, board members, mentors, colleagues, consultants, office neighbors, anyone. Build an organizational culture that you enjoy–it’s a lot easier to do good work when you and the people around you give each other energy and motivation instead of sap them.

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

September 1st marks the beginning of Critical Exposure’s 10th year, which is an opportunity both to celebrate the impact that we’ve had on youth, schools and communities to date, and to assess how we can have an even greater impact moving forward. This spring we’ll be hosting a retrospective exhibit highlighting the work of our students over the last decade and laying out our vision for the future. Critical Exposure started out as an organization focused on education policy. Over time, we have become an organization that remains committed to systemic changes that benefit low-income youth, but now has equal focus on developing the leadership of the individual youth that we serve directly. We now know that our approach provides our students with the tools, skills, and confidence they need to improve their own futures, even as they work to secure broader change at the school and community level.

This entry was posted in 7 QuestionsArtsEducationGuest Blogger by Catalogue for Philanthropy. Bookmark the permalink.

July 13, 2014


The District’s traditional and charter schools would be prohibited from expelling or suspending pre-kindergartners in most circumstances under new legislation that D.C. Council member David Grosso plans to introduce Monday, part of a broader push to reduce punishments that keep students out of class.

The move comes in response to a recent city report on school discipline that showed that 3- and 4-year-olds received out-of-school suspensions 181 times during the 2012-2013 school year.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Grosso (I-At Large), who said that he can’t fathom why a school would need to suspend such young children and that nobody has yet been able to explain to him why that would be necessary. “The whole school-to-prison pipeline, it all starts right there in the younger years.”

The city discipline report, from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, found that 10,000 of the District’s 80,000 students were suspended at least once during the 2012-2013 school year.

The report also found that minority students are disproportionately affected. Black students in the District were almost six times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students. Students with disabilities and poor and homeless children also were more likely to be disciplined.

Grade level and discipline

“D.C. is disproportionately suspending the kids who most need to be in a supportive, structured school environment,” said Eduardo Ferrer of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, an organization that advocates for juvenile justice reforms. “So, basically, schools are excluding kids who have experienced various levels of trauma instead of acting as a protective factor from trauma.”

It’s an issue that has drawn increasing national attention. Two years ago, the Obama administration established a federal initiative to address the connection between students’ offenses and judicial involvement. In January, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the first national school discipline guidelines, urging schools to find more constructive ways than suspension and expulsion to deal with minor infractions.

“The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is frankly long overdue,” Duncan said at the time.

D.C. activists have been raising alarms for years about the city’s high suspension rates, but OSSE’s recent report was the city’s first attempt to create a comprehensive portrait of disciplinary incidents in both traditional and charter schools.

Activists called the report an important step toward understanding the disparate impact of suspensions and expulsions but said that it still provides only a partial picture, because disciplinary incidents are not reported uniformly: The federal government requires all schools to report discipline stemming from incidents involving drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence, but there is no such federal requirement for reporting less-serious infractions.

“We need to do a better job of understanding the causes of students disconnecting so we can intervene,” said Jeff Noel, OSSE’s director of data, assessment and research.

Based on available data, OSSE found that middle school students are suspended at far higher rates than other students. And although charter schools expel students at far higher rates than traditional schools, students in traditional schools are suspended more frequently than students in charter schools.

Delonte Williams, 20, graduated from the school system’s Luke C. Moore High last year. He said that before transferring to that school, he was suspended for three months for allegedly throwing a stick at a teacher, an infraction he said he didn’t commit and an experience that he says nearly derailed his graduation.

He has been working with the nonprofit Critical Exposure program to advocate for alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice programs that encourage students to talk through incidents with one another and to find meaningful ways to atone for their wrongdoings.

“Once you get suspended, you just start being nonchalant, because you already have that overhead, like, he’s a problem child,” Williams said. “It’s just a cycle.”

“In D.C., pre-K students have been punished for temper tantrums, classroom disruption, repeated vulgarity, and bathroom mishaps,” according to OSSE’s report.

