At the root of every issue in Kensington is safety. Gun violence, addiction, trash, homelessness, and more… These issues, and the fallout from each, are not safe. Even when we disagree on how to react or respond to the issues, our differences lie in how we think we can keep people safe.
Through my social work internship at Lewis Elkin Elementary School, I created an after-school photography program for 3rd and 4th grade students centered around the topic of safety. I am also a Harrowgate resident of five years and a Kensington Soccer Club staff member. Thus, my relationship with safety in Kensington is personal, and my understanding of the situation grows every day.
The photovoice project “Safety Through My Eyes” was aimed at giving Elkin students a say in the future they seek while learning more about their emotions in the process. Photovoice is a community-based, participatory research process designed to use participants’ stories told through photos as a form of data. My graduate school project that fueled this effort focused on “Art for Change,” which is just as it sounds: art created with the purpose of igniting social change. The hope was that the “Safety Through My Eyes” project would be an urgent call to city officials and other decision-makers to enact safety reform in Kensington.
Participating students in “Safety Through My Eyes” received a digital camera and four workshop sessions. Of the 20 students enrolled, all students attended at least once, and more than half of the students had perfect attendance. Each session included a snack and social-emotional check-in; a short presentation about safety or photography; an activity involving art and movement; and a closing “body mantra.” Inspired by the incredible work of Nia Eubanks-Dixon at Creative Praxis, the body mantra, which we chanted together, emphasized that our bodies are sacred, so is everyone else’s body, and we can only protect ourselves by protecting each other. The mantra channeled the ancient African concept of Ubuntu: “I am who I am because we all are.”
In the end, students, their families, and the greater Kensington community were invited to attend a photography show and closing celebration at McPherson Square Library, sponsored by the Mural Arts Kensington Storefront Community Curators program. Students’ photographs were mounted onto their safety collages, and a brief video was played in which students spoke about their experiences and feelings about safety in their community.
At the event were snacks, a safety scale, and check-in prompts similar to our workshop sessions. We asked attendees, “What does safety mean to you?” Some responses included “FAMILY,” “RELAXATION,” “COMMUNITY,” “connections to others,” and “Less Drugs/More Love.”
In response to, “What do you think can make your community safer?” people said things like “FAMILY,” “helping the homeless,” and “get to know each other.” Two people said something to the effect of having more police presence. Students were also asked these questions and offered solutions that included more police as well as masking and washing your hands. (COVID-19 has been at the forefront of their minds for three years).
An additional question was posed to them: “Do you feel safer after being in this club?” Alejandro, a 4th grader, responded hesitantly, “Kind of.” This response speaks to some of the lessons learned from this experience.
What we learned
From this experience, two central ideas reflect what myself and the other facilitators learned:
People don’t feel safer by simply learning more about safety.
During the workshop, fights broke out, both with words and hands, in the very room we dubbed a “safe space.” Restorative justice circles were created in response to the fights, and then it would happen again. This shows that even in a project focused on promoting safety, the physical environments were not safe enough to make people feel like they could let their guard down. With the final event scheduled at McPherson Square Library, we were excited to bring families to this wonderful place that offers resources far beyond books. However, families and students seemed hesitant about the location as if there were a mental barrier to accessing this space due to the dangers posed by simply walking the two blocks from Elkin to the library’s entrance. To overcome this, we put together a walking group for families who felt uncertain about attending.
When the weight of discrimination, inequality, and societal negligence constantly threatens one’s existence, it’s natural to respond with violence if it feels like there are no other options. I believe this is why kids chose to fight first and foremost. Our hope is that although we could not always make students feel or act safer, we could give them tools to call out for help, share how they’re feeling, and think twice before resorting to violence to protect themselves.
Students crave tools to express themselves.
Students seemed energized by their experience with photography. Their photos blew us away and, besides a few selfies, were thoughtful in relation to the topic of safety. Many images featured family, friends, their school, and physical symbols of safety (like fire hydrants, hand soap, and seatbelts). Many students and families asked for more time on their projects, and we were regretful we did not have that time to give them.
When using the safety scale during our workshop sessions, I gave out sticky notes each day instructing the kids to place their names on the safety scale to share how safe they were feeling today. I said, “One means that you’re really unsafe and need help, and 10 means that you are feeling 100% safe.” Students took this to heart. When the aforementioned fights broke out during the sessions, students ran over to move their names to a different part of the scale.
“Safety Through My Eyes” was an incredible experience, and we hope it is a call to action for those in our community and at the city level who have the power to make our students feel safer. If you are in that category, I leave you with these calls to action inspired by the voices of our student photographers and our community:
- Make public spaces safer.
- Promote school-library partnerships and prioritize the safety of these spaces among others.
- Fund schools properly so they can both increase students’ safety and implement social-emotional programs for students to learn how to express their feelings.
- Trust the youngest voices of this community, and value their input in the greater conversation of safety and reform in Kensington.
To view some of the photos students created for the Photovoice project “Safety Through My Eyes,” click through the gallery below.
Editors: Zari Tarazona, Christopher Malo, Khysir Carter / Designer: Khysir Carter