The District’s traditional public school system issued a new policy this year that prohibits suspension of early childhood students. The school system encourages schools to look at alternatives to suspensions for low-level infractions and wants to make sure students are treated equally.

“DCPS wants to ensure that every child is treated fairly and has access to a quality education in a safe and welcoming school environment,” said D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz. “We work closely with school leaders to support their behavior work. Currently, we are working with school leaders to build out and expand school climate plans to ensure equity on all levels.”

It is not clear how Grosso’s bill to ban suspensions and expulsions of the city’s youngest children will be received by charter schools, which have the latitude to develop their own rules and discipline structures, and which vigorously defend their autonomy from most local rules. The bill would allow suspensions and expulsions of the city’s youngest students under limited conditions, including if they cause someone “serious bodily harm” or possess drugs, alcohol or a weapon.

AppleTree Early Learning, a network of seven charter schools, suspended pre-kindergartners 81 times in 2012-2013, according to OSSE data, accounting for nearly half the pre-K suspensions citywide.

Jack McCarthy, AppleTree’s executive director, said OSSE’s data includes students who were sent home early, often because they had done something to create a safety concern such as biting another child or other violence.

McCarthy said he could not take a position on banning suspensions of young children, but he said he is open to talking with OSSE about crafting new policies.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said prohibiting early childhood suspensions is an “idea worth further discussion” but said that discussion must include school leaders who can explain why they have sometimes needed to suspend or expel a very young child.

Some schools have encountered young students who are violent, posing a safety issue, while others use suspension to send a message to the parent of a child who is habitually tardy, Pearson said.

“A lot of families choose charter schools because they appreciate that it’s an orderly environment, an environment that permits learning to take place because antisocial behavior is addressed more quickly,” Pearson said.

The charter board began publishing school-by-school suspension and expulsion figures two years ago with the philosophy that transparency, rather than new regulations, was the best way to encourage schools to make changes. The board also began reaching out to schools to push them to make changes when there are disparities among different student groups.

Since 2012, the overall charter expulsion rate has dropped by half and the suspension rate by 25 percent, according to board officials. Pearson said that while charter schools need more city-funded mental health professionals to help students handle their underlying problems, the board continues to think that transparency with data, together with targeted intervention for schools with clear problems, is a better way to bring about change than new rules or laws.

“Our approach is working, and working in a way that is respectful of the diversity of our different schools,” Pearson said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.


June 4, 2014


(WJLA) - Nineteen-year-old Orlando Armstead says he never would have guessed that today he'd be preparing his work for a photography exhibit.

He used to be a troubled kid headed down a dangerous path, making bad decisions for what he thought were good reasons in an effort to support his single mother and nine siblings.

"I come from a background of uh, you know, struggle - and trying to provide for my family and things like that," Armstead told ABC7.

But thanks to a nonprofit called Critical Exposure, Armstead has changed his ways.

"Critical Exposure has opened me up to a better vision of my future," he says. "I feel as though I really want to do this type of work."

Critical Exposure teaches youth the photograph things that concern them in their schools and community - and use the images to advocate for change.

They meet with government and school officials and showcase their work in exhibits to engage the community too.

"Debates around education and education policy rarely include the voices of the students who are the experts at the end of the day," said Adam Levner, executive director of Critical Exposure. "And so the point of this exhibit is to understand what is it that students really think about their schools."

Cece Gordon, another person who has been helped by the program, says she's learned that her voice matters.

"Critical Exposure taught me to take your time, take multiple shots, and think about the explanation and how you feel and what you want done," she says.

Through the program, she says she's become more confident in sharing her thoughts.

"Critical Exposure is the only place I feel truly accepted, no matter how I am," she explained.

Armstead says he's learned how to communicate and be a leader, and he's trying to use those skills now to improve the lives of those around him.

"One of the main reasons and main focus [is to] try to be a trend-setter for younger brothers and sisters," he said. "Because I've seen them go down the path I went down, and I'm trying to tell them to do right, all the time."

March, 2014

In March 2014 our Executive Director, Adam Levner, and CE Fellow Samera were interviewed for WAMU's Community Minute. Click here to listen to this one minute clip about our work!